Director: Howard Hawks; Screenplay: Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell; Cinematography: Russell Harlan; Studio: Warner Brothers; Producer: Howard Hawks; Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: John Wayne (Sheriff John T. Chance), Dean Martin (Dude), Ricky Nelson (Colorado Ryan), Walter Brennan (Stumpy), Angie Dickinson (Feathers), Ward Bond (Pat Wheeler), John Russell (Nathan Burdette), Claude Akins (Joe Burdette), Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (Carlos Robante), Estelita Rodriguez (Consuelo Robante)
“I didn’t like High Noon. I said it’s phony. A fella’s supposed to be good, supposed to be good with a gun. He runs around like a wet chicken trying to get people to help him and eventually his Quaker wife saves his guts. I said that’s ridiculous. The man wasn’t a professional.”
- Howard Hawks
And here is the genesis of what I consider to be one of the two finest westerns ever made (you’ll have to stay tuned to find out the other!). In a typical moment of candor, director Howard Hawks outlines why he felt compelled to make Rio Bravo and what he intended to get across in detailing the story of a core group of men standing alone in upholding the law. Returning from four years of self-imposed exile in Europe, Hawks came back to Hollywood intending to show how he felt professionals were supposed to act under pressure. It is the supreme example of what has since come to be seen as the “Hawksian man,” as John T. Chance does his job without complaint and expects nothing no unsolicited from those around him.
After seeing quotes like the one above, I don’t think there is a single director that I would like to just sit and hear talk about movies more than Howard Hawks. The man is brutally honest (search for his opinion on The Wild Bunch if you need further proof) and is not above pointing out what he perceives as serious failings in films, whether his own or others. The thing that I love so much about Hawks and situations like these is that whereas such criticisms would come across as whining when made by others, with Hawks it never does. The reason is, just like Chance in Rio Bravo, Hawks doesn’t simply complain about a situation and leave it at that – he sets out to show why _he_ is correct in what he is doing. Hawks didn’t just criticize High Noon. He clearly stated what he felt was wrong with the lauded Zinneman picture, and then made a movie in response that showed his vision and film to be superior.
The cast of personalities assembled for the production mirrors the motley crew that comes together to protect the prisoner they are holding in the film. In John Wayne, Hawks had the most iconic figure in western movies, if not in all of Hollywood. Regardless of whatever feelings one might hold toward Wayne’s acting ability – I’m on record many times on this blog feeling he’s unfairly dismissed as being one-dimensional – his inclusion in a western gives it some form of instant credibility. The surprise comes in looking at those that are gathered around him in the film – with the exception of Walter Brennan, it is a collection of actors and personalities that one would expect to have clashed with that of Wayne. Dean Martin was a crooner who would seem more comfortable in a Las Vegas lounge than portraying a gunslinger on the frontier. Ricky Nelson was a wildly popular rock n’ roll star, with a clean-cut image and with his greatest appeal being to the teenybopper crowd. Angie Dickinson was tapped to play the love interest in the film, attempting to make a romance with Wayne believable despite an obvious age difference that spanned nearly 30 years. The one obvious selection was Walter Brennan, who plays a variation on his usual character but is actually more endearing in this role than in any other I’ve seen him in.
Amazingly, with this unusual assembly of actors, everything gels. The plot is surprisingly simple for westerns of the era, and moves at a pace that could be considered meandering. The story centers on Sheriff Chance (John Wayne) arresting Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder. While this would normally be a routine duty for Chance and his deputy Dude (Dean Martin), this situation is different because of whom Burdette is. His brother, Nathan (John Russell), is a wealthy rancher who holds much power in Rio Bravo. The town begins to brace itself for trouble, fully expecting Nathan to ride into town with his men and break his brother out of jail. Chance vows to stand his ground, despite the fact the only help he has will come from Dude and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a cripple who is good for little more than guard duty.
Not only does Chance declare that he and his men will hold Burdette until he can be taken to trial, he rebuffs any attempts at assistance. He views this as the job that he, Dude and Stumpy signed on for, and it is their own responsibility to see that Joe stays in jail. When Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), a merchant from Fort Worth, rolls into town with his men and offers assistance, Chance turns him away. He doesn’t want anyone involved who doesn’t choose to involve themselves, meaning Wheeler's hired hands are not expected to fight. Eventually, Pat is killed for offering assistance to Chance, and a young gunslinger who worked for him decides to join forces with the Sheriff. Colorado (Ricky Nelson) is seen as the fastest gun around and Chance swears him in. Further complicating the tense few days is the arrival of a beautiful woman known only as Feathers (Angie Dickinson), who slowly begins to win the heart of Chance.
Wayne, as Sheriff John T. Chance, is his usual solid self. I suppose that a cynical observer could make the claim that he is simply playing his usual character (oh such poor misguided souls!), but there is something unique about Chance. He is as steadfast as other memorable Wayne characters, but shows some tenderness in the way that he allows himself to be melted by Feathers. Brennan reaffirms the fact that no one could play the curmudgeonly old sidekick like he could and I would rank Stumpy as possibly my favorite Brennan performance. His constant needling of Chance, his complete candidness toward Dude, his shoot first ask questions later outlook in guarding the jail – he becomes a character that it’s impossible not to like. Ricky Nelson is usually maligned as the glaring weakness in the cast and the entire film. I’ll admit that his acting chops pale in comparison to those that he is working with, but I think that Hawks handles him perfectly. Colorado is rarely given center stage and is never left alone to be the driving force of action. When we see Colorado, it is usually as an observer or in a clearly secondary position – being lectured by Chance, listening to Feathers vent, singing with the other guys in the jail. Nothing about Nelson’s performance bothers me, as it is clearly secondary and downplayed.
The best performance to me is the one that most shocked me when I saw the movie for the first time. Not having been around at the time of the film’s release, I have always wondered what the reaction was to hearing of Dean Martin being cast as a cowboy opposite John Wayne. Watching it decades later, I was still thinking what a disaster this could potentially turn out to be. I couldn’t have been any more wrong. Playing the Dude, an alcoholic fighting desperately to stay away from liquor, Martin manages to make the struggle feel authentic. You feel for him as she actually considers digging into a spittoon for the money to buy a drink. You can understand the pressure he must be feeling to be battling the bottle and the Burdette gang simultaneously. Ultimately, I think it is Martin’s irrepressible charisma that makes his performance go over so well. On and off screen the man had a magnetism that made it hard not to be drawn to him. This is felt in the Dude and makes you want to see him overcome his demons.
Hawks had successfully made a western before and I included Red River in this very same countdown. The thing that I think sets Rio Bravo apart and elevates it to a level that even the great Red River doesn’t attain, is the fact that it’s a story that just happens to be set in the west. You could (and other directors would in the future) transplant this same story into wildly different settings and it would still work. There are undoubtedly some great shootouts and sequences of gunplay, but that is not the focus of the film. The true emphasis of the story is on the camaraderie that develops between Chance, Dude, Stumpy and even Colorado to a certain degree. It’s the idea that these three (or four, if including Colorado) have sworn to stick together and see a job done, regardless of who lines up against them or the odds being faced. Hawks was a genius in portraying all-male companionship and the strong bonds that develop between friends.
There any number of directorial decisions that demonstrate why I place Howard Hawks in rarefied air. The scene in which Chance and Dude chase a gunman into the Burdette saloon but cannot find him is near perfection. The way that the scene moves toward its conclusion is incredible. The position of the gunman is revealed by drops of blood falling from the ceiling into a glass on the bar. Hawks then quickly cuts to a vantage point from the rafters, giving the same view as that of the fleeing gunman, just in time to see Dude get the drop on him (as if he’s pulling his gun on you!) and shooting him dead. There are even smaller, seemingly minor decisions that Hawks makes that are so valuable in the feel of the film. The nighttime scenes, with the jail surrounded by darkness and the incessant playing of the “Mexican Death Song” are outstanding. Just the simple, repetitive inclusion of the song playing above everything is so effective.
I’m sure that most everyone has heard Quentin Tarantino talk about his “Rio Bravo test” that he would give to potential girlfriends. He would show the film to a girl and if she reacted positively, he’d determine it was a relationship worth pursuing. I’ve never taken things that far, but I do think that Rio Bravo is a pretty good litmus test of how much I agree with someone in terms of movie tastes. I am always shocked when I meet someone that doesn’t like this movie.
Other Contenders for 1959: A lot of excellent movies in 1959. Foremost among them for me is another western and B-movie classic Ride Lonesome. This is my favorite of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott films and I think that it deserves mention alongside other great westerns. Arguably the greatest comedy ever made was released in this year with Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. There are other comedies that I prefer, but this certainly ranks among the very best. Jack Lemmon was an amazing actor, as was Tony Curtis, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off of the gorgeous Marilyn Monroe.
I’ve never been a particularly ardent fan of François Truffaut, but The 400 Blows would be my top choice of his entire filmography. I have always been a huge fan of Hitchcock, but I actually rate North By Northwest somewhat lower than a lot of others. Still, it’s a fun film and one that deserves consideration in a poll like this (even if I consider it not in the same company as his other masterpieces). Other films from 1959 that I adore: Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and Ben-Hur (William Wyler). Many consider Godard's Breathless to be 1959, but I'm going with 1960 to stay consistent in my policy.
Two films that are typically considered among the finest of the year, but that were misses for me are Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder and Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. The former was too far-fetched for me to ever get into, while the latter left me cold and unengaged.