Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan
Howard Hawks didn’t like High Noon. Apparently, he didn’t like how the character of the sheriff played by Gary Cooper was dependent on the townspeople, the ones who turned their backs on him. Hawks held fast to the idea that a sheriff in a classic western should be strong, dependent on no one. So he made Rio Bravo to have a similar situation to High Noon, but a different leading character.
Sheriff Chance (Wayne, playing Wayne), has arrested Joe Burdette, the brother of an infamous wealthy criminal Nathan Burdette. Figuring that Nathan will come gunning for his brother, he enlists the help of Dude (Martin), an alcoholic trying to go straight, Colorado (Nelson), a young gunfighter, and Stumpy (Brennan), a crippled prison guard.
This is straight-up classic western, down to the good guys wearing white and the bad guys wearing black. There’s no attempt to make it any more than what it is, which is exactly what makes it fun. It’s just a tale of good versus evil in the idealized American west. I really can’t fault it for that; personally, I tend to like my westerns with more bite, more of a message, or with more characters who have shades of grey. But y’know, sometimes, you just want a classic western, and that’s what Rio Bravo is.
There’s a zaniness that I liked in this film. It’s not all zany; the main story is played straight, but many of the “in between” moments have a lightness to them, and Hawks is just off his rocker enough to deftly pull the movie from one mood to another without it ever seeming schizophrenic. Walter Brennan is practically a walking cartoon character in this film, running his mouth every chance he can get, making me snicker every moment. There’s a musical number – because sure, you cast Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, and of course you need a musical number! Angie Dickinson plays Feathers, a professional gambler/con artist trying to go straight. She serves mostly as a romantic interest for John Wayne, but the interaction between the two of them is very amusing. They talk over one another, bicker, and get flustered. It’s amusing, watching John Wayne get flustered. You don’t see that very often. There are even moments of forensic analysis, as Dean Martin’s character shrewdly reasons who a shooter must be based on evidence, NOT just “he had a mean look on his face.” Even in the final gunfight standoff, the good guys are all wisecracking at one another. Rio Bravo flirts with seriousness, but never really crosses that line. As someone who, as stated above, really wouldn’t choose to watch a classic western, I like that Hawks keeps me on my toes.
I find it a little ironic that Hawks, determined to make the antithesis of High Noon, wound up using the same composer, Dimitri Tiomkin. Tiomkin composed “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” the theme of High Noon, and one of my favorite themes in film. Similarly, in Rio Bravo, he wrote one theme in particular that plays again and again. In the movie, the theme plays as the bad guys taunt the good guys. Both themes are similar in tone – they can’t help but be, considering they were written by the same composer. Perhaps Hawks wanted it that way; perhaps he wanted to aurally remind me of High Noon while I was watching Rio Bravo in order to then emphasize the differences in characterization. Personally, though, I found it distracting. It was as if Hawks was trying too hard to differentiate his work from High Noon. You didn’t like High Noon. I get it. Use a different composer.
The performances in the film are mostly strong. Ricky Nelson is clearly the weakest link, having all the emotional range of a pet rock, but Hawks uses him as little as possible. When he sings in the musical number, it’s the most words he speaks in a row. Good thing. John Wayne is, well, John Wayne. He’s the Duke. I don’t get the feeling that this role was a particular stretch for him, and it certainly can’t compare with his performance in The Searchers, but he’s just terrific at being the smart, reserved, dependable sheriff. He can smart-aleck with the rest of his buddies when the mood calls for it, and take down the baddies when he has to. Dean Martin is, surprisingly, the strongest actor in the film, playing a recovering alcoholic trying desperately to stay on the wagon. He’s dirty, dingy, sweaty, and fighting himself in nearly every scene. I never think of Dean Martin as an actor, more a lounge act performer, but he really proves me wrong as Dude. He’s physically committed to his role every step of the way, and I commend him.
I would never call Rio Bravo a favorite film of mine. It’s a little too long, clocking in at just under two and a half hours, and a little too cheesy, but it is also entirely aware of its own limitations. It is a classic western, and that is all it aspires to be. It doesn’t try to be allegorical, symbolic, or heavyweight. It’s a western. And it’s a really good one at that.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10