I figured it was about time for another “Shelf”-column. If one were to look for some unifying theme in the two picks I have featured this time, I guess it would be that both have lead characters who are bound by a certain “code of honor”.
And also – totally by accident – both films also have an actor from “The Godfather” in a supporting role.
El Dorado (1966)
Dir. Howard Hawks
Scr. Leigh Brackett
Cole Thornton(John Wayne), an aging gun-for-hire arrives into the town of El Dorado pursuing a work offer. He is met by an old friend, the town Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) who informs Thornton that the person that wants to hire Cole – Bart Jason (Ed Asner) – is a dishonorable robber-baron who is on a mission to get all the land he can get from the nearby peaceful farmers…by any means necessary. Without any regards to law, but smartly enough that he can’t be directly connected to any violent acts. Cole, being a man of honor, wants nothing to do with that sort of work and also realizes that Jason’s agenda behind hiring him was so that Cole would take care of Jason’s biggest adversary in town – Sheriff Harrah. Cole rides to Jason’s ranch, returns the preliminary payment that was sent to him and rides off. Because of a horrible misunderstanding, Cole ends up fatally wounding a son of Jason’s target; Kevin McDonald (R.G. Armstrong). The son, with all the knowledge of Frontier Medicine 1 on 1, deduces that he’s doen for and shoots himself. Cole returns his body to the MacDonald clan. As he is riding out, he gets shot by McDonald daughter Joey (Michele Carey). The town doctor can’t remove the bullet as it is too closely lodged to Cole’s spine, and advices Cole to look for a surgeon of more expertise in a bigger city. Much to the dismay of saloon owner Maudie (Charlene Holt) who is very much in love with Cole, he rides out of town as soon as he is well enough to stay on a horse.
Six months later Cole encounters a band of gunslingers who he learns are hired by Jason. He also learns that during his absence his friend the Sheriff has had some unlucky love affair with a dancer and has turned into a raging alcoholic. Cole realizes that in that kind of condition, Harrah hasn’t got a chance against Jason’s men – and even less against the leader of this new group, Nelson McLeod (Christopher George). Cole also feels that he has a debt towards the McDonald’s because of the death of the son, so he rides back to El Dorado with his young companion, Mississippi (James Caan), whom he saved from McLeod’s men after he killed one of them while settling an old Vendetta on behalf of a deceased mentor. The two arrive to town and the first order of business is to get Harrah sobered up before all hell breaks loose…
It’s kinda funny I picked this one – as almost 75% of any film conversations nowadays seem to turn into the subject of remakes. As “El Dorado” is very much a remake of the Hawks/Brackett/Wayne 1959 collaboration “Rio Bravo“. I find that a bit amusing; long before the other filmmakers – like John Carpenter – started to remake “Rio Bravo“, Hawks and co. did that themselves. And not only once – but TWICE: the 1970 film “Rio Lobo” is also considered a “Rio Bravo” remake. I might cover that one in a future column, but this time I’ll just stick with “El Dorado“. Apparently the film did not start as a remake and was in fact to be a LOT more ambitious as screenwriter Leigh Brackett said at the time: “[the original draft] was the best script I had ever done in my life. It wasn’t tragic, but it was one of those things where Wayne died at the end.” But as they got closer to production, there was massive rewriting going on: “the more we got into doing Rio Bravo over again the sicker I got, because I hate doing things over again. And I kept saying to Howard I did that, and he’d say it was okay, we could do it over again.” “Wayne died at the end” – I guess they weren’t ready to go there at that time… And yes, all the same ingredients are sure there; Wayne the straight-laced hero, the drunk best friend, the young kid sidekick, the old-timer deputy, feisty female lead, a siege around the Sheriff’s office… But, there’s some good here too.
First off, Wayne’s character is definitely more vulnerable in this movie; the device of the bullet in his body causing him seizures on all the wrong occasions was a good idea. And also points out that Wayne is not exactly the strapping young lad anymore (he was 59 at the time). There are definitely some hints towards what his final performance in “The Shootist“(1976) turned out to be. Also a sort of strange aspect in the movie is that Wayne’s character gets shot twice in the movie, and BOTH times the shooter ends up being someone in the same side as he is. A little amusing theme that runs through the film.
Second, James Caan as Mississippi is entirely a different character than Ricky Nelson. Caan arrives in the picture in a sort of Inigo Montoya-type avenging mode, as he challenges a gunslinger to a fight after telling a story of how he’s spent the last two years eliminating the gang that killed his old mentor and when it comes time to draw, he doesn’t. Mississippi, it turns out, can’t shoot for shit – but is EXTREMELY effective in throwing knives. In a way, Caan’s role is not that much different than, say – some Samurai/Kung Fu-film character. You know: “you killed my master – and now you must pay!” And because he is a lousy shot, they give him the meanest, LOUDEST shotgun there is – and the damn thing comes in a side-holster. That makes his character instant-cool in my books. Walking around with a goddamn sawed off shotgun hanging by your side – don’t tell me that isn’t the most badass thing ever!!!
The third very different aspect is that in this film there are TWO feisty Hawksian women; both the saloon owner Maudie AND the McDonald daughter Joey. Both actresses prove themselves more than a match for the Wayne/Caan-teamup, as while Brackett’s original story got massively rewritten over time, her brilliant ear for snappy dialogue (especially in scenes between men and women) still remains present.
I there’s one sort of a weak link here, I’d have to(sadly) say that it’s Mitchum. While Dean Martin played the drunk in a very understated (and believable) manner in “Rio Bravo“, Mitchum just dives into WILD overacting mode after the change in his character has occured. I don’t know if it’s the fault of Hawks’ direction or did Mitchum feel the only way he could compete with Martin’s performance was to just go all out balls-to-the-wall, but it just screams phony. We all KNOW Mitchum is a good actor but in this one he just misses the mark.
And Hawks the Director is also experimenting with new things; it’s clear here that he is trying to make the movie more open to the audiences of the time (late 60’s), so the sort of classical filmmaking style he used in “Rio Bravo” has given way to a more aggressively paced one. This is very prominent in a long suspense/action scene that happens in the end of the second act, as our heroes are closing in on a gang of gunfighters who have hid in a church. The heroes try to distract them by continuously firing at the church bell and the scene and the edits start to merge with those bell sounds. And the camera angles also become more extreme. It’s VERY different from what, say the 50’s Howard Hawks would’ve done. Another interesting change is the use of music. The movie was composed by Nelson Riddle who is probably most known as the composer for the 60’s “Batman” TV-show, and his music could not sound more different from Dimitri Tiomkin‘s work in “Rio Bravo“. I know it might’ve sounded strange into the ears of “Rio Bravo”-fans at the time, but it has a more energetic and modern vibe and I really like it.
Overall I can recommend this one. It still has that classic Hawksian vibe and the great dialogue – and yet it is different enough that it doesn’t feel like a complete rehash. And it doesn’t even have an uncomfortably glued-in feeling musical scene in it (although it originally DID – but that got cut out, fortunately).
We Own the Night (2007)
Dir/Scr. James Gray
Brooklyn, New York. 1988. New York’s police wage an all-out war on drugs, and guilty and innocent alike become casualties. Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), manager of a Russian-owned nightclub El Caribe that is often frequented by gangsters, tries to remain neutral – living a hard-partying and drug-fueled lifestyle with his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) – but hides a potentially fatal secret: His brother Joseph(Mark Wahlberg) and father Burt(Robert Duvall) are both cops. In fact, Burt is the Deputy Chief. After his brother who has been put in charge of a task force targeting the Russian drug-runners is wounded in an assassination attempt, Bobby can no longer remain neutral. In secret from his father he decides to become an informant for the task force. After a durg factory-raid goes horribly wrong, Bobby and his girlfriend are put into witness protection while the captured drug lord Vadim(Alex Veadov) waits trial.
After Vadim escapes just before being transferred to the courthouse, a hit on Bobby ends in with tragic consequences. Now Bobby has to decide if he wants to spend the rest of his life on the run – or join forces with his brother and take down Vadim and his gang for good…
Someone pointed out that some of the premise of the movie reads very similar to “Pride and Glory“, Gavin O’connor‘s 2008 film and that it could very easily mixed with this one. I agree with that. At first glance it does: Family of New York cops led by a patriarch Assistant Chief/Deputy Chief, one good son – one rotten apple of a son etc. But whereas I found “Pride and Glory” be a bit too overstacked with the corrupt cop-cliches and some clunky storytelling, I found “We Own the Night” to be quite engaging. I haven’t seen writer/director James Gray‘s previous films like “Little Odessa“(1994) and “The Yards“(2000) so I can’t offer any comparison between this and his early works, so I’ll just go with what this made me feel.
First and foremost, this movie is a Joaquin Phoenix one-man-show. He is present in almost every scene in the movie. And he delivers his A-game here(after all, this was still a few years before his head-scratching performance art/mockumentary-phase which resulted in the 2010 film “I’m Still Here“). He can convey such a wide range of emotions without even saying a word, and the part of Bobby is very much about the bottled up and internalized emotions. And as Phoenix is in top form, he also has a director here who has worked with him previously and seems to know exactly which buttons to push. There’s a revealing anecdote in the Making of-documentary on the DVD where Gray tells that when he needed a specifically intense reaction from Phoenix in a scene where a certain deception by Bobby’s friend Jumbo(Danny Hoch) is revealed, he told Hoch to act in a very mocking way off-screen, while the camera was on Phoenix. As a result, as Hoch says “I got a few bruises, but the performance is magic“. It most certainly is not easy to do; you carry the whole movie where you start as pretty much an unlikable character and through the story you slowly must win the audience on your side – but Phoenix pulls that off.
Mark Wahlberg as the “good son” does a decent job – I mean, he’s not really in spotlight in the movie. In fact, after the failed assassination attempt on his character, he is gone from the movie for quite a while. It’s purely a supporting role. At least he doesn’t slip into his Bahston accent here – that much I noticed. Robert Duvall is always good. Hell – he was the best thing even in the “Gone in 60 Seconds“-remake. It’s actually quite enjoyable to watch him in his scenes with Phoenix; the two have a very similar approach to the characterization so you can definitely buy the two as father and son – all that’s NOT said becomes more important than what’s BEING said. Interestingly Duvall was a last minute addition to the cast; it turns out that Christopher Walken was originally supposed to play Burt, but some scheduling issues made that impossible. Eva Mendes is the biggest disappointment here – despite top billing, her character just lacks development and simply becomes almost background-dressing after a while and then suddenly vanishes from the film. I get a feeling that her part was much bigger originally, but somewhere along the line an entire subplot for her character got tossed into the cutting room floor. The Russians? Well – they’re played by the same guys who always play the Russian/East European heavies; they do their job well and are suitably menacing.
I have to give director Gray a special credit here; the movie LOOKS absolutely gorgeous. I’m not sure if all the late 80’s period decor was absolutely on the mark, but nothing caught my eye so that must be a good thing. Also as I understand, his previous movies have been more in the line of character dramas, so it was a pleasant surprise that Gray proves himself to be quite an effective action director here. There are several extremely well made action sequences in this film; from the drug raid gone bad(which ends in one of the most painful-looking stunts I have ever seen but it turns out the had a little CGI help there) to an all-out car chase set in a blinding rainstorm(think the “To Live and Die in LA”-chase, but in a way where the drivers can’t even see anything. It’s a brilliant sequence and dare I say, almost a bit too short) to the final, almost western-like shootout that’s partially happening in a field of long grass. Great stuff! Gray manages to totally avoid the all-too-common pitfall of the “shaky cam”-action too, which is always a plus. I like that I can actually know what the hell is going on.
There is one little reality-pushing plot point in the film though [and THIS is where I get somewhat into the SPOILER-mode]; I just don’t buy the fact, that the New York Police Department would hire a guy with a drug-related arrest on record – even IF his father is the Deputy Chief and he has important inside information. Maybe hired as an informant, but Bobby actually gets HIRED AS A POLICE OFFICER. I dunno – maybe the NYPD in the late 80’s WAS that desperate to win the War on Drugs. I don’t know- it’s just the one little thing in the movie that to my mind at least defies logic.
Other than that, it’s a good watch. Especially for fans of Joaquin.