Sunday, March 14, 2010

Don't Make a Scene: Red River

The Story: "'Cuz one time you'll turn around and I'll be there."

Here's a study in how two actors (and their directors) approach the same line and situation differently.

When Jimmy Stewart says it in the Borden Chase-scripted "Bend of the River," (directed by Anthony Mann) he hisses it with venom and invective, puffing himself up to make his threat stick from a weak position, betrayed by the quaver in his voice.

When John Wayne says it in the Borden Chase-scripted "Red River" (directed by Howard Hawks), it's cold and flat and monotone. Hell, he's not even looking at the guy for much of it, so sure is he in himself and the changin' of the tide.

Same line by the same writer. But two different approaches.

This caused some consternation on the high Arizona location where "Red River" was being filmed. The actor John Wayne was saying it to was Montgomery Clift, a bright star of this new "Method" of acting coming out of New York Theaters. Hawks cast men in his westerns for "that cowboy look" and Clift, a thin, strapping actor with vulnerable matinee-idol looks was ideal for the part.* Clift was also, at the least, bi-sexual, and he and Wayne didn't exactly pal around. Hawks helped "butch" Clift up, so that the actor could look casually manly in the Hawks style. Thirty years later, Hawks would grouse, "My arm still aches from trying to teach Montgomery Clift to throw a punch."

But, Clift was a competitive actor, and was looking forward to this scene where his character stood up to Wayne's: "I'll show him what I can do," he confided to Hawks. Now, the story differs depending on who tells it, but according to Hawks, he went up to Wayne and told him, "Don't even look at him." And when the scene played out, Clift was at a loss. "Better get out of there, Monty," said Hawks.

Clift came up to the director later and said "What a sucker I was to think I had that scene."

When it came to directing, Hawks was a man of few words. On this movie, Wayne asked him how he should "play old," and Hawks sitting on his haunches, extended his hand. "Watch me get up." he said. And as Wayne pulled him up, Hawks creaked to his feet. "Okay. I got it," said Wayne. And this is the movie where John Ford, even though he'd worked many, many times with Wayne, told Hawks, "I didn't know the big son-of-a-bitch could act!"

He can. And in a physical way with body language that trumps the words and dialogue. He talks big in this scene at the end. But look at his stance as he's left alone in that final screen-capture. He's no longer leaning on his horse for support (his leg has been injured in a gun-fight and his hands have been stabbed with wood-splinters from the earlier encounter here) and the stance is of a man defeated and betrayed. It would not be the way of the character to admit this with words, but the actor shows it.

In much the same way as Stella Adler would teach it.

The Set-Up: The cattle-drive to Missouri of the Dunson cattle ranch is not going well. Forced to make the drive because the Civil War has impoverished the South, Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) makes a desperate bid to take his 9,000 head of cattle north where the market for beef is plentiful. But Dunson is driving the men harder than the cattle to make the trip in as short a time as possible. They've survived bad weather, a deadly stampede and division in their ranks: three of the drovers have run off in the middle of the night with supplies, and Dunson has survived a gun-battle with an angry cowboy, getting a bullet in the leg in the process. Now, he's self-medicating by drinking and even his ward and partner, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) and cook Groot (Walter Brennan) are beginning to question his decisions. As we open the scene, it has been days since Cherry Valance (John Ireland) was sent out to find the three deserters. And Dunson is not getting any more sober.


Cowboy: That looks like Cherry!

Tom Dunson: Get down off them horses. I don't favor lookin' up at the likes of them.

Dunson: That's better. You should be crawlin'. Cherry, I sent you out after three of 'em. You brought back two.

Cherry: Bill Kelsey figured he'd rather fight. Made a good one of it for awhile.

Dunson: (to Teeler and Laredo) Laredo, Teeler, you signed on for the drive...

Dunson: ...and you signed on to finish it.
Laredo: That's right. We did.
Dunson: You stole beans, flour, and cartridges.

Dunson: Besides bein' deserters, you're common thieves.
Laredo: Well, the law might see it different...
Dunson: I'm the law! You're a thief! You too, Teeler. Anything more?

Teeler: I know what you're gonna do to us, but first I wanna tell you somethin'.

Dunson: Go ahead.

You're crazy. You've been drinkin' and you ain't been sleepin', and if you ain't crazy you're gettin' close to it.

Dunson: You through?
Teeler: No. You wanna get this herd to market. Well, so do all of us.

Teeler: There's a good way to Abilene, but you won't listen to that, no.

Teeler: You wanna drive 'em to Missouri...

Teeler: ...when you got the high, low and jack against ya.

Teeler: I ain't through yet.

This herd don't belong to you. It belongs to every poor, hopin' and prayin'...

Teeler: ...cattleman in the whole wide state.

Teeler: I shouldn't have run away. I should have stayed and put a bullet in ya.

Teeler: I signed a pledge, sure, but you ain't the man I signed it with.

Dunson: You finished?
Teeler: Yeah.

Teeler: Now you can get your Bible and read over us after you shoot us.

Dunson: (pauses) I'm gonna hang ya.


Matt: No. No, you're not.

Dunson: What?

Matt: You're not going to hang them.
Dunson: Who'll stop me?

Matt: I will.

(to Cherry) Gimme that gun! Somebody gimme...

Teeler: I'll kill him! (Others grab Teeler) Let me go!

Teeler: He was gonna kill me! He wasn't gonna give me a chance.

Teeler! (Matt slaps Teeler)

Matt: Turn him loose. Cherry, give me that gun.

Matt: Here's what you've been cryin' for. Alright, use it! Go on, you got what you wanted!

Matt: What are you waiting for?

Matt: If you don't want to live, all you have to do is...

Matt: You're a lucky man, Teeler.

Matt: That's how close it came.

Teeler: Matt, we're gettin' as crazy as he is.

Keep it. You want to finish the drive?
Teeler: Where are we goin'?
Matt: Abilene.

Teeler: Who's headin' it?
Matt: I am.

Buster: What about Dunson?
Matt: He stays here.

We're takin' the herd.
Teeler: That's good enough for me.

Matt: Groot?

How about you?

Groot Nadine: You was wrong, Mr. Dunson.

Groot: I been with ya a lotta years, and up to now, right or wrong, I always done like ya said. Got to be kind of a habit, I guess, 'cuz that's why I'm stayin' with ya.

Dunson: Go on with 'em.
Groot: Thanks.

Groot: Thanks for makin' it easy on me.

Groot: All right men, I'm comin' with you.

Matt: Throw 'em on the trail. Start driving. Buster, you wait here 'til I get back.

Cherry: If you're lookin' for me, Mr. Dunson, I'll be in Abilene.

Alright, Groot! Get goin'!

Matt: If there's any chance at all, we'll get your herd to Abilene.

Cherry was right. You're soft.

Dunson: You should have let 'em kill me, 'cuz I'm gonna kill you.

Dunson: I'll catch up with ya. I don't know when, but I'll catch up.

Dunson: Every time you turn around, expect to see me.

Dunson: 'Cuz one time you'll turn around and I'll be there.

Dunson: I'm gonna kill ya, Matt.

"Red River"

Words by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee (and Howard Hawks)

Pictures by Russell Harlan and Howard Hawks

"Red River" is available on DVD from M-G-M Home Video

The scene begins at 5:08 in the first video, but it's hard to resist watching the whole thing.

* Hawks always had trouble finding actors who could hold their own on-screen against Wayne, and Clift was one of them. Hawks tried to pair the two of them again in "The Big Sky," and "Rio Bravo."

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