Posted by: dougery | April 16, 2012

My Year of Westerns, Part Seven: Rio Bravo (1959)

The conflict within Rio Bravo couldn’t be simpler. An innocent man is killed. The murderer is locked up. The murderer’s brother turns up demanding the release of his kin. A variety of men and women take sides. There is violence, resolution. And yet what mileage Howard Hawks gets out of such a compact plot.

Normally, such a lean story would not lend itself to, um, certain weirdnesses. Weirdnesses like a pair of gunslingers–The Dude (Dean Martin) and Colorado (Rick Nelson)–crooning away in a boarded up jail right before the climactic stand-off. Weirdnesses like the 5′ 5″ former card-cheat Feathers (Angie Dickinson) completely owning the 6′ 4″ John T Chance (John Wayne) in nearly every sense of the word, in nearly every scene the two share. Weirdnesses like the gruff John Wayne playing courier and delivering some red lingerie that the hotel proprietor Carlos Robante has ordered for his wife Consuela.

These weirdnesses are allowed to function (and function so seamlessly) because the film’s core is so sound by comparison, particularly Rio Bravo‘s themes. Redemption is of enormous importance to the film’s characters, in particular, the idea of “coming into one’s own.” The Dude has a bit of a problem with staying sober. We’ve already hinted at Feathers’s duplicitous past. To the average passerby, Colorado is more Bieber than Gunslinger. Even Stumpy, a man loyal to the sheriff but over-the-hill and crippled, must prove his worth (even if much of that seemingly lay in comic relief). And for the villains “coming into one’s own” means finding a bullet or a bailiff.

John Wayne’s character John T Chance, or just Chance as the film goes out of its way to call him, is an interesting study here. Chance is always near or the center of the film’s action, yet he is almost never the acting agent. The film flows through Chance, the other characters bounce off of him, are led by him, intimidated by him, eager to prove him wrong, want to kill him, help him succeed, mock him, or (however somewhat inexplicably*) want to fuck him.

*I mean seriously, the sheriff’s ‘badge’ must be really impressive because in any other reality Angie is heading Rick Nelson or Dean Martin’s way.

I enjoy that all of the main players have one word cognomens like Dude, Chance, Stumpy, Feathers, etc. Its as if the operating logic of the film has boiled down the characters to a single idea, then allows their actions to expand that premise outward. Take Colorado for instance. We never do learn his real name. What we do know is that he is some hot shot hired gun. Someone young and talented enough to have a one word nickname, even one that is an American state or river or whatever. Either way it is western, it is big, it is powerful, all things you might not think of when you see a mug shot of Rick Nelson. The film then allows the character to fill the meaning behind the name with his actions. This same kind of ‘filling’ naming process holds true for the other characters as well. Part of the enjoyment of watching the movie is seeing how these folks resemble their names and in what ways they don’t.

There is a very staged-ness about the whole film that mimics the way these character names work. While watching Rio Bravo I couldn’t help but always be reminded I was watching a movie. I’m not sure if the set looked too flat or the backdrops fake or the action too choreographed or what. There is the famous fact that there are only 4 close-ups used in the entire movie, perhaps the panning, drop-back approach lends itself to a different viewing experience. Hawks here favors a detached, less insistent narration where the director isn’t always visually screaming at you what is important or focusing in on some detail to prove how ‘real’ is staged set-up is.

The ‘singing’ scene springs to mind as a particularly false moment, but an amazing one at that. Dean Martin is laying on his back with his hat down low on his face, his head bent inward against his chest and yet that voice, he’s just belting it out. It is obviously canned, but then something odd happens and all of this false feeling morphs back into genuine emotion again. The effect is transcendent to say the least.

Grade: 4-of-a-kind (5s with an 8 backer)

Next up: Pale Rider


  1. I agree with what you’re saying. There is a lot of moments that remind you, you’re watching a movie. But I still really dug it. Nice pick

    • I think the self-consciously cinematic moments are what takes this movie to the next level. Amazing bit of cinema, this.

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