Friday, June 27, 2014

Red River: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
No matter what genre he worked in, Howard Hawks played by his own rules, and never was this more evident than in his first western, the rowdy and whip-smart Red River. In it, John Wayne found one of his greatest roles, as an embittered, tyrannical Texas rancher whose tensions with his independent-minded adopted son - played by Montgomery Clift in a breakout performance - reach epic proportions during a cattle drive to Missouri. The film is based on a novel that dramatizes the real-life late nineteenth-century expeditions along the Chisholm Trail, but Hawks is less interested in historical accuracy than in tweaking the codes of masculinity that propel the myths of the American West. The unerringly macho Wayne and the neurotic, boyish Clift make for an improbably perfect pair, held aloft by a quick-witted, multilayered screenplay and Hawks’s formidable direction.

Film (5 out of 5 stars)
Red River was Howard Hawks' first western, a genre that he became a master of (check out Rio Bravo) and the genre that his final films were devoted to. John Wayne on the other hand, was already an veteran of many westerns, but in roles that never challenged him as an actor. So Red River was a new experience for both men and one that produced something that both men could be proud of and set both of them on a new path. Red River was also Montgomery Clift's big break and his inclusion also forced Wayne to up his game to not be overshadowed by the gifted actor. Their differing styles also provide entertainment as Wayne's laconic demeanor contrasted with Clift's method-style of acting, but when combined, the two shared great chemistry.

In the movie, John Wayne plays rancher Thomas Dunson, whose sole dream is to start up a cattle ranch in Texas. He's so single minded about it, that he abandons a wagon train, a decision that doesn't go down well with the the leader of the party. Dunson can't be talked out of it despite being threatened because he knows no one can stop him because he's the best gunslinger in the convoy. Dunson moves on along with his friend Nadine Groot (Wlater Brennan) and he even leaves behind his fiancee (Coleen Grey) who wants to go with him just so he can focus on building his ranch. When that girl and the rest of the wagon train are later killed by Indians, it affects Dunson greatly. He becomes more driven to succeed at all costs which will begin to affect his relationship with Groot and the young boy named Matthew Garth who was the only survivor of the Indian attack.

Dunson leads them far and wide to search for the perfect place for him to start his ranch and it's not until they are far down south in Texas near the Rio Grande before he finds his ideal spot. When it turns out that the land he is claiming for himself belongs to another man who also seized it the same way earlier, Dunson tells the man's hirelings that the land belongs to him now and that he'll shoot anyone who tries to tell him differently. Several dead hirelings and years later, the ranch is the biggest in Texas, Matthew is a young man and Dunson is in need of money to keep it all going because the South can't afford his beef after losing the Civil War. Dunson decides to drive his cattle hundreds of miles north to Missouri where he believes he will be able to sell them all at a good price.

That kind of undertaking requires a lot of men to pull it off, so Dunson hires extra men to help out including a gun for hire named Cherry Valance (John Ireland) who seems more interested in competing with Matthew than herding cattle. Their journey begins and it's a hard one since it's not long before they have to deal with a stampede that destroys one of the chuck wagons and kills one of the men. With rations cut and surviving only on beef, the men grow sullen and angry when Dunson tells them that he has no money to get more supplies and that he won't turn back or allow them to leave the cattle drive. It doesn't help that when they come across travelers who mention that had heard of a railway station in Abilene, Kansas which is to their position than Missouri, Dunson dismissed them and the possibility of going there since the travelers hadn't seen the station with their own eyes. Hungry, tired, and now forced to go even further than necessary, the men begin having mutinous thoughts.

When two men sneak away in the night to escape the cattle drive and Dunson's iron fisted leadership style, they are quickly caught by Valance and Dunson plans on hanging them, an idea that finally pushes Matthew too far and he turns on Dunson. Matthew, along with Valance and the rest of the men tell Dunson that they are taking the cattle to Abilene and tie him up. Even the ever loyal Groot goes when Dunson gets nasty with him. Dunson swears that he will kill Matthew for his treachery, a fact that Matthew is all too aware of. They leave Dunson a horse and supplies knowing that it will be only a matter of time before he hires a posse to hunt them down.

Matthew and the rest of the men begin their trek to Abilene and they discover a wagon train under attack by Indians. They manage to fight the Indians off and Matthew hits it off with one of the women there named Tess (Joanne Dru). Like Dunson before him, Matthew leaves the woman he loves behind to keep ahead of Dunson, but he gives her the bracelet that Dunson's mother had given him before he had given it to Matthew, a fact not lost on Dunson when he meets Tess shortly thereafter. Tess tries to sway Dunson from his plan to kill Matthew but it seems like nothing can change his mind and he knows that he will catch up with Matthew the next morning.

Red River is one of my favorite westerns and it also has one of John Wayne's best performances too. In fact, it was this performance that prompted John Ford to say, "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act." Wayne does just that as Dunson, a role that required him to be basically be the Captain Bligh of the west. Hawks and Wayne take a lot of risks with the lead role of Dunson, as he's basically a ruthless villain who takes what he wants from the beginning of the movie. He abandons his fiancee, steals land and kills anyone that challenges him, and grows so ruthless that even his adopted son turns against him. Dunson is like a living embodiment of "Manifest Destiny" in action but Wayne still shows us the man's humanity and humor when he can. It's a testament to his charisma, that even when he was portraying such a ruthless and hard man that you felt bad for him and could empathize with his position.

Montgomery Clift is also fantastic in this movie, especially considering that this was his first major role. The contrast between the two men's personalities and their acting styles couldn't be larger, but it works for the movie and you can sense the respect between them. Walter Brennan provides some good comic relief as he tries to keep the peace all the while trying to get his fake teeth back that he lost gambling. He's only allowed to use them during meals but he has to immediately has to return them. The visuals are also beautiful to look at as Hawks shows just as much skill in capturing the panoramic west as John Ford. One last thing to note about the movie, is the fact that there are two different versions of this film (both are included), one of them is the original theatrical release that's 127 minutes long which is the version preferred by Hawks, and the other is the pre-release version that runs 133 minutes and has a different opening and ending of the movie. 
Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
This 1080p (1.37:1) transfer looks very good for a film from 1948, which really isn't a surprise since this is a Criterion release after all. Not to say that that was an easy task, as the effort involved in restoring this film was quite extensive and detailed within the enclosed booklet. As they said, "Because of the film's complicated post-production schedule and logistics -- as partially detailed on page 16, in the interview with editor Christian Nyby -- film elements for the director's preferred version of the film, the final 127-minute theatrical release from 1948, proved rarer than those for the now more common 133-minute pre-release version, a cut of the film assembled sometime before its official premiere. This new digital transfer of the prerelease version of Red River was created in 2K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from a 35mm duplicate negative. To reconstruct the theatrical cut, we used a 35mm print from MGM's archives as a visual reference; this was not viable as a master source, however, because of film frame damage. 

With that print as a guide, we assembled the majority of the theatrical version from the 2K scans made for the pre-release cut. There are a number of sections in the theatrical version, though, that do not exist in the pre-release one, such as the different optical sequences that accompany the voice-over narration. After much searching, a French 35mm composite print was located at Cinematheque francaise. Digital transfers of remaining sections of the theatrical version were created in 2K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from the preserved print. Thousands of instances of debris, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI's DRS, while Digital Vision's Phoenix was used for small flicker, scratches, and grain management and Pixel Farm's PFClean for jitter. Because of the difficulty of acquiring complete source material for the opening and closing credits of the theatrical version, which differ from those of the prerelease one, we used a standard-definition PAL DigiBeta provided by MGM for those two segments. The original film used for that transfer could not be located." The end result is clean looking transfer that looks sharp and much better than it should. It's really impressive that this transfer isn't filled with age related defects such as scratches and the like. Fans of the movie will be very happy with how well Criterion has lovingly restored this. 
Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Both versions of Red River have LPCM 1.0 tracks and Criterion had their work cut out for them on this front too. As they mention in the booklet, "Assembling the soundtrack for the theatrical version presented similar problems. For the prerelease version, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack. This was then used as the primary source for the reconstruction of the theatrical soundtrack. While the two versions diverged -- for example, in the theatrical version's inclusion of voice-over and somewhat different music by Dimitri Tiomkin -- an alternate 35mm optical element was used. Whenever possible, minute audio dropouts in the theatrical soundtrack were corrected through careful mixing with isolated prerelease sections. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation." Their work paid off as both of these tracks deliver crisp dialogue and the usual signs of age like hissing and crackling have been pretty much removed. This is the best I suspect we will ever hear this movie.
Extras (5 out of 5 stars)
Now we come to the section where Criterion always excels at - the special features. They didn't only give us a ton of extras, but they also gave us two versions of the movie - the original theatrical release version (which was the preferred cut of director Howard Hawks) and the longer pre-release version, both benefiting from new 2K digital restorations too. We also get a copy of the out of print book The Chisholm Trail by Borden Chase that the movie is based on. Just take a look at what all you can find in this awesome set:

    Disc One
    • About the Versions - Because we get both versions of the film, this featurette goes into detail on the differences between them. As Criterion said, "There are two versions of Red River presented on this release: the 1948 theatrical version, which director Howard Hawks preferred, and a longer, pre-release cut of the film. Although there are a number of differences -- for example, the earlier version contains extra shots and dialogue, and has a prologue scroll -- two things in particular set them apart tonally. First, the theatrical version substitutes voice-over narration by Walter Brennan for the prerelease cut's optical sequences of book pages. Second, the ending of the theatrical release is significantly shorter."
    • Bogdanovich on Red River - Filmmmaker and cinematic raconteur appears in this new interview where he talks about his conversations with director Howard Hawks, the two versions of the movie, John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, Hawks' unhappiness with the actress that was hired to replace his desired one who became pregnant, and more. 
    • Hawks and Bogdanovich - Here's the actual recordings of the interview that Peter Bogdanovich did with director Howard Hawks in Palm Springs in 1972. It's only sixteen minutes long but it covers a lot of ground and it was interesting to hear from Hawks directly especially since he is very candid about his feelings about the making of the film and what he liked and didn't like about it. It turns out that Red River is his second favorite film from his career. These are the topics covered during their talk:
      • Script and locations
      • River Crossing
      • Montgomery Clift
      • John Ireland
      • The ending
      • Black and white
      • Two versions
    • Trailer

    Disc Two

    • Lux Radio Theatre - As if two versions of the movie weren't enough, we also get a Lux Radio Theatre performance of Red River starring much of the original cast including: John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and Joanne Dru. It was originally broadcast on March 7, 1949 and it runs about an hour long. Here are the segments included:
      • Introduction
      • Act I: Red River D
      • Intermission
      • Act II: Driving north
      • Special guest
      • Act III: Garth in charge
      • Curtain call.
      • New Interview with Critic Molly Haskell about Hawks and Red River - In this new sixteen minute interview with feminist film critic Molly Haskell, she discusses Howard Hawks' career and films, especially how they dealt with the difference between men and women and how they are portrayed. She also talks about how Hawks manages to balance both humor and drama, his approach to creating unique compositions, and more.  
      • New Interview with Film Scholar Lee Clark Mitchell about the Western Genre - In this fourteen minute interview with Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film author Lee Clark Mitchell, he talks about the prevalent themes to be found in westerns and how they play out in Red River. He also talks about the original novel by by Borden Chase that the movie was based on and the differences between that and the movie.  He also talks about the characters and their relationships.
      • Audio Excerpts from a 1970 Interview with Novelist and Screenwriter Borden Chase - We finally hear from the author of the novel himself in these four segments from an audio interview conducted in 1969 between Chase and western scholar Jim Kitses, author of Horizons West. 
        • Inspiration
        • "I don't collaborate"
        • "Howard Hughes"
        • "Staying cynical"
        • Booklet - This booklet contains an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1991 interview with Hawks’s longtime editor Christian Nyby, as well as a new paperback edition of Chase’s original novel that was previously out of print. 
        Summary (5 out of 5 stars)
        Red River is one of the best westerns ever made and it also represents a high water mark for Hawks, Wayne, and Clift as well. It's beautifully shot and brilliantly acted and I can't recommend this enough. As soon as I'd heard that Criterion was coming out with their own version, it's been the one that I've been the most excited about and the wait was worth it. This Blu-ray offers excellent video and audio quality and the extras are simply amazing. I especially like that we get both versions of the film which is an extra treat. This is a must buy!

        Order your copy today!

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