A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)

Another essential movie. There's a post going the rounds on Facebook that asks you to name the movies you've watched more than five times that you would still watch again. I haven't responded to it because there are too many movies that fit the category for me, but this would certainly be on my list. Each time I watch Red River, I have a little different reaction to it. Sometimes, for example, I'm glad when the character of Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) shows up, because it's kind of a relief from all that male bonding of the cattle drive. But this time I found that she annoyed me. I know she's meant to be the "Hawksian woman" of the movie, the character embodied so well by Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), and especially Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). The Hawksian woman talks back to men, asserting her place in the world they dominate. But Tess Millay just talks, and even talks about how much she talks. Moreover, she's obviously there primarily to serve as a reincarnation of Fen (Colleen Gray), the woman whom Tom Dunson (John Wayne) loved and lost when he left the wagon train at the beginning of the movie. Still, even this bit of unnecessary narrative linkage is forgivable in a movie that offers so much. There is, of course, what I think of as Wayne's best performance as Dunson -- some prefer his work in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), which I find too artfully staged by Ford. Here he shows he can do everything from Hawks's characteristic swiftly overlapping dialogue to the paranoid trail-boss martinet to the tough guy hiding his tender side. And there's Montgomery Clift's remarkable movie debut as Matthew Garth -- Red River was filmed before The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948), though the latter was released first. Clift, who was stage-trained, somehow learned that movie acting is done in large part with the face, and he uses his eyes particularly expressively -- he reminds me of the great silent film actors in that regard. The scene in which Garth and Cherry Valance (John Ireland) handle each other's guns is one of the great homoerotic moments in movies, but it's prepared for by the way Clift and Ireland look at each other when they first meet. And then there's one of the great supporting casts in movies, including Walter Brennan, Noah Beery Jr.,  and a whole lot of cattle. (Hawks, who also produced the film, graciously gave Arthur Rosson, the second unit director in charge of the cattle drive scenes, a co-director credit.) Dimitri Tiomkin's music added immeasurably to the film, but surprisingly went unnominated by the Academy, which took notice only of Christian Nyby for editing and Borden Chase for the film's story. (It was based on his story in the Saturday Evening Post, and was turned into a screenplay by Charles Schnee -- though a lot of the dialogue is so Hawksian that I suspect the director deserved a screenplay credit, too.) Naturally, like most Hawks films, it won no Oscars.