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Rio Bravo Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 14, 2007

    Rio Bravo Review
    Esteemed director/producer Howard Hawks had returned to the wrath and might of the studio system after fours years sulking in France. His previous movie, Land Of The Pharaohs, had not been the high point he had expected and its relative commercial and critical burying had made him slightly bitter. But, after taking stock and biting the bullet, he rediscovered the themes that had propelled him so successfully throughout most of his career - those of staunchly professional heroism, group bonding in the face of adversity and big, noble men being brought to their knees by gutsy, strong-willed women. He'd tackled most genres - comedy with Bringing Up Baby, sci-fi and horror with The Thing From Another World, epics such as the aforementioned Land Of The Pharaohs, and noir-thrillers with The Big Sleep - but the one type of movie that really shone out to him as being the most traditional and effective with which to tell his brand of exciting, character-based stories was the western. A decade before he had worked with John Wayne on the sprawling Red River (1948) and when it came to casting the role of stoic Sheriff John T. Chance in his classic comeback Rio Bravo, there was no-one else in the frame. Wayne had, of course, turned a corner in his life by now, and was no longer the fresh-faced, but eternally cynical cowboy from Stagecoach and seemingly a thousand other oaters. Now well into middle age, he had come to terms with the fact that the world, at large, didn't see him as an actor but as an icon, and he was happy to simply become the same character, the same persona in film after film. Ironically, the very next year he would actually claw deeper within himself to craft the excellent psychological study of the bigoted Ethan Edwards in John Ford's seminal The Searchers, though this would be an exception to the well-trodden path the star was travelling.

    Taking his cue from the TV serials that had greeted him upon his return to America - essentially the numerous westerns, such as Maverick, Lawman and Cheyenne - Hawks discovered the essence of their popularity wasn't the stories so much, but rather the fact that audiences had fallen in love with the regular characters and merely wanted to spend time with them, week after week. Therefore, when he enlisted esteemed writer Leigh Brackett (who would even go on to hone the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back), he insisted that the movie incorporate multiple subplots to enhance his characters, long sections of playful banter, the comedy and romance that swept through seemingly every TV show around and what amounted to an almost strange reluctance to depict much in the way of action. Now, considering that Rio Bravo is an accepted classic of the genre, and that it chronicles the events surrounding a tense stand-off between Chance and his deputies in a dusty border town and the wealthy and corrupt thug who controls it, this decision to play things slow and measured was a bold step for a picture released during this era of helter-skelter, gunfight every five minutes horse-operas. And this was going to be a long film, too, by anybody's standards. But Hawks knew that if he could create a core camaraderie between a clutch of stars that was infectious enough, then the audience would be more than happy to come along for what would turn out to be a leisurely but, ultimately, deadly ride.

    “A game-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?”

    “That's what I got.”

    But much more than simple good-natured cowboy hi-jinx, Rio Bravo was a tremendous casting coup, as well, ensuring that the film was sure-fire box office gold. If John Wayne was the major selling-point and obvious draw for fans of the old frontier, then Hawks' ace up the sleeve was in securing two other big name stars from other ends of the celebrity spectrum. To appeal to the younger generation and guarantee that the womenfolk wouldn't feel left out, he took on board the youthful Ricky Nelson, who had already achieved household name status from his TV work and could more than hold his own when it came to his big screen debut. As the cocksure young range rider, Colorado, who becomes allied with Chance when his cattle-driving boss is gunned down, Nelson is coolly confident when required and steadfastly refuses to bow down to his superiors with regards to the characters that they are playing or the years of acting experience they have under their belts. Only nominally arrogant in the role, Nelson is actually very good and is certainly a prototype for Horst Bucholz's Chico in the following year's The Magnificent Seven. But, essentially, the part that makes the film so memorable is that of burned-out, on-the-edge alcoholic Deputy Dude, brought so superbly to life by Dean Martin, playing almost totally against type ... well, apart from the alcoholic bit, perhaps. Dude is so far removed from the persona of the glib Rat-Packer that is quite mesmerising to see his dishevelled, jittery bag-of-nerves turn here. Battling with his own inner demons constantly, his courage is found not when holding a gun and facing down a mob in a hostile saloon, but when forced to confront that forever-teasing bottle of whiskey lurking dangerously within reach. Even the jeers of a beaten and caged Claude Akins as the callous killer Joe Burdette, whose more cunning brother Nathan (John Russell) runs the town with an army of enforcers and is intent on springing him from jail, continually undermines what little self-respect he has left, locking Dude in a deep, dark psychological cage of his own. With his shirt unbuttoned and a couple days worth of stubble clouding his face, Martin even works hard to make those watery, half-asleep eyes of his appear, by turns, frightened, anxious, cold and dreamily resilient. It's a down, but not out performance that supplies the emotional core of the story, the moral of redemption through heroism.

    “If I'm gonna get shot at, I may as well get paid for it. How do I get a badge?”

    Loosely remade by John Carpenter as Assault On Precinct 13 (on which he gave himself, as editor, the pseudonym of John T. Chance and, wisely, kept the tension going throughout and darkened the humour considerably), the film was so successful, not only at the box office but even by its creator's own lofty ideals, that Hawks, himself, actually attempted to redo the story a couple more times in El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), both starring John Wayne. Neither was as good, though. Rio Bravo had been a fresher take on the western staple, in that it mixed easygoing wordplay (of Hawks' overlapping variety, naturally) with a cold, bleak heart of darkness, effectively creating something entirely new in the process. The setting was familiar, as were all the faces, but the treatment of the story was more laidback than usual, the momentum building not so much towards the inevitable six-gun, Winchester Rifle and dynamite battle as towards salvation for the souls of the good guys. Dude just wants to beat the bottle. The Duke, although he doesn't know it until it hits him between the eyes, wants some loving. And everybody wants ageing, hinge-hipped Stumpy to shut the hell up for a minute!

    “No-one tells me nuthin' around here!”

    The surprising thing is that Hawks' movie is really a lengthy pot-boiler, using the trappings and atmosphere of the conventional western with which to have lots of playful fun with some colourful characters. Subplots involving unlikely romances almost bog the film down until you realise that these components are actually the anchor to which the story clings. The sassy and unbelievably attractive Angie Dickinson comes to town as well-to-do cardsharp and possible showgirl, Feathers. Setting up residence in the hotel across the street from Chance's jailhouse, the pair come into immediate conflict, but no-one is surprised when the ribald verbal sparring transforms their prickly relationship into something a little more, ahem, conducive. Dickinson is sublime at upstaging the big screen legend and even if her attraction to the Sheriff is a tad unlikely, their scenes together are always interesting and sparky. Her innuendo-laden challenges to him are a Hawksian gem, the one that renders the Duke literally speechless is an impeccable tweak on the hero's established surety. Although she is more than capable of talking Chance into traps from which he cannot escape and twisting anything he says around to her advantage, Hawks still puts Feathers through the wringer when she realises that, through her actions, men have died, and this is a nice and sympathetic wobbler that he throws to his established heroine trademark but, in a way, this is like the director finally appreciating that if he can give his guys a gutful of angst, then surely he can get away with revealing the fragility of the fairer sex once in a while, too.

    Then there is the comedy that ripples through virtually every scene. Hawks made a great statement with almost all his better films about male bonding under pressure and this usually revolved around witty banter and smart-alec retorts. Rio Bravo is, perhaps, the ultimate saga of such human traits. Whether it be the irascible, non-stop bitching and sniping from Walter Brennan's gammy-legged jail-rat Stumpy - usually in-conflict with Martin's pushed-to-the-brink Dude - or the almost Fawlty Towers-ish performance from the Mexican hotel proprietor Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), which I find a little too distracting at times, the film neatly diffuses the tension whenever things run the risk of getting too heavy. It is a clever and quite unique juggling act for Hawks to maintain, and he does it, as far as I am concerned, just by the skin of his teeth. But, you have to admit that it is cool to see the mighty, taciturn Wayne play prankster and give Stumpy a slap on the head before hot-footing it away with a big grin on his face.

    The violence, when it comes, is fast and deadly. Occasionally anticipated, but sometimes happening right out of the blue, the set-tos and gunfights in Rio Bravo tend to be over in the blink of an eye, but are justifiably devastating, all the same. When Colorado shows his mettle during the ruse that Nathan Burdette's goons have sprung upon Chance, the Sheriff finally gets an opportunity to show the younger man why he carries a rifle with a great couple of echoing distance shots at a fleeing rider. The earlier scene when a bullet-winged assassin has been trailed to Burdette's saloon and Dude holds court until the point when his nerves almost snap is perhaps the best sustained sequence in the film. Watch Martin's face begin to crumble and the doubt take hold in his eyes as Chance looks on, restrained hope for his friend bubbling just beneath his leathery features. Look out for the great sight of the beer turned red by dripping blood and just savour the moment when it really looks as though Dude is going to kick a corpse. Great stuff, folks - never overblown and, for once, never dampened by humour. But Hawks doles out another couple of wonderful, suspenseful scenes, too. The final explosive shootout is a given, obviously, but the much earlier passage when Chance and Dude “take a turn around town” is a tremendously eerie moment as desert winds send tumbleweeds at them from out of the night, doors and boardwalks creak ominously and faces - human and equine - peer out of the shadows as they make their patrol. Personally, I wish the film had stuck with this redolent, threat-heavy mood, but, I suppose, things would have turned out very differently if it had. It is also very rewarding to witness how the Sheriff and his deputy work the town that they police. Dude sitting out front to disarm new arrivals, Chance scrutinising every window, every doorway. The way that the two walk the main street - one on either side, passing quips as often as they pass sleeping revellers - and move, like predators, when in the midst of wrong-doers, circling, striking and then holding their ground, even when outnumbered. The team-up of Wayne and Martin is a truly great double-act that definitely stands the test of time.

    “Look at these hands. What can a man do with hands like this?

    It is famously cited that Hawks made this film as retaliation for the “wet chicken” cowardly aspect he saw in Fred Zinneman's highly regarded and immensely successful High Noon with Gary Cooper. Hawks couldn't accept that a professional like Marshall Will Kane, when faced with an inevitable showdown with killers, would actually run around the town virtually pleading for help from the very people he is meant to be protecting. Of course, in Gary Cooper's case, the relative wimping-out by the townsfolk and his friends actually makes him appear all the more heroic come the finale. But, to Hawks, this was characterised poison. Thus, in Rio Bravo, Chance is shown actively refusing aid when it is offered. To a man like him it would be unthinkable to endanger other innocent lives in the course of performing his own duties, and as he says “it would just give Burdette's men more targets to shoot at.” Though, and this could be considered a gaff in the screenplay (which was also penned by Jules Furthman as well as Leigh Brackett), it is strange how eager he is to take young Colorado under his wing after knocking back the much more experienced gun-hand of Wheeler (the always-excellent Ward Bond), who is a trusted friend in a town full of two-faced turncoats. In this way, Hawks actually met the similar ethic of John Ford's typical hero in a sagebrush embrace. In their world, black was black and white was white, but, and it is interesting to note, Hawks delved deeper into the murk between these two ends of the spectrum with this film, and Ford would do it, himself, also with Wayne, and to a much more acute degree, with The Searchers, as though both had come to realise, with the passing of the years, that nothing was ever that simple and that to have your heroes flawed was to also give them more vitality and screen-mileage.

    Dimitri Tiomkin's celebrated score is pretty effective but, sadly, I just don't find it that memorable. The composer had a penchant for the western genre and certainly prevailed when it came to dishing out rousing big themes, with the likes of High Noon, Red River, The Alamo and Gunfight At The OK Corral to his credit. Personally, I find his approach here a little too lackadaisical. Fifties-jazz parlour riffs underpin the quasi-wooing going on between Chance and Feathers and whenever tension mounts - walking out to meet the baddies etc - the cues don't quite add the impetus necessary to stimulate the senses and get the pulse racing. For me, the score for Rio Bravo is one of the film's lower points, unfortunately.

    Whilst I am a huge fan of westerns, and of Howard Hawks (I firmly believe that he directed more of The Thing From Another World than credited director Christian Nyby), but for a long, long time I never really rated Rio Bravo all that highly. It seemed, and actually still does, far too long a film for the essentially simple main plot. But, watching it now for the first time in a few years, I found a lot within it worth cherishing. Walter Brennan's shotgun-happy Stumpy is crafted to be likeable but totally irritating and there are, indeed, many moments when, like Chance or especially Dude, you really want to swing a rifle-butt at his chin just to shut him up, yet you can't help but spare a few concerned thoughts for him each time he is left alone at the jail to guard Joe. The complex relationship between Chance and his drunken deputy is packed with enough things that go unsaid as to make the pair completely three-dimensional and sympathetic. The little sing-song sequence, so beloved by audiences of the time (who had to endure such ditties smack-bang in the middle of a lot of genre product back then) does stick out as much as Colorado's Elvis-quiff and can come across as horribly commercial in view of the fact that the film contains two fully-fledged singers, but now seems much more acceptable, if only because we get treated to a shot of a doe-eyed Wayne looking on - unsure whether to laugh or cry - as his troops croon the night away.

    So, when all said and done, Rio Bravo can sure deliver the goods. Although, it does so in a very slow and considered fashion. A great ensemble-piece, then, and a film that ranks as a great testament to the fact that not only could John Wayne act, but so could Dean Martin.