Nov 18 2009

Rio Bravo

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible.  This week we take on Rio Bravo, a traditional western as done by the legendary Howard Hawks. It’s got four rather classic stars in it, including the requisite John Wayne.  What do the guys think of this “influential” classic?  Read on, good sirs and madams, read on.

Rio Bravo
Year: 1959
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Jules Furthman and Leigh Bracket
Starring: John Wayne and Dean Martin
Genre: Western

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

Rio Bravo is one of the finest examples of a Western film in all of its classical form. It may not have the grittiness or realism that some of its better descendents used to revolutionize the genre, but it is nonetheless an well executed film that manages to be entertaining and exciting despite its dated techniques.

Rio Bravo adheres to the classic Western traits in many ways. It’s got John Wayne, which is pretty much half the battle, isn’t it? He’s older here than most people generally imagine when they think of his roles, but he’s no less the perfect gentleman cowboy that he’d come to embody. This film does manage highlight the flaw that many of his characters have but rarely hinder them, his being a man of few words hinders him often in getting the woman he admires. He also seems rather clumsy and confused about this woman; she becomes his one weakness in the whole film. The woman, known only as “Feathers,” is a pretty standard entry into the genre, filling in the “woman with a questionable past” slot, and just generally being some nice eye candy. She seems to have a very modern (for the time the film was made) clumsiness about her words, but otherwise isn’t very notably different from any other western damsel.

As with many of the genre, there’s the comic relief in a crotchety old man. This one happens to be a cripple and features prominently in the climax. He works well enough for comedy and has a few good dramatic moments, and once again fulfills one of the many clichés of the genre. We also have the “young gun” who already has the talent for gun fighting but has to learn over the course of the movie how to be a man, let alone a hero. All of the characters in the film really pale though to Dean Martin’s Dude. While he’s not the main character, John Wayne must take that spot, he does have the most depth and most complicated story arc of any of the characters. He begins the film by quitting alcohol and spends most of the movie suffering because of it. Getting to see his evolution from drunk to hero is the movie’s greatest reward.

As a whole the plot is about as standard as it comes for a Western. John Wayne as the sheriff must defend the town against a rich man willing to hire as many guns as is necessary to get his murderous brother out of jail. If you think of High Noon without the complexities brought on by the abandonment of the sheriff by his own people than you get a good idea of how this plays out. The character dynamics and comic moments are really the strength here and not the plot. But the plot does manage to set up all these character moments in interesting ways, and sometimes manages to capture in some small way what a good comedy of errors might as John Wayne often must use his wits to stay ahead of the game. The fight scenes aren’t particularly dynamic. There’s a good gunfight that involves the heroes surrounding a house with their enemies within, but even this mostly involves them firing from one spot until they’ve won. Come to think of it there’s not that much fighting at all, John Wayne’s Sheriff Chase generally manages to set things up in a way so that the violence is relegated to a few key points of his choosing. While it’s nice to see him come out on top, there’s only one point in which you feel any real danger to the characters. It would’ve been nice to see a bit more conflict.

The first thing I noticed upon inserting this disc was the color. I rented it on blu-ray and was amazed at how good this film looks after all these years. Obviously it must’ve benefited from a snazzy new transfer, but the colors were so rich that it makes it a joy to watch and prevents it from feeling too dated. On the other hand, because they had all this great color technology, some of the costuming designed to highlight that looks a little silly. The cinematography feels stiff in other ways as well, particularly in the way the dialogue scenes are shot. Often the director goes to a two-shot and sticks with it for extremely long periods of time. Long takes are fine by me, but some of these shots weren’t framed in ways that were particularly interesting or dynamic, and the film often suffers from these boring shots. Once again, the action also suffers due to a lack of dynamics in the cinematography, it’s as if they felt the color would be enough to keep things interesting without thinking through what the best way to shoot an action scene was. Still, because the characters are done so well it manages to be exciting nonetheless.

Rio Bravo is simply a fun Western to watch. It may not have quite the complexities that some later films do, but you can see it starting to plant the seeds of more interesting characters and plot lines. John Wayne’s struggle against great odds makes for particularly fearsome conflict, and it’s fun just to watch him do his thing. I’d say this film is best left for those who at least have some propensity for Westerns, or at least those who have already exposed themselves to Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but I imagine most will find at least some enjoyment from it.

Benn says:

As the era of the classic Fifties western came to a close, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo adheres to the traditional forms of the genre, yet takes the focus away from gunfights on horseback to developing characters and story.

Rio Bravo begins with a masterfully directed scene that has no dialogue for three minutes, yet sets up t he plot in a way that is as clean and simple as it comes.  Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) and deputy/town drunk Dude (Dean Martin) arrest the local, smarmy thug Joe Burdette after he kills a man in a bar. Despite there being no dialogue until the end of the scene, Hawks reveals all you need to know about the characters, particularly the two leads; Chance is a hulking, prideful figure of authority, and Dude is a pitiful drunk with little self-respect, yet proves to be the fastest, most reliable gunslinger in town.

As it turns out, Burdette’s older brother Nathan is a wealthy business man in the area and hires a gang of bandits to spring Joe out of jail, leaving Chance, his deputies, and the other townspeople in a constant state of alert until the Marshall shows up to take Joe away. Whereas this conflict would remain at the center of a traditional western plot, the impending threat of Burdette’s men merely comes and goes in bursts throughout the film. Since the overall plot is pretty straightforward, the story is heavily character driven. Most of the film is spent waiting for Nathan Burdette’s men to strike, so there is a lot of space between the film’s introduction and climax that needs to be filled. This being the case, it’s the actors and their interactions with one another that move the film along, and the cast does a wonderful job doing so.

John Wayne leads the way in a lumbering, omnipresent fashion that only “The Duke” could pull off. I’m not a huge John Wayne fan myself, but his gruff, crotchety demeanor works well with the other characters. His verbal exchanges with the sharp, beautiful Angie Dickinson is lively and impressive (I didn’t think the Duke could do more than grunt), and his arguments with crusty ole’ Walter Brennan are genuinely funny.

Ricky Nelson gives one of the film’s better performances as a young gunslinger that joins John Wayne’s quest for peace and justice in the town. Although Nelson’s character is an incredibly good shot, what distinguishes him from other young-gun characters in Westerns is his restraint and reasonable mind. Most characters of this brand would be quick to shoot and cause more trouble than necessary, but Nelson plays his scenes with a brooding finesse and flaunts his skills only when absolutely necessary.

The film’s finest performance is Dean Martin’s Dude, who proves to be the most sympathetic and complex character in the film. Dude’s troubles are discussed, but never directly take the stage, so Martin had to find a way to portray Dude’s inner turmoil concerning his past, as well as his struggle to return to his former glory through body language, physical mannerisms and tone. Lucky for us, Deano delivers in the smoothest way possible, speaking volumes with a look, a lick of the lips, or a failed attempt to roll a cigarette. The Duke may be the hero of the film, but its Deano that the audience truly roots for.

There is a considerable amount of charm and humor in Rio Bravo that can be expected from a director like Howard Hawks, and as a result, the film stands out as being unconventional in content when compared to other films of the cowboy kind. Most traditional westerns have a standard set of characters (hero, villain, defenseless townsfolk, naïve women), yet Hawks introduces us to a number of characters who are anything but helpless. Furthermore, westerns are known for many things; dialogue has never been one of them. Yet, Hawks’ mastery of fast paced dialogue and character interaction plays a heavy hand in this film, and it’s the relationships between characters that make the film particularly memorable, if not an oddball within the Western genre. After a while, the audience will forget entirely about the impending shootout and the Burdette vendetta because this film really isn’t about that; like one of Hawks’ screwball comedies or hard-boiled dramas, its about the extraordinary circumstances the characters find themselves in, and how they pull themselves out of it.

Rio Bravo
is an unusual western for those who have come to expect sprawling landscapes and thrilling shootouts every fifteen minutes. Taking place mostly indoors with longer –than- normal takes (for a supposed cowboy shoot ‘em up), Rio Bravo allows you to actually get to know the characters through long conversations and subtle actions. Hawks’ is a master at watching people be people, and it is refreshing to actually see what a cowboy does, thinks, and talks about when he isn’t twirling his gun around or killing someone dead. Is it the greatest western ever? No, but its definitely one of the better ones out there, in spite of all the talkin’ and such.

Benn’s rebuttal:

Once again, James and I are pretty much in agreement on this one, particularly with Dean Martin’s performance, which was the most captivating one in the bunch.

One thing I’d like to mention: It’s funny that James brings up High Noon as a comparison to this film. Rio Bravo was actually a “response” of sorts to High Noon due to Wayne and Hawks’ disgust over Gary Cooper’s pitiful, helpless protagonist, and the film’s anti-McCarthyism message. Although this film features unity and teamwork over abandonment, it is surprising how many similarities there are between the two films, particularly the downplayed violence and emphasis on character.

James’ rebuttal:

I felt that Ricky Nelson was a bit too “gee wiz” to fit into a realistic western movie, but a lot of this film has a bit of a sheen that doesn’t really fit with what I’d want out of a western.  He doesn’t hurt the movie any, I just would’ve preferred someone that didn’t feel like he was straight out of “Leave it to Beaver”.

Another note, where the hell is the rest of the town.  I know it’s not High Noon, but I was interested to know how the actual residents of this town were reacting to all this.

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