Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rio Bravo

I watched “Rio Bravo” (1959) the other night and had a marvelous time. There’s nothing like sitting back with The Duke for an evening’s entertainment. The film’s director, Howard Hawks, always said a successful movie was one that had three good scenes and no bad ones. “Rio Bravo” boasts more than three good scenes, and while there are no bad scenes, there are some that could have been cut or shortened to bring down the film’s overlong running time of 141 minutes.

The genesis of “Rio Bravo” is well known by now. Hawks and star John Wayne so despised the critically acclaimed “High Noon” (1952) that they made “Rio Bravo” as a rebuttal against Noon’s Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper), a lawman who begs townspeople for help when three notorious gunslingers come to town to seek revenge against him.

In “Rio Bravo” Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) has for help his deputy Dude (Dean Martin), a drunkard who is battling alcoholism, and a crippled, cantankerous old man named Stumpy (Walter Brennan, in a glorious performance). They are later joined by a young gunfighter named Colorado (Ricky Nelson).

Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) is in jail for shooting and killing a man in cold blood. His brother Nathan (John Russell) controls the territory and is willing do anything, and hire anyone, to get his brother out of jail. Chance turns down the help of well meaning friends and townspeople, saying they don’t stand a chance against professional gunmen, and he’ll stick with his crew of a drunk, a cripple and a green kid.

The film is long but never boring. What could be trimmed are the scenes between Chance and Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a showgirl who gets off the stage and won’t leave, despite John T.’s orders. She sees Chance and is instantly attracted to him. Like a lot of women characters in Hawks’ movies, her voice has an appealing smoky quality to it, she can drink and spar on equal footing with her man and will fight alongside him. The scenes between the two are very entertaining, but maybe one or two less scenes between them would move things along. Still, Wayne and Dickinson have surprisingly good chemistry between them.

The film has a lot of highlights including the famous opening scene, which in five minutes sets up – without dialogue - the principal characters, their relationships and the situation that will make up the remainder of the movie. There’s also the tense scene where Chance and Dude follow a killer into a bar and try to identify him in the crowd. The climax involving dynamite is also well remembered.

One scene that should not work at all but does is the sing-a-long between Dude, Stumpy and Colorado. In addition to being a first rate filmmaker, Hawks was a shrewd businessman and knew that having a hot young singer in the film would help with the film’s box office. To the younger crowd, Ricky Nelson was a bigger name than Wayne and Martin, so the film appealed to all demographics. It was a huge box office hit in 1959.

It’s rumored that Elvis Presley wanted to do the film. He wanted to stretch his acting abilities, and besides, he was a huge fan of both Martin and Wayne, and would have given anything to share the screen with them. But Colonel Parker nixed it, and Elvis always listened to the Colonel. Too bad, Presley would have been perfect in the role. Could you imagine the Duke, the King, and Dino in one movie together? Talk about a cultural milestone!

More on the sing-along scene. I love Stumpy’s expressions as he’s singing along. He’s having a ball in the scene, and his joy translates to us. I love the whole relaxed, off-the-cuff quality of that entire sequence.

There’s a scene at the end where Dude tells Stumpy that their boss the sheriff has become smitten with Feathers. Stumpy cracks up at this and does an impression of Chance. Dude convulses with laughter. I’ve always wondered about that scene. It seems improvised, and Martin seems to be really laughing in the scene. Always the most natural and relaxed of performers, he seems to break character here. Hawks was a big believer in telling his actors to improvise and it could have been he and Brennan cooked this up ahead of time without telling Martin. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s a wonderful scene, one of the film’s many highlights.

I was disappointed in the DVD transfer, found on the recently released two-disc special edition. It seems awfully dark to me. It’s watchable enough, but compared to the clips found on the documentary features on the second disc, it’s decidedly less bright.

Hawks re-made “Rio Bravo” in 1967 as “El Dorado” with Robert Mitchum in the Dean Martin role and James Caan playing a character named Mississippi. It’s also hugely enjoyable but with more of an emphasis on comedy. It’s hard to choose between the two, but I would probably give the edge to the latter, due to the film’s shorter running time and a preference for Mitchum over Martin (as much as I like him).

“Rio Bravo” was dismissed by 1959 critics as just another western. Its reputation began when French critics began singing its praises. Say what you will about the French, but they championed the glories of American genre cinema at a time when American critics weren’t. They saw that a film like “Rio Bravo” could examine themes like duty, responsibility, friendship, standing up for what’s right, professionalism and male/female dynamics in the guise of a genre picture like a western. While being a supremely entertaining movie, “Rio Bravo” is also a sterling piece of art. That’s no mean feat.

Rating for “Rio Bravo”: Three and a half stars.

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