Warner Bros. releases sparkling new versions of a classic western – and a classic "eastern" – on 4K disc
By Jim Bray
One of the great westerns of all time, Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, has made the transition to 4K disc, and it was worth the wait.
Ditto for "East of Eden," Elia Kazan's take on John Steinbeck, a movie I didn't like very much but which many others seem to think is equally classic to Rio Bravo. Those people are wrong, of course, but at least fans of the film now have a much more state-of-the-art version to be bored by.
Rio Bravo tells the story of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), his burned out drunk of a friend and deputy, Dude (Dean Martin) and deputy-sidekick Stumpy (Walter Brennan), along with hotshot new kid/fast draw in town Colorado (Ricky Nelson). The story follows the four of them (Four for Texas?) as they await the consequences of Chance arresting a lowlife, but connected, hood for gunning down an unarmed man.
Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) is that small-time low life, but since he's the no-good brother of a no-good Bigwig – and blood is blood - brother Nathan (John Russell) wants to save his sibling's neck from being stretched by the gallows. And he has plenty of time and resources to do it: Chance is holding Joe in a cell at his sheriff's office, waiting for the federal Marshall to show up a few days down the road. So, Nathan basically lays siege to the town, while sending in hired killers to, if not exactly spring Joe, at least to intimidate Chance and make life as difficult as possible.
Kind of like the Biden DOJ…
It's a great story, though as such character-driven stories tend to, it does tend to meander at a leisurely pace. That also works in the film's favour, though: Rio Bravo is filled with a creeping dread, augmented by scenes of violence. And yet, there are moments of surprising tenderness, such as when Chance picks up and takes to bed (to sleep, apparently) potential girlfriend "Feathers" (Angie Dickinson), his unwanted angel of mercy who fell asleep while staying on guard to let him get some much-needed rest.
There's also some good-natured humor, mostly between the four protagonists holed up in the Sheriff's office, but also between Chance and some of the other townsfolk.
Rio Bravo isn't just a claustrophobic "waiting for the feces to hit the fan" film, though; it's also about redemption, or at least potential redemption, as Dude struggles to become relevant again and as Feathers tries to find some new meaning in her life.
Wayne's character is a strong, reasonable man who epitomizes professionalism, and The Duke wears it well. Martin, who is very good as Dude, is a has been working at becoming an "is now again", but it isn't easy drying out – especially when you may be called upon to use the best of your skills while your hands are shaking badly.
Nelson's Colorado is a fresh-faced kid who's fast with a gun and smart as all get out, but short on experience. Nelson isn't bad here, but he's a singer and not an actor (though he does much better than Glen Campbell did in True Grit). Brennan's Stumpy is kind of a broadly drawn "wife" character to Chance, keeping the home fires burning while the boss is away at work, and he's filled with gruff and grumpy opinions about how Chance should be running things.
Dickinson provides some nice softness, though her character also has steel beneath her surface, as what could turn out to be the love interest, depending on circumstances and Chance's attitude.
The rest of the eclectic supporting cast is splendid as well.
It's really a heckuva film and if you haven't seen it yet it's about time you did. And what better way than with this reasonably pristine new 4K transfer.
The upgrade from the Blu-ray version is mostly lovely, though there are some age-related issues – such as softness during dissolves and fades but overall, it's a darn fine HDR10 transfer. Get past those soft sections and you'll find a mostly gorgeous transfer that really showcases the fine details of the production, stuff like facial features, clothing and even the sets and locations. There's nice layer of film grain but it isn't egregious. In all, this is easily the best-looking version of Hawks' classic I've seen.
The audio, not surprisingly, is unremarkable, but it's still an upgrade over previous video releases. This new DTS-HD Master Audio is a 2.0 mono track, which may sound like an oxymoron (multi-channel mono?) but it sounds almost new, even though the film is from 1959. Naturally, it isn't going to fill the room with ambience, and it definitely won't bother the neighbours if you crank it, but it's a fine representation of the director's original intent. Dialogue is always clear and the gunfire and other sound effects have proper fidelity.
If this 4K Rio Bravo (and East of Eden) versions lack anything, it's a separate disc with special materials. The old DVD of Rio Bravo had plenty, and I'm glad they didn't port that over to the 4K disc, instead leaving as much storage space as possible for the movie's digital file (bigger files can mean better quality, though of course one mustn't forget "GIGO" – garbage in, garbage out).
There's really only one extra, and it's an entertaining – and quite old – commentary with director John Carpenter (whose "Assault on Precinct 13" channels Rio Bravo) and movie critic Richard Schickel. It's a good commentary, fortunately.
Then there's East of Eden. This was the film that made James Dean a star, introducing big screen audiences to his angst-ruffled brow and brooding demeanour.
Based on at least part of John Steinbeck's novel of the same name, it's a story of family secrets, parental issues, and sibling rivalry. It's kind of like the biblical account of Cain and Abel story but set in California rather than just outside the then-forbidden walls of the Garden of Eden (hmm, wonder if there's any connection between the Edens?)
Basically, it's the tale of Adam Trask (Raymond Massey), and his two sons set just before the United States entered World War I. Aron (Richard Davalos) is the "Abel" – kind of like Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina – while Cal (Dean) "raises Cain". He's more influenced by his long-lost mother (Jo Van Fleet) who left when the kids were mere nippers, and who now runs a brothel elsewhere.
East of Eden is kind of stiff and I must admit I didn't think too much of it (my idea of a Kazan film is more like "On the Waterfront"), but a lot of people do like it, apparently, and they'll probably love this new 4K disc version.
I'd never seen previous video versions, so can't comment on how much (or if) the 4K version upgrades it, but I can say the new version is darn nice. As with Rio Bravo, there are some issues during transitions – which hearken back to the original production – but overall, it's clean and sharp and very bright.
Extras once again get left behind except for a single commentary track, this one done by critic Richard Schickel on his own. It's very good, but as with Rio Bravo (and others) I'd have loved to see a second disc with "Collector's Edition-type" extras. But it was not to be.
Bottom line here is that if you're a fan of either film, you'll want these 4K versions because they offer the best way to enjoy the films. As long as you don't expect a bunch of extras.
Copyright 2023 Jim Bray