Screen Play: 3 reasons to get Criterion’s new edition of ‘Red River’

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift get all messed up in Howard Hawks' 1948 Western "Red River." Credit: The Criterion Collection
John Wayne and Montgomery Clift get all messed up in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Western “Red River.”
Credit: The Criterion Collection

Thanks to streaming video, we now have more than we could ever watch at the click of a button. But not everything’s online — not even close. What follows is one thing to buy that you can’t stream and two that you can.

On disc:

‘Red River’
The Criterion Collection
$49.95

1. Director Howard Hawks had quit two Westerns (“Viva Villa” and “The Outlaw”) before he finally finished one. And it was a doozy: 1948’s “Red River,” a cattle drive picture in which John Wayne’s stubborn, Ahab-esque rancher clashes with his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift. It’s a boy’s adventure and a dark psychological exploration at once, as well as a Howard Hawks hang-out picture, with an ensemble cast — including John Ireland, as the guy who nudge-nudgingly tells Clift he admires his gun — that struggles to keep cool as an increasingly psychotic Wayne keeps picking them off. It’s a push-pull between plot and time wasting. As one minor character puts it, “I don’t like to see things goin’ good or bad. I like ’em in between.”

2. Wayne’s chilling performance in “The Searchers” tends to dominate serious consideration of him as an actor, not just a movie star. But “Red River” was the first time he’d gone dark. Greyed-up, he very slightly modulates his usual screen presence so that his line-delivery sounds both badass and menacing. That he’s still likeable — or at least always open to being redeemed — should shut up any detractors. (In a way, what he does here is trickier than the more tragic “The Searchers.”) As an oft-told story goes, his frequent director John Ford after seeing the film remarked, “I didn’t know the big sonofab— could act.” That he’s playing against young Method actor Clift may have inspired him, although Clift had been instructed to hold back and let Wayne hold center stage. It worked for both of them: Clift was never more relaxed than he was here. He gives the kind of subtle performance you realize well into the movie has been brilliant all along.

3. Even for the Criterion Collection, this is one comprehensive set. The package is a brick, thanks to the inclusion of Borden Chase’s “Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,” the serialized novel that served as inspiration. Among other things, you can see how Hawks — who employed Chase as a screenwriter — changed the downer ending for one that’s always been a source of controversy: one that takes a hairpin tonal shift into something goofier, more humane, more Hawksian. That it isn’t wholly convincing, oddly, makes it all the more powerful; it betrays its maker’s unique and softening personality.

You can also compare two different versions: the 133-minute cut that’s long been in circulation, and the shorter pre-release version that Hawks always said he preferred. However, as extras guest (and Hawks friend/impressionist) Peter Bogdanovich clarifies, the longer version does have the correct ending, which had been cut up at the bequest of Howard Hughes, who claimed Hawks stole it from his film “The Outlaw” (which he did). Bogdanovich suggests you watch the pre-release until the last five minutes, then switch in the other one for the right, albeit clumsy experience.

Don't worry: Brad Pitt won't do anything fun with that axe in Marc Forster's PG-13 zombie film "World War Z." Credit: Jaap Buitendijk
Don’t worry: Brad Pitt won’t do anything fun with that axe in Marc Forster’s PG-13 zombie film “World War Z.”
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk

Online:

‘World War Z’
Brad Pitt helped make a troubled production — whose main problem wasn’t even that it was a PG-13 zombie movie — a surprise big office monster. It’s still a mystery why it caught on: It’s a mostly joyless, muted thriller that only kicks into gear in the third act, which had to be completely re-shot after a Russia-set climax proved insufficiently galling. If this drives you towards Max Brooks’ book, then good, though the film may be the least faithful adaptation in history. The source is a fake oral history set after the zombies’ defeat, focusing on the trauma that comes with surviving a near-apocalypse. Meanwhile, the film can’t even get anything fun out of new “Doctor Who” star Peter Capaldi. (Netflix Instant)

‘The Art of the Steal’
Long ago, Kurt Russell ruled the film screen. A child actor who turned into a relaxed braggart, he seemed like a self-aware John Wayne. He hasn’t been around much in the last decade, so anything that employs him is at least worth a peep. This twisty, sprightly thriller — which, alas, has little to do with the documentary about the Barnes Foundation, except that it also involves paintings — will have to do, particularly because it puts Russell at the lead of a group of thieves stealing from art museums. (Netflix Instant)

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



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