Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Rio Bravo: Howard Hawk's "Response" to High Noon

The classic status attributed to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959) has always puzzled me. While it's a solid, well-done Western, it doesn't rank with the best Westerns of the 1950s (e.g., Shane, The Hanging Tree, 3:10 to Yuma, the Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations, etc.). It's also not as good as the movie that allegedly inspired it: High Noon.

Hawks, who disliked High Noon, famously said: "I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him." Thus, Rio Bravo is often considered to be Hawks' and John Wayne's cinematic response to High Noon.

Dean Martin as Dude.
The plot is simple: Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) arrests Joe Burdette when the latter guns down a man in cold blood. Joe's brother, Nathan (John Russell from TV's Lawman) "bottles up" the town and hires a bunch of professional gunfighters to spring Joe from jail. That leaves Chance, his elderly deputy Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and his alcoholic former deputy Dude (Dean Martin) to guard Joe until a marshal arrives in six weeks. One of Chance's friends states it eloquently: "A game-legged old man and a drunk? That's all you got?"

In Hawks' world, though, that's all that Chance wants. Unlike Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon, Chance doesn't solicit help. It's not the job of married men with families to face hired guns. That's what Chance was hired to do (although he does eventually accept help from a young fast gun played by Ricky Nelson). This exaggerated view of public service lends a little thematic density to an otherwise lightweight plot.

A brown-haired Angie Dickinson.
Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, who co-wrote Hawks' The Big Sleep (with William Faulkner), certainly provide a quotable screenplay. After Chance and con woman Feathers (Angie Dickinson) follow up their first kiss with a sequel, she quips: "I'm glad we tried it a second time. It's better when two people do it." Granted, it's a line that seems more appropriate for The Big Sleep than a Western--but it's still entertaining. Indeed, Feathers seems to be a character lifted from a late 1940s film noir, as evidenced by the following exchange in which Chance confronts her with a "wanted" poster:

Feathers: This isn't the first time that handbill has come up. I'd like to know what to do about it.
Chance: Well, you could quit playing cards...wearing feathers.
Feathers: No, sheriff. No, I'm not going to do that. You see...that's what I'd do if I were the kind of girl that you think I am.
Dickinson and Dean Martin stand out in the cast. She hits all the right notes as the sassy Feathers, who keeps missing the stagecoach out of town because she has finally found a man that interests her. Martin has a more difficult role, playing a drunk trying to sober up in the middle of a life-threatening situation. He's quite effective in the film's first half before getting cleaned up a little too quickly for the big climax. As for Wayne and Brennan, they plays roles that each has done at least a half-dozen times.
Ricky Nelson as Colorado.
That brings us to Ricky Nelson, who seems miscast as Colorado, the young gunfighter. Still, he tries hard and it helps that he doesn't have a lot of lines. He does fine in the singing department when he and Dino duet on the memorably-titled "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me" (which Dimitri Tiomkin adapted from his own theme for Red River). Allegedly, Elvis Presley was interested in playing Colorado, but his business manager Colonel Tom Parker nixed the idea.
Director Howard Hawks, who was a master at crafting lean movies, surprisingly lets Rio Bravo drift along at a leisurely 141 minutes. He still musters some exciting action scenes, although his best set piece contains little action and comes at the beginning of the film. Rio Bravo opens with a four-minute scene with no dialogue, but contains plenty of information. We learn that Dean's character is a drunk that will stoop to anything for a drink. We see the murder committed by Joe Burdette that sets the film's plot in motion. And we see that the townsfolk, after witnessing a senseless murder, are too intimidated to do anything about it.

Interestingly, Hawks, Wayne, and screenwriter Brackett teamed up again seven years later for the semi-remake El Dorado. This time around, Wayne is a gunfighter, Robert Mitchum is an alcoholic sheriff, and James Caan is a young gun named Mississippi. It's not as good as Rio Bravo, but, like its predecessor, is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.


  1. Sometimes I mix up Rio Bravo and El Dorado.
    It's interesting to note that this film is in the book 1001 movies to see before you die. Maybe it doesn't have the same things as other westerns, but I consider it to be a really nice and funny movie.

  2. I couldn't resist commenting on "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me" because that title, plus the fact it is a duet of Ricky and Dino, almost sounds made up. If I hadn't seen "Rio Bravo" for myself and heard this song I would have wondered!

  3. "Rio Bravo" is just one of those movies that is filled with folks you want to spend time with. I swear, when it's on the TV I tell myself I'll just watch that opening and before you know it the day is shot, the laundry is still in the hamper and the family is yelling for their dinner.

    I rather like Ricky Nelson in this movie. The persona he developed over the years on his family's TV show was the lackadaisical, quietly humourous fellow and that's what I see in Colorado. It works for him and, I think, works for the movie.

  4. One of the best westerns of all time.I like this and El Dorado equally.But then again I love The Duke.

  5. I think you're right that the film ambles on for bit longer than it should. It creates a strange on-again, off-again tension effect as you wait for something to happen. But the opening 4 minutes are solid Hawks, as lean and as tightly constructed as anything he ever did. And I like Martin as the drunk; he brings a kind of embarrassed vulnerability to his part.

  6. Why do Chance and Dude wander the town at night, supposedly looking for the bad guys? I realize that an excuse was needed for Dude to prove that he still has what it needs to be a "professional", but it just seems to be pointless. I guess it adds some suspense? What are they hoping to uncover? Who is supposed to be hiding in the alleys? What did this have to do with protecting the jail? I mean, otherwise, one or the other is ambling over to the hotel, day or night, but neither Dude nor Chance is keeping an eye out for bad guys while they do so. So much of this seems lazy plotting. The opening, with Ward Bond bringing in explosives, the only reason for introducing the explosives is so they can be used at the end. Clumsy plotting and exposition.

  7. I figure I'm going to be sent to Movie Hell, since I prefer "El Dorado" to "Rio Bravo." And I thoroughly enjoy "Rio Bravo" but I like "El Dorado" more because its shorter and I prefer Mitchum to Dean Martin. Though I think Martin does a great job in it.

    And I prefer James Caan to Ricky Nelson, though I think Elvis would have made a great Colorado. He loved westerns and likely would have been in Heaven making it.

  8. I have seen Rio Bravo several times, and I still do not get why its considered a classic. I too prefer El Dorado

  9. It's a classic because it's just sooo watchable. That's why.