Red River (1948)

17 03 2020

In 1884, a journalist named Charles Fletcher Lummis traveled from his then home of Chillicothe, Ohio to Los Angeles, California. Absurdly, he accomplished this by foot. Upon his arrival, he was immediately appointed as City Editor for The Los Angeles Times. During those times, LA was yet to be the global city it is recognized as today. The boom would begin roughly twenty years later, as if almost triggered by Lummis’ arrival. (It wasn’t.) Howard Hawks’ beloved Red River opens similarly. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), along with Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), defect from their cattle drive headed to California. They reverse course to Texas, to pursue Dunson’s dream of opening a cattle ranch.

Along the way, they run into Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift). Upon seeing the wide expanse of Texas land, Dunson is stunned, “Water and grass….and plenty of it.” To which Garth replies, “who does it belong to?” Not missing a beat, Dunson claims it for himself. Seconds later, he disposes of a Mexican ranch hand and tells another to inform his boss that the land now belongs to him. 14 years passed, and Dunson’s dream has come true, to an extent. He has established a cattle ranch in Texas, but the end of the Civil War has left the South deeply impoverished. Dunson decides to move his entire cattle empire to Abilene, Kansas.

The main tension at the core of Red River is the relationship between Thomas Dunson and his adopted son, Matthew Garth. Because this is a western, there is much talk of “rugged individuality” and the dueling masculine forces at play appear to be participating in a staring contest to determine who is more stubbornly committed to their principles. In the film’s opening, Dunson leaves behind a cattle drive to California. The driver’s leader protests, “you signed a paper” to which Dunson replies in Wayne’s iconic and stoic voice, “I signed nothing.” The Dunson-Garth drive to Abilene, Kansas has similar deserters, but their fate is far worse. Dunson himself uses the same line, “you signed a paper” but when he’s challenged on this, he doesn’t let the deserts go. Instead, he kills them.

While the main tension in the film is the dichotomy present in Dunson and Garth’s relationship, their twinned masculinities seem to be developed independently. There’s a lot of writing about the film that seems to flatten the relationship to a father-son relationship, but that simplifies and maps over the complications they each individually face in coming to terms with their principles. They are both stubborn, perversely so, something that Hawks makes a mockery of in the film’s hyped-up final showdown. Leading up to this, we are taught to buy into their individualism. It is seen as admirable, perhaps even sage and noble. This nobility slowly dissipates, even so that Dunson resembles a would-be villain in a more conventional film.

Dunson’s inconsistent politics regarding defection from cattle drives also relates to a Western (that’s Western world, not the genre) individualism. He leaves behind a cattle drive for his own dreams. He is fueled by love, and also by a desire that greatly resembles manifest destiny. The land, the profits, the cattle, the women – they all belong to Dunson, if only because he has a deeper drive than anyone else. That’s how he can justify deserting a cattle drive, and then later shooting the potential deserters of his own cattle drive. This principle is chipped away at, as it is constantly challenged not by Garth alone, but by everyone else around Dunson. His principles which once seemed noble, become absurd and tyrannical so quietly that the eventual mutiny is endorsed by the audience themselves. The noble, individualistic hero falls because of his hubris.

Hawks doesn’t end the film on this note, though. Garth’s perspective takes over after the drive abandons Dunson. He becomes a hero, by default, and Dunson the villain. Garth picks up a love interest, Tess, but leaves her behind in a bittersweet moment of longing, the same Dunson left behind his lover at the film’s opening. A student of dramatic filmmaking would understand this decision, but it is kind of preposterous in reality. Tess eventually follows Dunson to meet up with Garth in Abilene. She gets there early and throws herself at Garth before the built-up standoff. The standoff comes, no guns are drawn, but instead Garth and Dunson fight with their fists. Tess quickly interrupts, disgusted by the childish confrontation, “What a fool I’ve been, expecting trouble for days when anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other.” The high drama quickly dissipates, and it becomes yet another balloon Hawks has deviously poked with a needle.

The Breaking Point (1950)

30 04 2014

To non-cinephiles, the name Michael Curtiz might not mean much. Yet, he’s responsible for some of the biggest and most iconic pillars of classic Hollywood film – Casablanca being the most obvious one, but The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce also spring to mind. I find it necessary to introduce Curtiz as a big name director because The Breaking Point suggests something different. Here, his compositions are economical yet displaying flashes of artistic grace suggest something out of a B-film. A faithful adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel from one of Hollywood’s biggest names points to a film that might overwhelm the viewer with its importance, crushing them under the weight of its artistic aspirations, but Curtiz keeps his material in check and delivers the best kind of genre film: one that doesn’t get bogged down in overly pointed pathos, but still isn’t slight.


Captain Harry Morgan doesn’t have the most luxurious life, but he does seem to have things pretty good. He has his own boat, which he maintains with his best friend, Wesley. He lives in a nice house right by the water with his wife and two daughters. Money, however, is still an issue and he decides to accept a risky proposition. He’s to transport a group of immigrants into San Diego. The task sounds simple enough, but Harry decides to not tell Wesley, and the addition of the seductive Leona Charles into the situation only further complicates matter. Harry flakes out at the deal at the last moment, but it’s still too late. He’s lost his boat. He resorts to alcohol and begins to take an interest in Leona.


The Breaking Point, despite not soaking in an urban landscape, is still unmistakably a film noir. Unlike Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the same text, To Have and To Have Not, Hemingway’s text is not translated into a witty and clever romance. It’s something far more dreary here, perhaps a better cinematic comparison would be Docks of New York, though the “edgy” ammoral nature of the protagonist here is not hit as squarely on the nose. Instead, we have a heartbreaking performance from John Garfield, one that could have easily gone the route of being too maudlin and self-consciously tragic. He’s a deplorable human being, the kind that Hemingway excelled at writing, but that alone is not what makes a character complex or interesting. Morgan’s heart always seems to be stuck in between two places, and he seems to struggle with the fact these opposing positions aren’t polar opposites.


These opposing positions sound vague, but the idea seems to be supported by Morgan’s consistent indecisiveness. One moment, he’s ready to do something illegal to improve his standing, but once faced with the reality of his actions, he becomes unglued. The irony of course is that he backs out of these dealings without actually helping himself. His first mission ends with his boat being taken away from him, and the next one ends with his best friend dying. Curtiz deserves credit for visualizing this relationship: the tightness of his compositions is unique in his filmography. He’s able to maintain a sense of unease by contrasting these closely composed sequences with ones where the camera seems to almost needlessly linger on. It’s half way to adopting the momentum of a B-film, but they wonderfully clash with his more artful and deliberate shots, ending in something entirely new.


This “halfway between two places” idea (which I wish I could express more eloquently) resurfaces again in Morgan’s romantic relationships. Hemingway’s brooding, alcohol-fueled prose has often labeled him as either casually misogynist or just a sad man caught in wish fufillment. It’s hard to elevate the women here beyond that, but Patricia Neal and Phyllis Thaxter certainly try their hardest. Thaxter’s performance as Lucy Morgan is the more immediately noticeable and one could argue that her story is actually more tragic and dire than that of her husband. She fights to keep her husband, which sounds retrograde but her ambivalence is this fight suggests that her pride is also on her mind. She’s skeptical of all of her own moves made to ensure their relationship, half of her wants to fight and other half just wants to give up entirely.


Patricia Neal’s performance as Leona Charles seems, at the surface, to be disposable. She’s Morgan’s temptation and as such, one might expect that her character is only framed in relation to Morgan. This is true to an extent, but like Lucy, she is well aware of her position in this love triangle and how pitiful that position is. At first glance, we understand her as the one who is seducing Morgan, but weirdly enough, he doesn’t budge. Well, not entirely. Making something out of her blonde hair seems like a reach, but so frequently femme fatales are brunettes, perhaps a signifier that they’re the dark and evil forces that are trying to tear conservative, conventional families apart. Curtiz seems to be saying something about these signs and their arbitrarily assigned meanings, the faithful brunette, Lucy, bleaches her hair as a tactic to keep her husband interested. She’s visibly jealous of his interactions with Leona so she tries to physically transform herself into something that closely simulates his ideal of beauty, the one that makes his eyes wander to Leona in the first place.


Of course, all of this falls apart when Leona fails to live up to the femme fatale trope. One could criticize her characterization as she too easily falls in love with Morgan, who isn’t exactly the most charming individual. Still, her more sympathetic background suggests that the “femme fatales” who are so often viewed as manipulative and calculating are still just women and more importantly, still human. As so often in genre films, the conditions of the narrative are based on the moral failings of one character and while we may get a male bad guy, his villainy suggests nothing about his gender when the hero is, of course, a man himself. I hesitate calling a film based on a Ernest Hemingway book “feminist” but Curtiz squeezes as much humanity out of Hemingway’s projections of women as one possibly can. If they fail to achieve complete agency, Curtiz may not to be the one to blame. Rather, it’s the source text.