ANDRE HODEIR, the French music critic, once wrote an essay entitled “Why Do They Age So Badly?” on the all but universal artistic decline of good and even great veteran jazzmen. The title invites, even demands, appropriation for a piece on film directors. For, with something like the invariability Hodeir noted, good and even very good directors seem, like jazz musicians, to do their best work first. The difference is that a Lester Young or Roy Eldridge haven’t the benefit of a corps of “critics” armed with “theories” to hail their later lapses from creativity as “maturity,” and pay tribute to their “authorship” and ability to produce “personal” works.
Rio Lobo is Howard Hawks’s forty-third film, and its author is now seventy-five. It is, in the worst possible way, a personal film, the director even obliging his critics by having his name appear in the credits in signature. The characters and situations which have been the staple of Hawks’s later films are once again insistently repeated-not varied or elaborated or reimagined as recurring elements are in the work of John Ford, but repeated, with a kind of mulish intransigence that can come to seem almost admirable (as it can seem in the writing of Hawks’s chief exponent, Manny Farber). After a vigorous prologue depicting a train robbery (filmed, to judge from the clubfootedness of what follows, by Yakima Canutt, the second-unit director, famed for such action sequences as the chariot race in Ben Hur), we are given again the all-man John Wayne hero, flustered only by finding a fainting female in his arms, and the familiar group of adventurers which gathers around him: the callow but daring youths, the grizzled old-timer, the girls who are continually told they’re “not going along” to face whatever danger must be overcome but who eventually gain admittance to the charmed circle by proving themselves just one of the boys. What one has, in short, is the pre-adolescent male gang, jocular in the face of danger, grudgingly infiltrated by a few tomboys who occasionally forget themselves and perpetrate a little female-aggressor sex; e.g., in Hatari!, the ingenue teaching John Wayne how to kiss. But such hanky-panky follows only after the girl is coached by one of the hero’s equally infatuated male buddies on how Wayne is to be wooed.
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