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Thursday, February 19, 2015

EL DORADO (1966)

A less than gentle decline is usually conceded on the trio of like-minded Westerns Howard Hawks made with John Wayne over the last phase of his career. A slide from the classic RIO BRAVO/’59; to the fair EL DORADO; to the unfortunate RIO LOBO/’70. But seen plain, a case can be made for this winning middle child. Leigh Brackett’s initial script didn’t start as a RIO BRAVO retread (as its unusual triple prologue amply demonstrates), but once Wayne returns to help soused pal Robert Mitchum, holed up in the El Dorado sheriff’s office as the bad guys come to town, the jig is up for anyone who knows the earlier film. Yet, like a lot of second iterations, with so much already in place, you can take advantage of not having to force. Not more relaxed (more relaxed than RIO BRAVO would be asleep), but that Hawks makes us as comfortable in the story as he is. (Think of Jean Renoir explaining why he always wanted to make a Western: ‘It’s because they’re all the same. It gives an artist complete freedom.’) Comparing the casts, substituting Arthur Hunnicutt & James Caan for Walter Brennan & teen-dreamy Ricky Nelson is a wash (or better), while Mitchum, in for Dean Martin, ups the ante on all fronts. (He also ups the weight total, playing dueling guts with Wayne.) And a nod to lenser Harold Rosson, out from retirement to give Hawks the most sophisticated color palette of any of his films. On the debit side, and it’s a serious one, the woman are hardened parodies of the Hawksian ideal. He got away with it one last time in BRAVO thanks to Angie Dickinson’s natural warmth & expert comic timing; these gal pals are out of their depth simply as actresses. But with Wayne & Mitchum limping off together for the last shot, it hardly matters.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: James Caan, a fresh young thing at the time, was raw enough in the acting department to be adorably funny. (Hawks didn’t clue him in to the comedy.) But what’s with all his looped dialogue in the early scenes? Called Mississippi, it’s possible he cooked up a Southern accent so bad they dropped the idea and had him dub over a week’s shooting.

DOUBLE-BILL: No surprise, RIO BRAVO. (RIO LOBO is best left for Hawks’ completists.)

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