[This review has been cross-posted at Decisions At Sundown, a blog started by Jon Lanthier and dedicated exclusively to the Western genre. I cross-post all of my Western reviews with this blog, where I am one of several contributors.]
El Dorado is a sneaky kind of movie, in terms of narrative. It starts out like it's got purpose, a strong forward drive the likes of which hadn't been seen anywhere near Howard Hawks' increasingly languid cinema in years. It sets up, quickly and economically, a rivalry over water rights between kindly farmer Kevin MacDonald (R.G. Armstrong) and the nasty Bart Jason (Edward Asner). Stuck in the middle of this conflict are two old friends, the town sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) and his older mentor Cole Thornton (John Wayne), who came into town as a hired gun for Jason until he realized what was going on. The film's opening section establishes a tense situation, a classic Western pressure cooker, and when Cole accidentally kills one of MacDonald's sons and then himself gets shot in revenge by the clan's feisty daughter Joey (Michele Carey), things look to be really heating up. Hawks, of course, takes the opportunity to insert the first of the film's radical ellipses, shifting away from the action and leaping forward, in a few quick scenes, several months into the future, with Cole now safely away from the town of El Dorado. It's almost a panicked reaction, as though Hawks was afraid he was getting to the climax too fast. The rest of the film pretty much meanders, slowly but surely, back towards the tension of those opening scenes.
A funny thing happens along the way, too, as not only does Hawks take his time getting back to the center of the action, but he begins morphing the film into a virtual remake of his previous John Wayne Western, Rio Bravo. This predecessor is already hinted at in the film's opening minutes, with a shot of Cole walking along a street that runs diagonally across the frame, a composition that recurred throughout Rio Bravo as Wayne's John T. Chance patrolled his town. By inserting the shot here, into the opening's series of establishing shots, Hawks hints at his eagerness to revisit his earlier success. The joke goes that Hawks liked Rio Bravo so much he made it twice more, with El Dorado and its successor Rio Lobo, and at times it virtually is a joke. One can sense Hawks and Wayne and company chuckling at getting away with remaking their own picture just seven years later, and the way the plot begins to fall in line with its ancestor is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. The result is another light, low-key charmer of a Western from Hawks, an amalgam of everything that made his previous efforts in the genre so much fun; there's even a visual reference to the cattle drive from Red River, this time with a herd of horses filling the screen. Once Cole makes his way back to El Dorado, the film's mirroring of Rio Bravo becomes more and more complete, as various pieces fall into place. It seems that during one of the narrative ellipses, Mitchum's J.P. got his story crossed up with Rio Bravo's Dean Martin character: a no-good girl whirled into town, seduced him and broke his heart, leaving him a useless drunkard and the town laughingstock.
Naturally, this leaves him singularly unable to deal with the MacDonald/Jason rivalry, which is just now reaching a head as Jason hires the ace gunman Nelse McLeod (Christopher George). Mitchum is arguably a perfect choice for the drunk sheriff, the formerly noble and strong-willed lawman brought low by a bad woman. With his sleepy eyes and hunched posture, he stumbles around, grasping his stomach, slumped over, slamming into things. His performance is both more harrowing than Martin's, and also somehow more broadly comic, even cartoony, channeling the same pop-eyed lunacy he brought to his homicidal preacher in Night of the Hunter. At one point, when Cole hits him over the head with a metal pan, J.P. freezes stiffly, his eyes wide, looking like one of Bugs Bunny's frazzled opponents. There's nothing here as iconic as Martin's scrambling for a coin thrown into a spittoon, but Mitchum's performance is complex and multilayered, heartrending and hilarious in roughly equal measures.
The film is packed with such bravura performances, which is good because even more than Rio Bravo itself this is a true hangout movie, a movie about dialogue, about the easygoing exchange of barbed witticisms. Filling out the cast of Rio Bravo analogues are Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan cranky old man role), Mississippi (James Caan standing in for Ricky Nelson's cocky young fighter) and Maudie (Charlene Holt replacing Angie Dickinson). The cast may be different, but the dynamics are startlingly familiar, so the pleasures here are in seeing how Hawks and company weave variations on the formula they'd established. Certainly, Mississippi gets a great introduction, stepping into a bar and announcing to an older gunfighter that he's after revenge for his dead friend. It turns out, he's a knife-fighter rather than a gunfighter, a Wild West anomaly, further set apart by his goofy hat and his general naïveté. He provides much of the film's comic relief, along with Hunnicutt's Bull, who often communicates through his trumpet. As for Holt, she had previously been great in small roles for Hawks' middling Man's Favorite Sport? and Red Line 7000, an electrifying and sexy presence on the fringes of those films, and here she finally gets a good showcase in an actual peak Hawks production. Her banter with Wayne is typically awkward, marked by the stop/start rhythms that reveal the aging tough guy's discomfort with romance and emotional expression. It's a virtual repeat of the hesitant Wayne/Dickinson chemistry, though Holt doesn't get quite as much to do, beyond memorably reprising Dickinson's va-va-voom lingerie modeling scenes.
These kinds of mirrors recur throughout the film, and part of the fun is waiting to see when Hawks (with screenwriter Leigh Brackett) is going to stick to the script, and when he's going to shake things up. Again and again, he riffs subtle variations on Rio Bravo's key scenes, like the one where Cole and J.P. track a killer to a saloon full of hostile gunmen. Here, instead of hiding in the rafters and revealing himself with blood dripping into a beer glass, the killer is behind a piano and reveals his presence through the nervous piano player's wrong notes. Elsewhere, Hawks stages a great gunfight at a church, where the bullets pinging off the bells not only provide a deafening soundtrack to the scene, but contribute to the strategy of the battle. The film is packed with great moments like this, scenes where Hawks' careful, deliberate staging turns every cut, every movement, into something graceful and purposeful, whether he's shooting an action climax or a simple dialogue exchange. The dialogue is fantastic too, especially since the amazing ensemble cast does such justice to that characteristic Hawks looseness, and to Brackett's witty writing. The recurring gags, like J.P.'s absentmindedness about just who Mississippi is, are as good as Rio Bravo's best running gags (and Walter Brennan's crankiness about always being told to stay in the back of the jail is given a nod here in the form of a similar brief scene with Hunnicutt).
The crackling dialogue also asserts itself in the film's emphasis on storytelling over action; the characters spend a lot of time talking, telling tales, rather than doing anything. Mississippi's vengeful showdown is paced by his languidly meted out story about his dead friend and his mission of catching up with the men who killed him. Then McLeod tells Cole a story about a drunk sheriff and a no-good woman, not realizing that 1) he's talking about Cole's friend; and 2) he's retelling the story behind Rio Bravo. One of the funniest of these stories is a brief interlude with a Swedish gunsmith, who tells the tragicomic tale of the nearly blind gunman who previously owned Mississippi's shotgun. Later, Maudie tells J.P. about her long friendship with Cole, and her great debt to him, and we realize that she's another Rio Bravo echo, beyond her faint resemblance to Angie Dickinson and her sexually suggestive wit (best showcased in some hilarious dialogue about a "bouncing" bed). Like Dickinson's Feathers, Maudie is also a gambling widow; she's just further along in her relationship with Wayne's character when we meet her. Indeed, her character's familiarity allows Hawks the freedom to omit key scenes, like the late reconciliation between her and Cole, which takes place offscreen, relying on the memory of Rio Bravo's Wayne/Dickinson showdown over the girl's skimpy performing outfit.
Ultimately, what's great about El Dorado is how Hawks and his cast take what should have been an utter throwaway project, a shameless retread of a relatively recent film, and turn it into something special of its own. It's a roughshod film, casually skipping over long periods of time with inexplicable edits — and sloppy editing is also responsible for the one sight gag that just plain doesn't work, a lamely executed stunt that's supposed to show James Caan leaping under a charging horse's hooves. Somehow, though, these elliptical narrative shenanigans only add to the film's indelible charm. This is especially apparent in the ending, when after the final showdown Hawks jumps ahead a small amount of time to show J.P. and Cole patrolling the town together, both injured, both limping with crutches, bickering and laughing. It's a wonderful moment, these two crotchety gunmen propped up on crutches, patrolling the town: it's absurd, strangely touching, and funny all at once, just like the film as a whole.