“I’m looking at a tin star with a drunk pinned on it.”
Howard Hawks’ penultimate film was a western marketed on starring both John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Wayne’s honourable hired gunslinger is the real lead, burdened by a bullet received early in the film that provides tension through the ever-present threat of incapacitation despite his skill. Mitchum’s sheriff demands greater range as a proud man lost to drink and desperate to re-earn the respect of the town he serves. The smart script’s dry wit works better than attempts at broader comedy, particularly one character performing a grotesque (but thankfully brief) Chinese caricature. Although El Dorado is prime material for Hawks, it suffers a little from the comparison demanded by its striking similarities to Hawks’ earlier masterpiece in Rio Bravo, with its lawman turned to drink and a gunslinger defending the town jail against a gang trying to release a prisoner. Despite being a variation on the same theme, the fact that El Dorado nevertheless stands on its own is a testament to Hawks and his deft use of the altered friendship between aging lead characters, with an underlying sense of regret lending gravitas.
“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part.’ Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”
The quickfire repartee between Grant and Russell is a delight as the newspaper editor tries to win back his ex-wife and top reporter before her imminent wedding. The subtext about clinging on to a former lover is questionable, but Walter Burns is plainly a manipulative and duplicitous man and — despite all of Cary Grant’s charm — Hildy Johnson is fully aware of this, recognising his machinations sometimes more swiftly than the audience. Agency always rests with Hildy and whether she is truly ready to give up her career, toxic as it may be. The press room can at times devolve into a scripted cacophony that is impossible to follow, but the other newspaper men are really just a backdrop in order to demonstrate Hildy’s superiority both as a journalist and as a human being. The opening credits include a pointed dig at the press, noting that these depictions are historic and of course bear no resemblance to journalists any longer; 80 years later, it is even starker that the ever shortening news cycle has only increased the extent to which having a story is prized over the truth. His Girl Friday does, however, make one wistful for a time when the press were actually capable of holding mendacious politicians to account.
“If I ever saw a man holdin’ a bull by the tail, you’re it.”
A slow-burning Western with John Wayne as a small town sheriff who needs to hold out for a week until Federal Marshals collect the prisoner in his jail, exploring resiliance, morality and the ability to accept aid. Another of Quentin Tarantino’s three desert island films (along with Blow Out and Taxi Driver), one can see the style of Western he prefers, prioritising dialogue over action and earning its tension through quiet build-up and understated threats within a confined space — Howard Hawks’ direction conjures suspense in the lawmen simply walking down a street at night where every shadow is a threat. The typically male-dominated roster is at least punctuated by Angie Dickinson’s substantial riff on the femme fatale rather than being a simple floozy. Its strong cast aside, the writing elevates Rio Bravo, with the real story being the relationships between the townsfolk, their backstories emerging naturally over time.