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Rio Bravo Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

Image In 1959, Howard Hawks hadn’t made a movie in four years; his last film, “Land of the Pharaohs,” was a critical misfire and died at the boxoffice. He went to Europe to nurse his wounds. At the same time, John Wayne had a run of mostly mediocre movies—“Blood Alley,” “The Conqueror,” “Legend of the Lost” (though “The Searchers” was in there, too)—and was looking for something to revive his stardom. Hawks and Wayne had worked well on “Red River”—Hawks’ first Western—so in a sense, Hawks ran for cover, bringing Wayne with him.

Jules Furthman wrote (or cowrote) the scripts for some of Hawks’ best movies—“Come and Get It” (1936), “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), “To Have and Have Not” (1944) and “The Big Sleep (1946). Leigh Brackett had also worked on “The Big Sleep,” and later worked for Hawks on “Hatari,” (1962), “Man’s Favorite Sport?” (1964), “El Dorado” (1966) and “Rio Lobo” (1970). He hired both of them to turn a short story by B.H. McCampbell into a screenplay.

Hawks considered Fred Zinnemann’s successful “High Noon” a great movie but disliked the idea that the lawman in the story tries to get help from the townspeople to confront a group of outlaws who intend to face off against the marshal at the title time. Hawks was always a strong believer in professionalism, and that professionals never asked anyone for help, never apologized to anyone. This is an unrealistic, somewhat melodramatic, point of view, but it suffuses Hawks’ movies and his personal creed. He wanted to make a reply to “High Noon,” and “Rio Bravo” was the vehicle. It’s often described as one of the greatest of all Hollywood Westerns, perhaps THE greatest; personally, I consider it a very good but not great Western. I prefer Westerns with more moral ambiguity and more action; my ideal Westerns range from “The Searchers” to “The Wild Bunch,” a film Hawks disparages in one of the featurettes on this high-definition DVD.

If you want it in your collection and have the equipment to play a high-definition DVD, this new DVD is an ideal way to add the film to your shelves. There’s very little Western scenery as such in the movie; there’s a brief opening shot of a wagon full of gold passing through a landscape dotted with saguaro cactus, but most of the rest of the film takes place in a small Western town. (It must be Rio Bravo, but the only time those words are spoken in the film is in a couple of lines Dean Martin sings over the end credits.) Old Tucson Studios, just west of Tucson, Arizona, was used as the location, triggering a rebirth of interest on the part of Hollywood in this location/studio, first built in late 1939, but used only occasionally until “Rio Bravo.” Since then, it has been used frequently, and another featurette tells the tale of Old Tucson. (Without 100% accuracy; it claims “The Quick and the Dead” was shot there, but that was filmed in a different Western town the other side of Tuscon.)

The story is simple, and the characters aren’t complicated, but are richly drawn. John T. Chance (John Wayne) is the sheriff of Rio Bravo, with only cranky, gimpy Stumpy (Walter Brennan, another Hawks favorite) as a deputy. The movie opens with a dialogue-free sequence running four minutes (originally intended to play behind the opening credits), in which quivering drunk Dude (Dean Martin) is humiliated by Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), who casually shoots a bystander dead. Chance and Stumpy lock Joe in jail, knowing that his brother Nathan (John Russell, looking great) and his gang are likely to try to break him out. The Burdettes pretty much own Rio Bravo, and the town lives in terror of them.

Meanwhile, sure that she has been cheating at cards (she’s mentioned in a flyer another sheriff sent out), Chance orders attractive “Feathers” (Angie Dickinson) to be on the next stage out of town—even though he’s attracted by her nearly insolent self-confidence. The scenes between Wayne and Dickinson are successfully modeled on the famous, show-stopping, exchanges between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Hawks’ “To Have and Have Not” (and again in “The Big Sleep”).

Dude was once Chance’s respected deputy, but was felled by falling for a bad woman, then returning to Rio Bravo a sodden drunk. But Chance has never given up on him, and keeps Dude’s guns, well cared-for, in the sheriff’s office. When one of Burdette’s men guns down Chance’s friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), Dude shows his worth in the confrontation that follows. Wheeler also brought to town young gunslinger Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson), who has impressed Chance with his decency and confidence as a gunman. Now Chance has one more deputy to help him face Burdette and his men. In the meantime, Chance and Feathers—who never gets on that stage—amuse themselves by romantic wisecracks.

There’s really very little story to “Rio Bravo,” especially for a movie that runs almost two and a half hours, and there’s virtually no action for most of that length. But you’re not likely to notice and/or care—the dialogue is so rich and entertaining, the characters so well-drawn (if familiar), the situation built on such a solid basis of increasing tension, that the movie really is nearly the classic its staunchest defenders claim.

Wayne, of course, is Wayne—much like he was in all his other Westerns, and that’s great. There has never been another star quite like him, who filled quite the same space on screen, who embodied this kind of character so thoroughly and convincingly. Maybe he couldn’t have played Restoration comedy, but when Wayne showed up in that red shirt and vest, with that battered hat and pistol (or, as here, rifle) at the ready, you absolutely believed him. He’s Cary Grant’s only rival for Greatest Movie Star of All Time, and no one has come along since his death who comes anywhere near embodying what he did so long and so well. For example, if someone unwisely wanted to make a movie about Wayne, who the hell could they find to play the leading role? Everyone—no exceptions—would seem inadequate.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had recently broken up, and Martin was considering a career as a dramatic actor. He’d already been excellent in “The Young Lions” and “Some Came Running” (both 1958), and he’s excellent again here. But he soon lapsed back into comedies and musicals, even though he did have straight roles in two other Westerns later on, reuniting with Wayne for “The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965) and holding his own opposite Robert Mitchum in “5 Card Stud” (1968). But all along, Dino always preferred golf to performing, and sauntered his way genially through the rest of his career. He does get to sing in “Rio Bravo,” in a duet with Ricky Nelson on a guitar.

As for Nelson, Hawks had known him since his earliest childhood, having long been a friend of Ricky’s incredible father Ozzie. Ricky, too, was hoping to launch himself as a dramatic actor, but it didn’t take; his performance here is adequate, and he’s charismatic, but he isn’t very convincing. Like Dean, though, he sings well—though this is certainly not a musical.

Walter Brennan was currently doing his “Real McCoys” TV series, in which he played a kindly, grandfatherly version of the usual irascible old coot he’d been playing since he was in his 30s. He lost all his teeth early on, and had two modes available: teeth in and teeth out; this is a teeth out job. He won supporting-actor Oscars for “Come and Get It” (co-directed by Hawks), “Kentucky” (1939) and “The Westerner” (1941), in which he was an indelible Judge Roy Bean. He was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his role in Hawks’ “Sergeant York” (1942). He’s wonderfully colorful in “Rio Bravo,” a distillation of all the cackling, gun-totin’ old coots who turned up in so many Westerns. Yeah, you’ve seen this guy before, but Brennan plays this guy to sheer perfection in “Rio Bravo.”

Angie Dickinson’s career was just getting started with “Rio Bravo,” and she never really again got a role quite this prominent in a film of this stature—for “Rio Bravo” was an enormous hit, the second biggest-grossing film of 1959. It re-established Hawks as a major director and fully re-energized Wayne’s Western career.

This high-definition disc looks simply great; the colors are rich, the photography very sharp, especially for Technicolor, and the sound solid and realistic, if not dimensional. The print is nearly flawless; evidently some degree of restoration was involved, but there’s nothing on the disc itself about this.

The commentary track by Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter—recorded separately—is especially good. Seemingly every question anyone might have about the film is answered entertainingly by these two, clearly well-informed on Hawks and this movie in particular. Carpenter is actually much better here as a commentator than he has been on the films he directed himself. An episode on Hawks of Schickel’s “The Men Who Made the Movies” is also included; as with almost all of Schickel’s work of this nature, it’s thorough, detailed and fascinating. He was able to film several interviews with the dry, laconic, wry Hawks himself; the director comes across very well—unpretentious, but not crabbily dismissive of his work (as John Ford often was); he knows what he did well, and what he didn’t do well. I was greatly amused by Hawks during a question-and-answer session with him that I was fortunate enough to attend. Someone in the audience praised Hawks’ “Red Line 7000,” saying it was a classic. Hawks replied, dryly, that he was sorry to hear the speaker say that, “because that was a piece of shit.”

On the other hand, when someone asked him why the plots of “Rio Bravo,” “El Dorado” and “Rio Lobo” were so similar, Hawks somewhat testily replied that they were nothing alike. Why, in “Rio Bravo” the young gunslinger (Ricky Nelson) was a great shot, while in “El Dorado,” the young guy (James Caan) was a LOUSY shot. The audience decided not to pursue that line of questioning.

There’s a long list of directors like Hawks—people who came along when talkies were in their infancy, and learned how to use the tools of their trade while successfully (or sometimes not) battling the studio executives for the right to make the kind of movies the directors themselves wanted to make. Seeing “Rio Bravo” now is almost a relaxing experience—it wasn’t when it was new—because it does take its own sweet time to tell its story, it doesn’t add action for the sake of action (and to keep the attention of dopes in the audience); it uses familiar characters, even stereotypes, but makes them seem fresh and new once more. And now it is available in high definition, for home theater buffs with a taste for John Wayne, Westerns and/or Howard Hawks.

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