Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On At The Movies #41 - Rio Bravo (1959, dir. Howard Hawks); Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, dir. John Carpenter)

            In his 30+ years working in Hollywood prior to making this film, director Howard Hawks had refined his skills to a sharp point and was able to use any trick in the book to create the film he wanted. Not that he’s striving for any kind of trickery here, simply straightforward filmmaking, telling a story, getting you involved with the characters. And underlying all that “simple” storytelling, there’s a fundamental humanism at work that colors his every decision. In most all of Hawks’ best films there’s a community at work, and each character within that is drawn in enough detail to give you an idea of the personal struggles they’re facing. Here, in this greatest of Western films, you run across a seemingly stock assembly of characters – sheriff faced with a sinister cattle baron and overwhelming odds, town drunk who used to be a great gunslinger, woman with a shady past drifting into town, old man past his prime working with the sheriff, young hotshot gunslinger – but at every turn, Hawks tweaks the clichés of the Western film even while utilizing them and in the process creates one of the all-time great Westerns – no, scratch that: one of the all-time great films. Even though here he is working in the Western genre, he’s drawing on his experience using nearly every genre – suspense thrillers, screwball comedies, male-oriented action films, dramas, even musicals – and putting it all into what may in fact be the finest of his many fine films.
            The set-up for the film is simple and brilliantly told in a dialogue free opening scene that pays homage to his beginnings in the silent era and sets up almost every conflict that will play out throughout the film. The cattle baron’s wild younger brother, Joe Burdette, attempts to humiliate the drunken former deputy (played by Dean Martin) by having him fish in a spittoon for coins to buy a drink. Martin’s character, Dude, is stopped by the sheriff, John T. Chance (John Wayne, in one of his finest performances), who forces him to pass on the drink and keep his dignity. This sets off a fight between Dude, Chance, and Burdette that ends with Burdette killing an innocent bystander attempting to break up the fight. Chance and Dude work together to apprehend Burdette and lock him up until the Marshall comes to town in a week and thus the wheels are set in motion. Burdette’s wealthy brother Nathan enlists his workers and hired killers to try to extricate his brother from the jail while Chance and Dude, with help from the old man (Stumpy, another turn as comic foil by the great character actor Walter Brennan), hold off Burdette’s attempts to free his brother Joe. Enter into this scene Chance’s cattleman friend Pat with hotshot young gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson) in tow. Unlike most young hotshot gunslingers, Colorado’s got a cool head rather than something to prove, and is not quick to show off his skills. He also stays out of the conflict until the choice between right and wrong is forced upon him. Also enter fallen woman “Feathers” (Angie Dickinson), who rolls into town with a wanted sign bearing her likeness and is asked to leave on the next stage out, something she’s reluctant to do. This is partly because she wants to put her past behind her, and partly because she’s fallen for Chance.
            Though the film plays out in ways that you might expect – or might not, given how Hawks makes subtle variations on the conventions of the genre – it’s the small touches, plus Hawks’ complete mastery of technique that raise it up. Though the characters of the film fall into recognizable types, the underlying ideas here of right vs. wrong (rather than law vs. criminals) and the fundamental humanity and dignity of each of the characters comes through. Dude is angered that he’s forced to face his debilitating alcoholism in the first scene, but in a pivotal scene later Chance lets him lead their charge into Burdette’s bar to find a hired assassin, and at his moment of greatest self-doubt – linked directly to his drinking – he is able to triumph. Similarly, dignity and respect is accorded to Feathers, who unashamedly claims her past deeds, but shows herself ready to move beyond them to work within the existing community, and to Stumpy, who far from being a “useless old cripple” is one of the most stalwart defenders of right within the film. All of these ideas are masterfully rendered for both maximum entertainment value and maximum impact by Hawks, from camera placement and framing, to camera movement, to editing, to his work with all the actors and the screenwriters. And if the ideas sound “heavy” let me assure that Hawks has fun with every bit of the film, poking and prodding Wayne’s star persona (especially via Walter Brennan’s constant razzing of Wayne’s character), utilizing Martin and Nelson’s fame as musicians for a musical interlude, and using Dickinson to provide a strong female lead to rival the lead roles he’d directed in such films as Bringing Up Baby and The Big Sleep. There may be other more portentous Westerns, like The Searchers, that have been accorded “Masterpiece” status because of their more openly broadcast seriousness, but in its fundamental humanism, in its mastery of film technique, I can’t think of one I prefer to Rio Bravo.
            So surely John Carpenter’s exploitation quickie homage to Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13, couldn’t possibly be on that level could it? Well, no, but within its own framework, it tries really hard to be. Carpenter has noted Hawks as his all-time favorite director and it’s not hard to see why – mixing art and craft deftly, jumping from genre to genre, always keeping a focus on the actors to keep viewers interested in the film; Carpenter’s own bag of tricks is straight out of Hawks’ book. The setup here is also simple: a multi-racial L.A. gang has stolen a cache of automatic weapons and chosen to avenge their comrades killed in the robbery at any cost. Switch the focus to a defunct police precinct, closing down the next morning for good. A relatively young, new sergeant is assigned to oversee what should be a sleepy last night at the precinct. Switch the focus to a prison, where notorious criminal Napoleon Wilson is being transferred to a maximum-security prison. Switch the focus to a father and daughter lost in the region trying to find a relative’s house. Father and daughter have a run-in with the gang in which the daughter is killed, so the father kills one of the gang members in retribution and flees to the precinct where the prison bus happens to be pulling in any minute for a break in driving. Carpenter echoes Hawks’ economy of storytelling, and once all the characters have been maneuvered into place, the siege begins. Though the film borrows from Rio Bravo in its mostly male community buoyed by a strong woman, its cop trying to lead a motley crew through vicious waves of assault by a mostly anonymous enemy, and its concern not with law versus criminality but rather right versus wrong, it takes off here from its inspiration in Hawks’ film and moves into the realm of another inspiration, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, where a faceless and unrelenting enemy continues pressing its attack on our heroes in their sanctuary, picking them off one by one while internal tensions flare up inside around a catatonic victim. Of course here no one chooses to side with Right, they’re forced into the situation in a life or death struggle. And Carpenter’s hand with humor is subtle, and probably also less confident than the mature Hawks, but just when you think things are falling a little flat and you’re laughing at the film, a grin pokes through in the form of a deadpan delivery from the actors, or a sign that reads “Support your local police” used to repel attackers. You can see his youth and exuberance compared to Hawks’ confident skill and maturity, but his film retains all the entertaining qualities of Rio Bravo (and Night of the Living Dead), updated and relocated to then-contemporary L.A., and even a touch of the master’s humanism in finding each of the characters worthy of heroism.

No comments: