Look, there’s no two ways about it: Leslie Halliwell, the English film critic, once described Rio Bravo as “cheerfully overlong”, and he was right. You want a tight, economical, brutal Western, one that doesn’t waste time and kicks you from your seat 80 minutes after the opening credits? That was Ride Lonesome, a few weeks back. Thursday night at the Heights, as part of our wonderful Howard Hawks series, we’re screening Rio Bravo, all 141 glorious minutes. Like a lot of Hawks’ movies, this one is about character. It’s about people talking. Sure, it’s got its gunplay and its chases and fisticuffs and Angie Dickinson dressed all sexy, but this thing meanders like the Mississippi River. And that’s what’s so damn great about it.
The plot is nothing new: bad guys are coming to the town of Rio Bravo, and John Wayne’s sheriff John T. Chance has to stop them. He is aided, pretty much against his better interests (and despite his complaints), by a drunk, Dude (or Borrachón, which is ‘drunk’ in Spanish), played by Dean Martin; by a Colorado Ryan, who is also a crooner, and played by TV heartthrob Ricky Nelson, of ABC’s Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; and by an old dude named Stumpy, played with near toothless glee by Walter Brennan, who was lucky to live in a time when there were roles a-plenty for guys like him. Angie Dickinson’s Feathers is on hand to show off her acting chops (she’s fantastic, and has brilliant comic timing), and to show the world that John Wayne has no romantic chemistry at all. I mean, none.
Rio Bravo shouldn’t work. There’s so much talking, so much lovely, lovely talking. Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin both sing. That makes no sense, but it works. In fact, every God damn thing in this movie works. The sets, the bad guy (who has a lot in common with the heroes as it turns out), the final dynamite showdown, the songs. This is where John Wayne learned to be funny, which served him really, really well. Imagine the camaraderie that supposedly makes those Ocean’s 11 movies work (so they say), and marvel here at how smoothly this can go, how sheer personality–but in service to well-written characters in a nice plot–can carry a film.
This movie also works in spite of its more nefarious motives. Hawks, a noted right-winger (along with John Wayne, natch), loathed the critically acclaimed High Noon, which was seen as a parable for the McCarthy witch-hunts. Wayne, in fact, gloated that he was proud to have run Noon’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, out of town. Supposedly, Hawks scoffed that it was cowardly for the sheriff in High Noon to go around begging for help. “I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn’t my idea of a good western sheriff,” he was noted as saying. Thus, he wanted to make a good movie about a “good western sheriff”, and Rio Bravo was it.
This strikes me as weird for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that in Rio Bravo, Wayne’s sheriff does get help, from an old man and a drunk, for cryin’ out loud. Secondly, Hawks typically didn’t rely on heroes who worked solo–usually his movies are ensemble numbers, or feature stars who work within a group, a team of heroes (usually men), struggling together. Third, High Noon stars Gary Cooper, a noted right-winger himself, and a friend of Howard Hawks, who worked in two of the director’s movies, and won an Oscar in one of them (Sergeant York.)
None of this matters because Rio Bravo is wonderful (and a hell of a lot more appealing to me than the dry High Noon) and worth seeing, especially in this restored digital edition. One show only, at 7:30 Thursday night, and tickets are available here.