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Rio Bravo (1959)


It’s hard to measure perfection in films, there’s always something to complain about. They come along occasionally, and sometimes you only realize it after having gone back and seeing them a second or third time; repetition is a good way of proving it. But sometimes all you need is one viewing, and even if there are quibbles with the final product, close enough can be good enough. Such is the case with Rio Bravo.

In 1958, Howard Hawks had been in self-imposed European exile from Hollywood for some four years, the result of his ill-judged directorship of the epic flop Land of the Pharaohs. Casting about for another project to bring him back into the game, he seized upon a smart new Western script (by Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, who also penned The Big Sleep for Hawks) that contained elements for at least two or three lesser films. Not to mention that, it had a fair amount of the smart dialogue he was known for, and also a heavy emphasis on a couple of his favorite themes, particularly professionalism. When Hawks had assembled the cast it was almost an overkill of star power, bringing together John Wayne (who hadn’t done a western since 1956’s The Searchers and was looking to get back in the saddle), popular singer and budding actor Dean Martin, TV and rock idol Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson, a hot young chippie who knew her way around the Rat Pack. Of course, sticking all these wildly disparate stars out in the desert and having them fight bad guys while trading quips could have easily been a disaster (Dino on horseback?). But this is Howard Hawks, after all. And you have to figure that the man responsible for The Big Sleep was simply not going to allow himself two flops in a row.

Shifting gracefully into middle age, Wayne plays John T. Chance, an ex-gunslinger turned sheriff for a tiny speck of a Texas town. Dino proves that he has a speck of depth below the Vegas nightclub-drunk shtick, playing Chance’s barely recovering drunk of a deputy; once called simply Dude, he’s now nicknamed ‘Borachón,’ or drunk, by the local Mexicans. In the nicely handled and practically dialogue-free establishing scenes, Hawks sets up Dude as the once-proud man seeking redemption, Chance as the grumpy embodiment of law and order, and also the reason they’re likely to die. Barely a minute into the film, and Wayne has arrested for murder the brother of a wealthy local rancher with dozens of gunmen at the ready. So it’s the two of them, plus a second deputy Stumpy (Walter Brennan doing his patented old codger comic relief bit to crusty perfection), alone against the odds, with the U.S. Marshall at least six days — and several fantastically harum-scarum shootouts (including one with an imaginative use for dynamite) — away.

Although it’s a classic Western outnumbered and outgunned scenario, not unlike High Noon, in Rio Bravo Hawks actually wanted to make a riposte to what he saw as that film’s highly immoral premise. Unlike that film’s sheriff, who pleads for help from his town’s civilians, Chance is constantly turning down help, reasoning that having armed amateurs around would simply give the rancher’s gunsels ‘more targets to shoot at.’ Better to leave it to the professionals, and it’s hard to imagine a film more in love with professionalism. The characters are constantly being graded by each other on how ‘good’ they are: ‘That was good;’ ‘You were good in there;’ ‘Is he any good?’ The backdrop to the action and all this talk of professionalism is Dude’s fight to kick the bottle and become again the top-notch officer of the law he’d once been. Used to playing a more comical type of drunk, Dino does a decent job here portraying a once-proud man consumed with self-loathing and worry; it’s bad enough how high the odds are stacked against he and Chance, but imagine doing it while having the shakes. It’s a richer type of characterization than we’re used to from Westerns, and a welcome one.

Also rare in Westerns, and indicative of Hawks’ touch here, is Chance’s romantic interest, an itinerant possible card-cheat called Feathers (Dickinson, in full va-va-voom bloom). In most male-centric films of this type, scenes involving the hero’s love interest are usually a snooze, like interstitial dialogue in a musical, just something to get through. But Feathers’ flirtation with the easily befuddled Chance is something to watch: quick-witted, wry, and ripe with innuendo.

Does all this add up to perfection? It’s hard to say, as there are quibbles one can definitely have with the film. But when presented with so many perfectly enjoyable elements working together in unison, it just seem rude to complain — the idea of Wayne and Dino playing cowboys together is fantastic enough, but adding in Dickinson, and then Hawks’ salty give-and-take, is more than your average moviegoer can reasonably expect to be hit with when the lights go down. Rio Bravo may not be a perfect film, but it’s close enough as to not matter.