Face Off

07.18.14

Left: Howard Hawks, Red River, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 133 minutes. Thomas Dunson and Tess Millay (John Wayne and Joanne Dru). Right: John Boorman, Point Blank, 1967, 35 mm, color, sound, 92 minutes. Chris and Walker (Angie Dickinson and Lee Marvin).


BY THE SPLINTERY MID-1960s, John Wayne was a hotheaded, potbellied anachronism riding the slow trail to extinction. Lee Marvin had emerged as a cagey new breed of movie tough guy, a resourceful, silver-haired nihilist who climbed out of the slough of deadweight heavies, TV cops, and mobster sadists to stardom. Marvin had sparred with the Duke in a few films before he got his late break with the spoofy-squishy Cat Ballou and won a fluke Academy Award in 1965 (a piece of cute stunt casting and almost a parody-in-advance of Wayne’s self-glorifying, self-burlesquing Oscar victory lap in 1969, True Grit). Then he established himself as a hard-case male presence in The Professionals (1966) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), roles he gave the disturbing conviction of someone who had been in battle, seen actual atrocities, killed men, and been wounded himself.

Defining performances by Wayne and Marvin are found on the newly issued Blu-ray editions of Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) and John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), a pair of myth-worthy American man vs. world tales. Hawks’s film helped write the western playbook—we tend to forget that, not coincidentally, the big, freighted sagas of the West as a crucible for manhood mostly emerged after World War II. Red River is a tug-of-war where the open-air grandeur and harsh imperatives of a giant cattle drive meet human resistance—eventually mutiny—from the uneasy subordinates of Wayne’s rancher-tyrant Tom Dunson.

Dunson is the rugged individualist as an empire of one, taking all the land and cattle he can seize. His reluctant counterweight is the adopted son played by Montgomery Clift, giving an intently sly and appealing performance that unobtrusively presages the rebellions of Brando, Dean, and Elvis (the beautiful icon, not the stiff actor) all at once. For a film that trafficked in on-the-spot classicism, Red River’s chuck wagon full of cowhand archetypes, magisterial wilderness, and Oedipal conflict is studded with modern inflection and attitude: Clift’s bashful ironic-erotic shadings; Wayne’s notably self-aware take on a figure who is part Lear, part Odysseus, part purebred mule–stubborn Texas sonovabitch; Joanne Dru’s no-bullshit interlocutor/love interest who establishes her Hawksian bona fides by taking an arrow in the shoulder as nonchalantly as one of the boys.

Point Blank is an indirect descendent of Hawks’s modernist jaunt The Big Sleep (1946) and a close relative of Don Siegel’s 1964 daylight noir remake of The Killers. (Marvin could be playing the same hit man, returned from the dead for his damn $93,000.) Boorman also borrowed some useful avant-garde tokens and trinkets from Godard and Antonioni, scattered through Point Blank like glittering confetti at a New Year’s party. But the picture belongs to the relentless Marvin, who is practically never off the screen. Boorman’s memoir describes him accepting the role on one condition, and then wordlessly throwing the script out of the window. “His acting was a continuous search for the cinematic metaphor, and this one was so perfect both he and I were in its thrall.”

Marvin’s Walker strides through the movie with a purposefulness that is frightening and thrilling to behold. Unlike contemporaries Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, Marvin projected an air of unhistrionic menace—next to him, McQueen was an earnest, unmarked lightweight and Eastwood a stick figure caricature, playing at being cool where Marvin embodied an icy intractability all the more persuasive for the shards of pain and doubt and exhaustion you glimpsed around his razor sharp edges.

The John Wayne of Red River gives you the sense of being present at the revival of something ancient and rigid thrust into the cinematic West like a Grecian spear. Homer would have “got” Dunson—more force of self-willed nature than man, imbued by Wayne with a consciousness of duty if not a conscience. He represents one strain of narrative—violent, tragic, and unappeasable—while Clift and Dru set up a counternarrative where love and rationality conquer unreason. Whether the reconciliation that finally results is “believable” and “in character” is beside the point: Hawks loved to play sex roles off each other, reconfigure and rejigger them, and in Red River the biggest sparks fly among Wayne, Clift, and John Ireland’s sultry gunslinger Cherry Valance. Fourteen years later, Marvin would play Liberty opposite Wayne’s Tom Doniphon in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—what goes around comes around, as either Fred or Jack Nietzsche used to say.

Actually, Hawks intended to make Red River the most sexually frank western ever shot until the censors nixed most of the lonesome-cowboy banter. (Appropriately, his next project was I Was a Male War Bride: Nothing for the pencil-pushers to worry about there!) It’s an odd masterpiece, heading toward the inevitable via digressions and feints, until it throws inevitability out the window and shifts into marital comedy (with fist-fight) mode, Wayne and Clift’s symbiotic characters suddenly brought together through the angry ministrations of bride-to-be Dru—though Hawks was prohibited from even implying as much, it’s self-evident they are entering into a marriage trois whether they realize it or not.

Point Blank, for all the immaculate deadliness of Marvin, wouldn’t be anywhere the same without its secret linchpin, Angie Dickenson. Playing a hardheaded woman who could have stepped out of a dozen Hawks films, Dickenson had the composure to look Marvin in the eye and meet him as an equal. Or smash him over the head with a pool cue, as circumstances and/or foreplay warranted. (Dickenson cut her teeth holding her own with Wayne in Hawks’s 1959 Rio Bravo; she also featured in The Killers, famously getting belted in the chops by Ronald Reagan.) Of all the mod action-figure couples, they had a more viscerally melancholy chemistry than Belmondo and Karina (too convoluted and intellectualized), Beatty and Dunaway (too expedient), or Delon and his mirrors (a hair too perfect).

There was something perversely real about them, their casual alienation, and about the LA caught in Point Blank’s allegorically pictographic net. Boorman and Marvin knew the gangster thriller was done for, but they sensed the idea of a wounded man trying to find his way back from the dead by forging a path up the faceless rungs of a corporate Organization would resonate in all kinds of ways. For one, it made a perfect metaphor for the studio system, with its layers of toadies and cutthroat executives and killer accountants, where your best friend will double-cross you, cut you out of your percentage of the take, and steal your wife, all in a day’s work. Nothing personal.

Wayne in Red River encapsulates virtually his entire future: the honorable stoic in Ford’s cavalry movies, the wild-eyed avenger in The Searchers, the charismatic father-confessor under the forbidding disciplinarian, the broken-hearted lover hiding his feelings under a horsehair shirt, the fading aura of man who fought Indians or his own people as if they were mere stand-ins for Time and Fate, and the anachronism doomed to fall off a generational Clift.

After Point Blank, what was left for Marvin to prove? In 1969, he impetuously ditched the lead in The Wild Bunch to sing opposite Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon, needless to say a disaster of epic proportions. He bounced around for another decade or so until he found one last, fitting apotheosis. He starred in Sam Fuller’s highly personal war-is-hell story, The Big Red One (1980), a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for more than twenty years. Fuller had previously had a chance to make it in 1959, but the deal fell apart when he decided he didn’t want the predictable, overly orthodox star the studio had lined up: John Wayne.

Howard Hampton

Red River is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection; Point Blank is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.