Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review – Rio Bravo

April 28, 2011

Rio Bravo – U.S., 1959

I suppose the temptation was just too much to resist. Here were two of the most famous singers in the U.S. in the same movie and on the screen at the same time. They simply had to break out into song. Perhaps it’s what audiences wanted, the way they wanted to see Hitchcock on screen at some point during one of his films. So after a powerful scene in which a character overcomes a major personal obstacle, the film’s dramatic elements are put on hold temporarily so that Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson can serenade the audience. First, Dean gets to sing lead, and then as if sensing the thoughts of the females in the audience, a character in the film asks for an encore, this time from the kid. It is a request that Ricky Nelson obliges of course. The scene is completely unnecessary and adds nothing to the film. In addition, there was little in the film prior to that scene to indicate that either of their characters could belt out tunes in perfect pitch.

The film that includes this mini-concert is Howard Hawks’ otherwise excellent Rio Bravo. The film takes place in a small Western town in the middle of nowhere that has an eerie claustrophobic feel to it. The local sheriff’s office faces the edge of the town so that the sheriff can see who’s coming and going. There’s a coach that arrives and departs daily. There’s a hotel run by a rather peculiar character named Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) and his extremely jealous wife Consuela (Estelita Rodriquez). And there are two saloons, one of which is continually frequented by men working for a man by the name of Nathan Burdette (John Russell). In this bar, it can be extremely dangerous to try to enforce the law. Perhaps that’s why the local sheriff tries to arrest Russell’s brother Joe in the other bar. His initial attempt fails; his second attempt succeeds thanks to the same person who was responsible for the failure of the first attempt, a man affectionately known as Dude (Dean Martin). The sheriff’s success is a bit of double-edge sword; sure, he got his man, but it’s only a matter of time before Burdette comes to spring him.

The sheriff is John T. Chance (John Wayne), a man who is well aware of the predicament he is in. We can see it in both his face and his actions. His eyes make a point of noticing the people around him, especially the ones lounging outside the sheriff’s office, and the expression on his face betrays his worry that an attack could come at any moment and from any angle. When an old friend offers to help him, he quickly declines the offer, reasoning that since Burdette has thirty to forty men at his disposal, it’s probably better not to put anyone else’s life in danger. The only thing he can do is try to hold off Burdette’s men until the Marshall arrives to take custody of Joe. Helping him in this endeavor are a recovering alcoholic and a man with a very noticeable limp referred to as Stumpy (Walter Brennan). That makes it something like thirty to three, advantage Burdette.

Like the best Westerns, Rio Bravo is a character-driven film rather than one that focuses on action and gun duels. A lot of screen time is devoted to the fragile friendship that exists between Chance and Dude, and their conversations are unusually realistic. There’s an interesting moment when the two of them discuss who should enter a bar through the front door and who should enter through the back door. Both want to enter through the front. For one, it’s a matter of survival; for the other, it’s a matter of redemption. Redemption wins out, and the scene that follows is rather emotional, as Dude battles his demons in front of men just itching for an opportunity to pick up their weapons and shoot him.

The film also introduces us to a woman who comes to be known as Feathers (Angie Dickinson). She comes in on the coach looking for a new start in life, only to find out that her past has followed her there. She soon takes a liking to Chance, yet can’t completely understand why. Her scenes with him cackle with both energy and emotion, and the scene in which they reveal their pasts to each other is priceless. At one point, Feathers says to Chance, “Get a good night’s sleep.” His reply is perfect: “You’re not helping me any.” Despite Chance’s warnings, Feathers finds herself trying to help him, yet it soon becomes clear that her life so far has not prepared her for the violence she witnesses. The film also stars Ricky Nelson as “Colorado” Ryan, a young man who earns Chance’s respect by initially not getting involved. Chance sees this as smart, as a sign that Colorado doesn’t feel the need to show off his talents with a gun. We suspect he’ll eventually change his mind.

Like most Westerns, Rio Bravo ends with a gun fight between the forces of right and wrong, and yet after a good beginning, it veers off course. The characters talk a bit too much, and what they say and do makes it seem as if they are completely unaware of the gravity of the situation they are in. The result of this is a scene that should cause your heart to race, yet comes across as fairly uneventful. Fortunately, the scene that follows it wraps the film up nicely.

There is much to admire about Rio Bravo, from its strong performances to its realistic setting, and yet what I liked most about the film is the way it understood the contradictions and complexities that accompanied settlers as they followed Manifest Destiny. Sure, it offered many people the chance to prosper, yet it also elevated unscrupulous men to positions of power. Therefore, it could be a perilous place for people who tried to enforce the law or for those who relied on it to protect them. Wayne plays Chance as a man who is completely aware of this and accepts it, and his performance in the film is one of his best. However, as good as Wayne is, it is Dean Martin that steals the film. Watch the way Martin reacts whenever liquor is put in front of him and the way he uses his hands to show the physical effects of going cold turkey. He gets it. Rio Bravo remains a powerful and emotional film that has stood the test of time. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

4 stars

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