There is so much to praise about Rio Bravo, but let’s begin with the story. Written in part by Leigh Brackett, here we have a rare female screenwriter whose credits include The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and none other than The Empire Strikes Back. She began her career writing science fiction short stories. She would eventually find herself hired by director Howard Hawks to write several films with John Wayne Jules Furthman is the other writer, and this was his last screenplay. Having been born in late 19th century, his career dated back to the silent film era. The unusual merits of this Western begin with these two writing careers.
- Director: Howard Hawks
- Writer: Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett
- Cast: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Russell
A disgraced deputy known as “Dude” (Dean Martin) has hit rock bottom as a drunk. No longer respected as an authority figure, his chance at redemption comes when the murder of an innocent bystander sets into motion a series of tumultuous events. Caught in the mix are John T. Chance (John Wayne), a Texas sheriff, and the Burdette brothers. Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) is the murderer at the beginning of the film, while his brother Nathan is determined to set him free. And this only begins to describe the tangled web weaved masterfully by Hawks.
With the exception of Carlos, a Mexican hotel owner written with an overtly stereotyped speaking quality, Rio Bravo is filled with various complex relationships. On one hand you have Dude and Chance, whose friendship seems purely created by circumstances. But there is more to the dynamic of their relationship, with a significant amount of tension caused by Dude’s alcoholism and his self-defeating attitude. Their alliance seems consistently on the brink of rupturing. Even the warm relationship between Chance and a young woman named Feathers (Angie Dickinson) is filled with suggestive advances that go beyond one-dimensional romance. It is refreshing that these kinds of complex relationships occur in a genre often relegated to mere archetypal good guys versus bad guys. In this way, Rio Bravo is rich with an anti-aging potion of sorts. This is a classic that holds up more than half a century after its premiere, while John Wayne is as good here is I’ve ever seen him and Dean Martin is a welcomed addition to the genre.
The setting is almost as much of a character within the story, much like in High Noon, another western classic. It is interesting to note that Rio Bravo was intended as a response to High Noon, which is said to function as an allegory for blacklisting in Hollywood. The atmosphere in this film is brilliant, and I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that only four close-ups occur in the entire film. The opening scene without dialogue is perfectly paced, and there’s a scene early in the film where Dude and Chance walk quietly at night in hopes of cornering a suspect. Moments like this are exquisite in their suspense. I’m reminded of the chase sequences in No Country for Old Men, but without as much violence, of course, since we’re still talking about the 1950′s here.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
This film has nearly everything you could ask for in a western – gun battles, a looming showdown, a variety of distinctive characters, and a convincing love interest. Despite small moments that feel somewhat unlikely, such as the bar scene where blood drips on a beer mug, Rio Bravo is great storytelling – brought to life with an engaging palette of colors, smooth pacing and well developed characters. Ebert’s opening paragraph sets appropriate context for a review that raves about this masterpiece. How interesting that Hawks had come to believe he was finished in his career and then came back to direct this classic. I agree with Ebert that this film is uncommonly absorbing. I look forward to seeing it on the big screen someday, as that will be a great day at the cinema. My only point of contention with Ebert would be that I do believe that Brennan’s comic relief does at times overstep. But in the end, Ebert best summarizes the performances when he states, “It is a Western with all of the artifice of the genre, but the characters and their connections take on a curious reality; within this closed system, their relationships have a psychological plausibility.”
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Rio Bravo? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Tokyo Story
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo this week, he now has 354 under his belt and less than 15 films left to go.