Wednesday, January 06, 2010


As everyone surely knows, the great critic Robin Wood, who wrote many a profound word on the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and other filmmakers and films which were at the time deemed beneath consideration and discussion by the critical cognoscenti, passed away over the Christmas holiday. The day before Christmas, Jonathan Rosenbaum passed along a list dictated by Wood to a close friend, John Anderson, two days before he died. The list noted Wood’s favorite films; curiously, there is no Hitchcock on the list, though reading it was, for me at least, a pleasant reminder of films I haven’t seen in years (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, Ruggles of Red Gap), films I have yet to see (Angel Face) and films I dearly love (Sansho the Balliff, Code Unknown, Seven Samurai, Make Way for Tomorrow). And at the top of the list, Howard Hawks’ magnificent Rio Bravo, a film that Wood once wrote would be the movie he would cite if asked to name one film that could possibly justify the existence of Hollywood.

Wood’s citing of the Hawks film should be no surprise to anyone who knew Wood’s work. Yet upon hearing of the list, Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere decided that it was the appropriate thing to do to chastise the late critic for his taste. He devoted an entire post (one I at first assumed might be tongue-in-cheek) to downgrading Rio Bravo in favor of High Noon, not entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the very movie that Hawks claimed* was the inspiration for Rio Bravo. Wells wrote:

“You're about to leave the earth and meet the monolith and the greatest film you can think of is Rio Bravo? A zero-story-tension hangin' movie that constantly subjects viewers to screechy-voiced Walter Brennan, and which features the very soft-spoken, adolescent-voiced Ricky Nelson singing a duet with Dean Martin? If Wood is listening from his side of the cosmic fence, let me try explaining this one more time…”

Aside from whether one prefers Hawks and John Wayne (and Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan and Dean Martin) over Fred Zinnemann, Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, it seems to me to be in incredibly bad taste to treat Wood’s deathbed declaration, made while undoubtedly enduring a lot of pain and discomfort, as a call for debate, as if he was standing before the National Society of Film Critics during their annual meeting when he made it. Though it ended up being perhaps his last word on the subject, the list was shared by Anderson and Rosenbaum in a spirit of respect and communication with those who followed Wood’s career and was undoubtedly never intended to be the spark of public discussion. Though he claims to have followed Wood for years, for someone like Wells to be at all shocked that Wood would hold Rio Bravo in such high esteem, especially over High Noon, makes me wonder just how closely Wells was reading Wood in the first place. (Maybe there was a comic book tucked inside the hardcover pages of Wells’ copy of Sexual Politics in Narrative Film, because surely if he had read it he might find Wood’s championing of Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo, in a 1997 essay entitled “Mandingo: The Vindication of an Abused Masterpiece,” even more disturbing.)

I’m not suggesting that Wells hasn’t a right to prefer High Noon over Rio Bravo-- I’m sure many do. (Hell, I know a few people who prefer El Dorado over Rio Bravo.) The point is that Wells can’t seem to see that this is not the moment to take a dying critic’s last words and use them in such a self-aggrandizing, opportunistic way. The instant my own appreciation for humanity takes a back seat to my all-consuming need for the movies, please feel free to forcibly unplug my computer and make arrangements to have me sent away. That’s what true friends are for. For now, the thought of Robin Wood contemplating his favorite films, the ones that challenged him intellectually and undoubtedly gave him comfort, as he inched ever closer to the end of his own life is a thought that comforts me too. To Wood, who revered cinema as something to be given to as well as taken from, this comfort was the art form’s final gift. Thanks to John Anderson and Jonathan Rosenbaum for allowing those of us who would appreciate the giving of that gift to share in it.

* Howard Hawks is quoted in Joseph McBride’s book Hawks on Hawks:

Rio Bravo was made because I didn't like a picture called High Noon. I saw High Noon at about the same time I saw another western picture, and we were talking about western pictures, and they asked me if I liked it, and I said, "Not particularly." I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn't my idea of a good western sheriff. I said that a good sheriff would turn around and say, "How good are you? Are you good enough to take the best man they've got?" The fellow would probably say no, and he'd say, "Well, then I'd just have to take care of you." And that scene was in Rio Bravo. Then I said I saw another picture where the sheriff caught a prisoner, and the prisoner taunted him and made him perspire and worry and everything by saying, "Wait till my friends catch up with you." And I said, "That's a lot of nonsense, the sheriff would say, 'You better hope your friends don’t catch up with you, 'cause you'll be the first man to die.'" While we were doing all this, they said, "Why don't you make a picture the other way?" And I said, "OK," and we made Rio Bravo the exact opposite from High Noon and this other picture, I think it was called 3:10 to Yuma.



Gerg said...

You need to see Angel Face.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I know, I know... The list of the movies I haven't seen is by far the longest one of all.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Come on Dennis nothing says class like picking on a dead man.

I have to say I am one of the few who prefers El Dorado. Just because Wayne and Mitchum hit a critical mass of being entertaining.

Also because James Caan's "Chinee" joke never gets any less jaw droppingly offensive, no matter if you know its coming or however many times you've seen it.

The thing that makes that joke so bizarre is the way it just comes out of nowhere (There's not any other racist material in the film) and leaves the same way. It's just ten seconds of horrendous racism cut into the middle of an otherwise utterly inoffensive movie.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, that's just obnoxious.

I love that one of Wood's last acts was apparently dictating this very personal list of beloved favorites. What a touching way for a film critic to say goodbye.

Hawks is very important to me, and one or two of his films would doubtless be near the top of any favorite list I assembled as well, though in my case Only Angels Have Wings or The Big Sleep might top the list, with the Wayne Westerns not so far behind. Coincidentally, just this morning I published a review of the great El Dorado, which I consider to be at least the equal of Rio Bravo and possibly even a little bit better; in any event, they're two towering, inspiring works. I've always loved Wood's contention that Rio Bravo justified Hollywood's output all by itself: such a poetic way of proclaiming a film's greatness. I'd say the same thing about Hawks in general.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Ed, I'm off to read your piece right now. It's been years since I've seen El Dorado-- my hometown drive-in used to show it every year on July 4 accompanied by a fireworks show-- but I always loved it, and now with your essay in hand I'll dust off my DVD and watch it as soon as I can. The enthusiasm you and EDJ have for the film is contagious.

The thing that really bothers me is that Wells couldn't see Wood's list for exactly what you suggest it is-- a lovely and appropriate gesture. He's too worried about the mileage he can get out of it by condescending to the choice and to Wood's memory while puffing himself up in the process.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Boy, I love Hawks, but there's nothing wrong with 3:10 To Yuma. The original one, anyway.

Alonzo Mosley (FBI) said...

On a related note, I caught "Rio Bravo" on American Movie Classics a week or two ago, and was kinda dumbstruck to see that AMC actually cut the film for time. It was a tiny cut and would have been unnoticable to anyone who hadn't watched the darn thing six or seven times already, but it was still sad to see.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

TLRHB: Yeah, me too (I like the remake plenty as well.) It's been too long and High Noon isn't fresh enough in my head, but 3:10 to Yuma seems to me a different beast, I think, largely because of the time it takes to color in the relationship between Glenn Ford's killer and Van Heflin's family man-- we see not only Heflin's desperation and his desire to do right by his family, and his son, but also the intense manipulation he's subjected to by Ford's crafty outlaw. It really is a terrific movie. (The movie's director, Delmer Daves, is a name worth investigating further.) I think the remake does a fine job of restaging that conflict, and it may end up, if he doesn't stop working with Ridley Scott, one of the last times (along with this year's State of Play) I will have been glad to see Russell Crowe on the big screen.

Alonso: Just one more bit of evidence to hold up AMC as the American Mucker-up of whatever Classics they can find room for when they're not showing Halloween 5. How's fatherhood, by the way?

Alonzo Mosley (FBI) said...

I was tempted to pull one of AMC's ludicrous choices of "The New Classics" as an example of how far they have fallen, but you filled in the blank for me.

Fatherhood is just dandy. A lessening of sleep as you might expect, but little C.C. is a joy, and she turns six months tomorrow!

Dennis Cozzalio said...


By July she'll be ready for Midnight Run!

Adam Ross said...

RIO BRAVO's in my top 5 as well, and I never tire of reading appreciations of it. But it's maybe the only favorite movie of mine where I don't mind hearing critical arguments against it (and there's definitely plenty of them out there). I say this because the magic of RIO BRAVO to me is the can't-put-your-finger on it feeling a couple of times in the movie where you feel like pulling up a chair right next to Sheriff Chance.

It's the "hangout factor" that's been mentioned many times with RIO BRAVO that makes it so special, but I don't expect everyone to experience that feeling with it, and that's why it's one of a kind.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I am certain people will still be reading Robin Wood, long after Jeffrey Wells shuffles off this mortal coil.

christian said...

Who doesn't know at this point that Wells is a sociopathic moron? He claims to be in touch with the Film Godz but had no clue that Robin Wood adored RIO BRAVO or had written extensively about it over the years.

jim emerson said...

O, good lord, Dennis: Thanks for this. I've been tweeting and FBing and posting stuff about Wells (on "Rio Bravo" as well as his obsession with man-fat) over the last 48 hours because it made me so damn mad. As if an ignoramus like that has anything to say about what a great film scholar chooses to treasure on his deathbed! Just finished writing an all-too-brief appreciation of Wood, too -- and I see you've "borrowed" the same image I did for the top of your piece. Good on you!

Jeff McMahon said...

Why does ANYBODY pay attention to ANYTHING Jeff Wells says or does anymore? He's the movie-blogging equivalent of a grizzled panhandler on a street corner.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

It's a good question, Jeff. To offer my own metaphor, I often think of the kind of stuff you get at HE as equivalent to a car crash where the driver comes stumbling out of the wreckage saying all sorts of things you'd like to think he'd keep to himself if he weren't in shock. But as far as Wells' comments re Wood and Rio Bravo, I guess some things are just too inappropriate to not comment on.

Chris said...

Boy, I love Hawks, but there's nothing wrong with 3:10 To Yuma.

Agreed. Far better than just about anything Hawks made after 1940.

Seriously, Rio Bravo is unwatchably dull. I'd rather watch the worst ten minutes of Wayne in Hatari on an endless loop than be forced to sit through Rio Bravo.

And I wouldn't worry about Robin Wood. He's dead.

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