Friday, May 13, 2016

Rio Bravo (1959)

USA, 141 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, B.H. McCampbell
Photography: Russell Harlan
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Cast: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Russell, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Claude Akins, Harry Carey Jr., Bob Steele

Perhaps the most obvious point to make about Rio Bravo is that it's not much more (and certainly no less) than a big fat Hollywood production, engineered to precision points of glamour and entertainment. If there are serious themes to it they are drowned mercifully in the glitz. It's a Western more as a matter of convenience than conviction. It has nothing to say about individualism, family, pioneering, rugged nature, Indians, mining, the railroad, or any of the other things Westerns tie themselves in knots about when they reach for the gravitas. Yes, it's a small West Texas town under siege by outlaws presumably in the 19th century. Yes, there's a certain amount of frontier justice. Yes, John Wayne is here (and yes, even the famous shot from The Searchers of him walking away from an open door, shot from behind in dark interior, is mimicked). But it's John Wayne the venerable movie star who could woulda shoulda a Oscar, not John Wayne the blank screen creation of John Ford onto which every projection known to man (and women too!) is thrown. Though he is that too inevitably as always.

The intentions of Rio Bravo are made obvious with the casting of Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson, who have nothing to say about Westerns in or out of this movie, except at some point in their lives they all probably (Martin almost certainly) got a kick out of sneaking away to catch matinees of them. I'm not exactly complaining. Rio Bravo is a grand blustering entertainment and there's nothing else quite like it. "After we finished we found we could have done it a lot better," director Howard Hawks has reportedly said, "and that's why we went ahead and made El Dorado." That's a good quote, and it might even be true, but El Dorado is never going to be celebrated the way Rio Bravo probably always will be.

Certainly its place in the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? appears to be secure. Rio Bravo has never been higher than #58 on that list, but never lower than #75 either. Like John Wayne, like Howard Hawks, like so much of its trappings, Rio Bravo is built to last. It's a colorful crew just by character names alone. Wayne plays the sheriff of the town, John T. Chance, who is field directing a town defense as he holds an outlaw in his jail. Dean Martin is his deputy, Dude, or "Borachon," a man turned alcoholic in the wreckage of a love affair. After Chance and Dude, there is Stumpy (Walter Brennan), who works for Chance around the jail, doing his usual Walter Brennan things, cackling, shooting, and grumbling about cooking and such. Ricky Nelson plays Colorado Ryan, a young sharpshooter drifting through town. And Angie Dickinson is Feathers, a girl next door with a shady past who just got off the stagecoach.

Of the three unlikely stars, Martin is the most convincing, which is somewhat surprising given the rest of his career. But he seems to care about doing a good job here. He's a drunk, not for the first or last time, but generally (though not always) his recovery is played seriously this time. He's a sympathetic figure, as he attempts to dry up and resume his former duties as deputy of the high desert town. Angie Dickinson is pretty good too, a genuine beauty, though mostly used as shameless (but effective) cheesecake. One of her best lines appeared originally out of the mouth of Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings (also directed by Hawks): "I'm hard to get, [Name]. All you have to do is ask." (Or am I thinking of Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not?) At least Dickinson's very best line, which is about kissing—"It's better when two people do it"—is fresh for this movie. I think. As for Ricky Nelson, Hawks (or somebody) was wise to limit his screen appearances as he has little but '50s smoldering teen idol looks to bring to the party. He's not hard to take, but he feels a bit like a Justin Bieber for his times.

Speaking of popsmithery, the jig is fully and entirely up for this movie with the scene late in the picture where Martin, Nelson, and Brennan (yes, on harmonica) get a musical interlude. I am furiously embarrassed for Rio Bravo every time the scene arrives and yet I have to admit it has its appealing points as well. Martin and Nelson had their talents, it's a showcase for crying out loud, and the songs are good, if cheesy. But I think my response to this scene is how I recognize it as Hollywood entertainment.

Rio Bravo also has an element of bridging generations of moviegoers and filmmakers, even specifically of Westerns. Its influence is obvious on at least two significant filmmakers who absorbed it young, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Particularly the use of the haunting Mexican bugle theme, "El Deguello," and that theme's associations with the Battle of the Alamo, is reminiscent of numberless scenes from Tarantino movies, heralding great confrontations and moments of romantic doom. In fact, Tarantino has so overplayed that kind of musical motif since that the use here seems positively underdone, for better or worse. Someone should at least remix the soundtrack a little higher so it really pops in the couple of places where it's actually used. Or maybe that's asking too much.

The influence on Scorsese may not be as direct but it's at least as profound. In many ways Rio Bravo represents an early version of Scorsese's pastiche approach by genre style. Rio Bravo finally is not just a Western, it's also a romantic comedy, a movie star cameo fest (Ward Bond! Claude Akins! Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez!) (which reminds me, painfully dated stereotypes too!), a physical comedy, a silent movie in its opening, and even a musical when Walter Brennan starts slobbering on a harmonica. That pastiche approach was bold for 1959, though Hitchcock was up to something similar in North by Northwest from the same year. It's urbane and knowing—and that is what Rio Bravo is at its best. As I said, it's a Western only by convenience. And as Howard Hawks said, El Dorado is actually the better movie. But Rio Bravo is the classic.


  1. Well ... it's no surprise I think there is an element of damning with faint praise about the 4th-best movie of all time :-). You're right about the absence of most of the usual stuff we get in Westerns, but I think individualism is important here ... there's a critique of Man Alone implicit in the way John T ends up with a team to help him defeat the bad guys. I've never really thought of it as a big Hollywood production, so I found that interesting. To me, it looks kinda cheap ... seems like everything takes place in the jail house, as if there wasn't enough money for sets. Some of what works is inexplicable ... I normally roll my eyes at May-December romances, but Angie Dickinson exudes so much experience I forget how young she is (and how old Wayne is). I am also a complete sucker for the "Hawks Woman", and Feathers most certainly is one of those. Dean Martin gives his best performance, Walter Brennan is Walter Brennan, and Ricky? Well, I've even come to appreciate him over the years, or at least I don't cringe when he shows up. I love The Wild Bunch, but even that one only made #8 on my list. Rio Bravo is my favorite "Western".

    El Dorado? I suppose I could watch it again, but I definitely never thought it was the better movie. I don't even remember it being any better than Rio Lobo.

  2. Yeah, honestly, I can't make it past Dean Martin. But I appreciate it for its parts. On the El Dorado question, you'll have to take that up with Hawks!

  3. For being such a sap for Westerns I've never been a big fan of the studio-lot variety. I don't hate this but I've never understood the critical regard for it either. I like it better than, say, Johnny Guitar, but not as well as Duel in the Sun.