John Wayne. Working with a deep cast, a talented director and a great script, here's Wayne's response to High Noon, 1959's Rio Bravo.
In the Texas border town of Rio Bravo, Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) finds himself in a bit of a spot. A man named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) callously shot down an unarmed man in a bar argument and is now sitting in Chance's jail. A murderer in itself isn't big news, but when Joe's brother is one of the richest men in Texas -- and with a small army of gunmen at his side -- that provides some problems for Chance. Burdette has bottled up the town so Chance can't transport his prisoner and he can't bring help in either. All the sheriff is left with is two deputies, Dude (Dean Martin), a drunkard, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), an aging crippled man, to help do the job. With the town waiting to see what happens, Burdette's gunmen similarly waiting on the streets, Chance goes about putting a plan into action to get out alive and bring Joe Burdette to justice.
Wowza, what a good movie, a western that deserves its classic status. I grew up watching this Howard Hawks-directed western a lot as a kid and recently revisited it for the first time in years. The plot description proved a little rough because....well, the script is excellent, but the story isn't the most well-connected, concise of stories. If there's a complaint, it's that at 141 minutes and with an episodic story, things can be a tad slow at times, but you never really notice it (or I didn't at least). It isn't a comedy western, and it isn't a cynical, ultra-dark western, but somewhere in between as it mixes comedy (the script again), the drama and the action. Old Tucson is a great location spot for the town of Rio Bravo, that archetypal winding, dusty western town. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin turns in a great subtle score -- very whistle-worthy -- and even test runs part of the score he'd use a year later in The Alamo. All key contributions to a winning formula.
Of all his movies, John Wayne is most associated with the western genre. Many consider his western roles -- The Searchers, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Shootist -- to be among his strongest. Maybe not the showiest part, but Wayne's leading role here as Rio Bravo sheriff John T. Chance is Wayne at his tough, likable, easy-going best. If not his best acting performance, it's one of his most visually iconic, the vest over the red or blue shirt, the bent-up hat brim, the ever-present Winchester rifle in his hand. In the acting department, this is one of my favorites of the Duke's. He makes it look criminally easy what he's doing. He lets those around him show off more with "bigger" performances, content to do his thing. In the process, you can't help but watch him. He's the tough lead, the lead with some great comedic timing, and has one of his all-time best love interests in the form of Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a young woman with some troubles behind her. That chemistry is perfect, Wayne's Chance more and more exasperated with each passing scene. Just a great underplayed performance.
As a director, one of Hawks' specialties was the bonds and friendships formed among men in serious situations, a life and death drama. I don't know if that dynamic was ever better than it was here. There isn't a weak spot in the bunch with Wayne as Chance and Martin and Brennan as his maligned deputies. Even teen idol Ricky Nelson manages to find a good spot as Colorado Ryan, a young gunslinger looking to mind his business....at first. Facing seemingly insurmountable odds, they bond, put their differences aside and become stronger as a collective group. Their chemistry is evident throughout, their dialogue crackling with each passing scene. Sure, they sing a couple songs together (My Rifle, My Pony and Me, Cindy, listen HERE) but it's Dean Martin! You're rooting for these guys, each of the quartet bringing something different to the table. Just hard to beat, one of the best, underrated casts in a western.
That's where the script steps to the plate. We don't get much in the way of backstory about most of the characters. In a line here and there, we pick up more than you'd think. We learn what drove Dude to drink, why cackling, ranting Stumpy has a limp, why Chance carries a rifle. Good, interesting characters we get to know quickly, and from there, the cast does the rest. Also look for Ward Bond (in his last film role) as Pat Wheeler, a freight owner who offers to help Chance, an underused, sneering Akins at his best, John Russell as his intimidating older brother, Nathan, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as Carlos, the hotel owner, and Estelita Rodriguez as his wife, Consuela.
So there isn't the most pointed story here. So be it, Hawks was never interested in the most linear, fast-paced stories. The pacing works here, too many episodic moments to mention. The opener is several minutes of silence as we're introduced to Chance and Dude, ultimately seeing Joe gun an unarmed man down. My personal favorite is a set piece with Chance and Dude following a wounded hired killer with muddy boots into a saloon...only they can't find him. It's a great little scene with an excellent payoff. The movie is full of such great moments, including the finale as Chance and Co. go toe-to-toe with the Burdettes during a prisoner exchange with Old Tucson again providing a pitch perfect backdrop to the western action.
Is it a perfect movie? No, but as far as entertaining movies goes, this one is hard to beat whether it is a western or not. The cast is perfectly used, showing off a chemistry that makes it fun to watch. Some truly funny laughs (Chance calling Stumpy "a treasure" and kissing him on his bald head), some great dialogue and one-liners, and a script that provides some great quotables. Hard to beat, and one of my favorite movies. If you're a fan, check out both El Dorado and Rio Lobo, Hawks basically remaking his own movie twice more.
Rio Bravo (1959): ****/****