PictureFirst things first. The remastered HD and BD versions of The Searchers may have set our sights a little high, because, as good as this transfer is, it is clearly nowhere near the standard set by the high-resolution incarnation of John Ford's classic Western. Encoded with VC-1 codec, this 1.85:1 1080p transfer still exhibits some inevitable signs of age, with a few nicks, scratches and flecks speckling the image throughout and some scene transitions that lose definition and suffer from colour deterioration. Although the print has been cleaned-up, there is still a certain grubbiness that mars the otherwise quite clean picture. Grain is minimal but evident during some scenes, although this shouldn't pose a problem at all, in fact it actually adds to the cinematic quality of the movie.
The Techniclor process may not retain quite as much vibrancy as it once did, but colours are still pretty striking. Wayne's trademark cavalry shirts are bold and deep, either in red or blue, and the interiors of the saloon and the jail enjoy nicely saturated hues that, although purposely heightened for aesthetic reasons, are still pleasing to the eye.
Detail can be very good, but you'll discover that this is predominantly when viewed in close-up shots. Faces, for instance, and clothes are very well presented with clarity, sharpness and edge delineation well maintained. Eyes sparkle and gun barrels gleam from time to time, too. But the problems occur when objects are a little way off as the image tends to lose a fair bit of definition and can be prone to soften up quite a lot. This softening can even be witnessed around the edges of a frame whilst the close-up subject of the shot - a character, usually - is presented in a fine degree of detail. However, the image at large is robust and strongly rendered. Three-dimensionality is something that this BD transfer doesn't seem to achieve, but with a film of this vintage and particularly one that its director deliberately filmed with a flat, TV-style, it would be churlish to mark it down. However, where The Searchers successfully created an image on BD and HD that lifted itself from the screen and packed in acres of rolling depth, Rio Bravo likes to rein things in. Distance shots of figures scuttling about on the edge of town or poking their heads up from behind bullet-blasted walls still look good, but they don't seem designed to stand proud in the same way - thus, the transfer seems to lack visual pop.
A real downside that I found was in the level of the blacks, which are quite inconsistent. Some interior shots - in the barn, for instance when Chance storms the doors early on - the shadows are too light and vary in integrity across the frame. At other times, the blacks just lack solidity and end up merging uncomfortably with the other shades of the image. Add to that contrast that has a tendency to fluctuate and flicker and the image can often look little better than SD.
Compression defects aren't really in evidence, though, with little to no noise in the picture and only the slightest trace of edge enhancement to be found usually around silhouetted figures in the mid to background. Overall, Rio Bravo has a good enough transfer, but whether or not it is significantly better than its SD counterpart to warrant upgrading to, is debateable.
SoundIt may only be 1.0 channel mono, but the Dolby Digital (192 kbps) track on offer here still treats the film with respect and keeps the atmosphere happily ticking along without any errors that I could detect. Dialogue is blessedly free from drop-out and the track sounds quite clean and relatively hiss-free. Gunshots pack a little bit of a punch and the explosions during the shootout have a nice heft to them. Tiomkin's score is warm and rousing in all the right places and is perfectly balanced with the other elements of the track without ever coming over as either too shrill or too deep.
Beyond that, folks there really isn't much moe that can be said about the audio. Obviously a newer mix with some extension would have been nice, but let's not forget that this film is from 1959 and surround sound just hadn't ridden into town yet.
ExtrasAnyone who is a fan of Howard Hawks will be in heaven with this well thought-out and presented selection of extras. So far as I know, all the bonuses from the SD edition have been ported over, and a rich and detailed bunch they are, too.
Starting with the commentary track from the once-great John Carpenter, who we all know owes a tremendous debt to the classic filmmaker, and film critic Richard Schickel. Very scene specific at times, right down to describing the on-screen action and the geography of certain shots, the track takes in the usual film-historian slant of detailing the resumes of members of the cast and providing studio-intentions, producer and director modus operandi and plenty of insightful critique. There are a few lulls, and the pair often find themselves either making excuses for, or simply acknowledging the different attitudes that modern audiences may have for certain old-fashioned elements of the movie and the style with which it was crafted - its leisurely pace and that singalong scene, primarily. But, the track is breezy, entertaining and packed with anecdote and information. The reverence that Carpenter, especially, shows is infectious and the commentary serves the film well in drawing the attention to facets that may risk being overlooked. The pair are recorded separately.
The first retrospective documentary is a corker. Entitled Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, and running for 33 mins, this piece reunites us with Carpenter and Schickel and brings filmmakers Walter (The Warriors) Hill and Peter Bogdanovitch along for the ride as well. These, together with the usual roster of film historians and even, nice to see, Angie Dickinson discuss the film's genesis, the attitudes and ethics of Hawks and Wayne, the motives behind the story and illustrate perfectly just why Hawks is so revered by filmmakers and buffs nowadays. Dickinson even lays claim to having talked the director out of calling the film by its original title of Bull By The Horns, and there are some teasing snippets about the lost footage that contained an alternate ending or two.
The second is a 55 minute vintage feature from 1973 that hails from the Men Who Made Movies series, this one naturally focussing on Howard Hawks. Concentrating primarily upon the man's trademark filmic motifs, the piece runs a little dry in the atmosphere and spontaneity stakes, but is nevertheless packed with information and even features the director's last recorded interview. It is clear that he wasn't a fan of Peckinpah's famed slo-mo bullet-and-squib ballets, but he is articulate, candid and well worth listening to.
Then we get Old Tucson: Where Legends Walked. This is purely a tribute to the studio-built location that formed the backdrop for this, and other films and is now a tourist attraction. Nice to see, but still filler, folks.
Finally, we get a John Wayne Trailer Gallery featuring The Big Stampede, Haunted Gold, Somewhere In Sonora, The Man From Monterey and, of course, Rio Bravo.
Although it may not sound like a great deal, there is much of value in this package. The chat-track is worth it on its own - although I would have loved to have had another one from Sir Christopher Frayling, as well, who does such fine work with these vintage classics.
VerdictRio Bravo may have inspired a lot of modern filmmakers and, once more, cemented John Wayne's effortlessly swaggering cool, but I still think it falls someway short of the classic status that is so slavishly heaped upon it. It takes its time to weave its story and this languid approach may have been fresh at the time of its release - especially with regards to many other contemporary westerns - but can come across as quite stilted nowadays and perhaps a little too theatrical. But any qualms about the style of the piece are more than made up for with the wonderful ensemble cast and Leigh Brackett's snappy dialogue.
The transfer certainly has a few issues that detract from the release's Blu-ray tag but, considering that not every vintage movie ages so well as, say, The Searchers, Casablanca or Forbidden Planet, perhaps we should be more forgiving. The extras are terrific, though. The chat-track is gold and the docs are evocative and richly detailed.
A great overall package for a highly-regarded and popular movie. Recommended.
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