#6 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
Howard Hawks, smarting from the failure of Land of the Pharaohs, left for Europe for a few years to lick his wounds and consider his next moves as a film director. While in Europe, he discovered that television westerns with emphasis on character rather than plot were fairly popular, so he returned home to America. There he found John Wayne ready and willing to work on a counterargument to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, the story of Gary Cooper’s lone sheriff in a small western town who can’t get anyone to help him get ready for the arrival of a known felon out for his blood. Wayne and Hawks were of the opinion that High Noon was simply wrong in its portrayal of the West and the hero, so they made the best counterargument possible, they made another movie.
John T. Chance (Wayne) is the sheriff of a small Western town. His deputy, Dean Martin’s Dude, is at the tail end of a two-year bender in response to a girl leaving him. In a great, silent opening scene, Dude is so desperate for a drink that when the notorious Joe Burdette, younger brother to the most powerful man in the area Nathan Burdette, throws a dollar piece into a spittoon Dude is reticent but willing to reach in for that dollar to get him his next drink. Chance saves him from the degradation in the final second, and Joe ends up attacking Chance and shooting another man dead. Chance and Dude get Joe into custody, and the standoff begins.
What’s markedly different about Rio Bravo is its almost lackadaisical pace. The plot gets sidelined for long stretches as Wayne, Martin, Angie Dickenson, and Walter Brennan play off of each other with the other assorted members of the town. Quentin Tarantino apparently showed this film to every woman he ever dated, and if they didn’t like it then he ended the relationship. Looking at his filmography through the lens of Rio Bravo, it suddenly all makes sense. He’s been making his own version of Rio Bravo in some capacity until Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood where it almost feels like a complete homage. This isn’t a movie about its plot. This is a movie about its characters in the middle of a situation. This feels like a movie made from the moments cut out of most movies. Where most movies have their characters endlessly discuss the plot, these characters discuss it occasionally and then simply try to live their lives otherwise within the confines of the situation at hand.
All of that rests on a handful of things. The first is the script. Hawks was well known for allowing his actors to improvise freely on set, but in order for that to really work you need to start with a strong script that provides a great guide on who these characters are. The second is the actors themselves. They have to fit their roles almost like archetypes, understanding what the script has created in their individual characters, allowing them that space to improvise but also the boundaries on how far they can go in any particular direction. The third is the world around them. This has to feel complete, populated, and real so that it never feels like the characters have been transported from the place of the plot to somewhere else where they can talk. They still need to inhabit the world completely and at all times.
Rio Bravo does all three extremely well.
The script and actors use the world to full effect. They feel alive as Chance and Dude interact with Walter Brennan’s Stumpy, guarding Joe in the jail with an ever-present shotgun, ready to shoot Joe should anything start up. An old friend of Chance’s, Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) rides into a town with his wagon and men including the young Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a great gunman. Pat is immediately on Chance’s side, offering whatever services he can to help, but Chance refuses it all. He doesn’t want to endanger the lives of those not involved of their own choosing, including Colorado even though he could use the help for sure. Into the scene walks Angie Dickenson’s Feathers. Arriving in Rio Bravo on the stage, she’s stuck while the stage gets fixed. She takes up at the local card game, but Chance ends up suspecting her of being noted on a handbill, and when he discovers that three cards are missing from the deck, decides to take action. It ends up she isn’t the one sleeving cards (her dress won’t allow it), but she was married to a noted card cheat who died a few months back. It was another guy at the table, helped caught by Colorado, who was cheating.
So sets in motion the string of character vignettes that come to make up Rio Bravo. We see how Chance and Stumpy are friends with constant bickering, almost like a married couple. We see Feathers steadily fall for the manly and brave Chance. We see Dude steadily find his sobriety in the face of danger, allowed his badge once again. We see Nathan show up to start showdown with Chance, but the situation Chance has created, waiting for the US Marshalls to arrive for Joe while holding Joe under guard, is too well maintained for any sort of rash action, allowing the whole character based story to play out comfortably but believably at the same time. Colorado becomes more and more useful until he gets too involved to deny official involvement anymore, Chance finally offering him a badge.
The finale centers around Dude, and I just have to take a moment to talk about Dean Martin. Martin was a lounge singer who started as the second half of a duo with Jerry Lewis, breaking off to follow his own career. He sang in Vegas alongside his buddies in the Rat Pack, even starring in the original Ocean’s 11 as pretty much himself. Here he plays the drunk, self-doubting Dude really well. In fact, there’s so much of him that if Hawks had been forced to cut down the running time from two hours and twenty minutes to a hundred minutes, he would have had the choice of two main characters, Chance and Dude, to center the proposed shortened movie around.
Dude ends up getting captured by Nathan with the intention of trading the deputy for Joe. This leads to a shootout with Stumpy throwing dynamite that Colorado, Chance, and Dude shoot at. It’s a good, explosive ending, finding a way to provide genre thrills at the tail end of a movie that’s largely more concerned with character interaction.
I suppose if there’s a problem I have with the movie, it’s that John Wayne is so obviously so much older than Angie Dickenson that it ends up coloring their interactions in a weird way that reminded me of my reaction to John McTiernan’s Medicine Man. I mean, I can believe that a young woman would fall for John T. Chance, especially in the face of the danger he’s up against. He’s a very manly example of the sex, and I could see the appeal. But the age difference is just so obvious that it becomes a small barrier for me.
Anyway, this is Hawks returning from a failure (maybe not a complete artistic failure, but definitely a commercial and critical one) in grand form. He makes a statement about heroism from one of cinema’s most defining heroic personalities, countering a film he considered unbelievable (Cooper walked out of Rio Bravo apparently thinking the same thing of Hawks’ film), and making a great film overall. This is just good old-fashioned movie making.