Rio Bravo

riobravorev Rio Bravo  (1959)    Warner Bros./Western    RT: 141 minutes    No MPAA rating (western violence, mild language)    Director: Howard Hawks    Screenplay: Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett    Music: Dimitri Tiomkin    Cinematography: Russell Harlan    Release date: March 18, 1959 (US)    Cast: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Russell, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Estelita Rodriguez, Claude Akins.    Box Office: $5.7 million (US)

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I never saw the John Wayne western Rio Bravo until yesterday but I’ve seen Assault on Precinct 13 several times. For those of you who don’t know, John Carpenter’s main source of his inspiration for the 1976 movie was Rio Bravo. While not a direct remake, it did borrow elements from the older film with its story of a remote urban police station under siege by a street gang. In Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic, a sheriff, his deputy, a gunslinger and an elderly cripple must keep a wealthy rancher and his men from breaking his brother out of jail. I decided to watch Rio Bravo as soon as I finished with El Dorado; I figured one good turn from The Duke deserves another. Once again, I was more than pleased. No wonder Rio Bravo is regarded as a classic. It’s GREAT!

 rio bravoIn it, Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, head lawman in the town of Rio Bravo, TX. He gets himself into a potentially deadly situation after arresting Joe Burdette (Akins, Sheriff Lobo) for shooting a man dead in a local saloon. The problem is that his brother Nathan (Russell, TV’s Lawman) is very rich, very powerful and very bad. His guys start hanging around outside the jailhouse keeping watch. A rescue attempt is imminent. By way of help, Chance has Dude (singer Martin), his former deputy who descended into alcoholism after a romance gone bad and Stumpy (Brennan, The Westerner), an elderly deputy with a gimpy leg. Colorado (teen idol Nelson), a young gunslinger, joins them after helping Chance out of a jam with some of Burdette’s men.

 Chance doesn’t want help from anybody because he doesn’t want to put their lives in danger. Burdette already killed one fellow, Pat Wheeler (Bond, Wagon Train), who talked around town about Chance needing help. This is why he tries (in vain) to make Feathers (Dickinson, Police Woman) leave town on the next stagecoach despite the fact she’s fallen in love with him (and he her). He’s not the only one with personal problems. Now that he’s back on the job, Dude tries to get sober. He no longer wants to be known by his nickname Borrachon (Spanish for “big drunk”).

 Okay, you know that Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson will sing at some point. Why wouldn’t they? At the time, they were both very popular. So it is that we get such a scene shortly before the final showdown. Martin starts by singing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” (accompanied on the guitar by Nelson) which is about a lonesome cowboy. It’s immediately followed by the more uptempo “Cindy”, a song so infectious even Brennan joins in. Not surprisingly, Wayne doesn’t sing. In less capable hands, this would be gratuitous, a blatant attempt to capitalize on the two co-stars’ popularity as singers. It doesn’t feel like that at all in Rio Bravo. In fact, it has the opposite effect. It’s a nice segue way into the final battle between the heroes and villains.

 The acting in Rio Bravo is top-notch all the way. But before I get into that, it bears mentioning that this is Hawks’ first movie after a four-year hiatus brought on by the spectacular failure of 1955’s Land of the Pharaohs. He was so nervous about making this movie that he reportedly vomited behind a set before shooting the first scene. Little did he know that he was about to make a film classic. What’s more, he’s in top form here. Rio Bravo is a perfect illustration of a true master craftsman at work. It may run a bit long but it’s never boring. Not a single part of the story feels superfluous or extraneous. It also contains one of Wayne’s very best performances. He doesn’t say much; his very presence says more than any amount of dialogue. His body language speaks for him as well. He can be angry one moment and tender a split second later merely by relaxing his pose. When he does speak, he doesn’t feel the need to overplay his tough guy image with witty remarks before taking down his opponents. He’s more direct. In one scene, he says to a bad guy, “You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.” Now imagine that in his customary drawl. It’s pretty cool!

 Martin is surprisingly sensitive in his portrayal of a man fighting personal demons that prove nearly as formidable as the villains waiting outside the station. One scene, set to “The Cutthroat Song”, a mournful Mexican ballad heard frequently throughout the movie, shows him contemplating taking a drink before gathering the strength to pour it back in the bottle. It’s a touching scene. Nelson is surprisingly effective as the inexperienced gunslinger who initially wants to mind his own business before joining the fight. Brennan provides nice comic relief. Akins’ character is truly despicable. Dickinson is incredible as Feathers, a fiercely independent woman who loves Chance and, at one point, unbeknownst to him, sits guard outside his hotel room while he sleeps. She’s no saloon floozy or damsel in distress. Hawks loved this type of woman as evidenced by the roles played by Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not), Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby) in his previous films. One scene directly references To Have and Have Not; the scene where Dickinson asks Wayne to kiss her a second time because “it’s even better when two people do it”. In the 1944 movie, Bacall says to Bogart, “It’s even better when you help.”

 The action scenes in Rio Bravo are well-mounted. The storyline is a solid one. The actors work great together. Wayne and his compadres have an easy, unforced rapport with each other. The cinematography is gorgeous. The score by Dimitri Tiomkin is beautiful. I love the use of “El Deguello” (aka The Cutthroat Song) throughout the movie. Burdette gets the band at his saloon to play it non-stop as a way of telling Chance and his men that he will show no mercy in dealing with them. It’s the same song the Mexicans played for the Americans at the Alamo before soundly defeating them. Interesting fact, it served as Ennio Morricone’s inspiration for the score for A Fistful of Dollars. Director Sergio Leone asked him to write “Dimitri Tiomkin music” for the 1964 spaghetti western classic starring Clint Eastwood in his first time as his iconic The Man with No Name character. In any event, it serves Rio Bravo very nicely. It really is a great film. WOW! I saw two great films for the first time on the same day. I’d say that it was a day well spent.

TRIVIA TIDBIT: The hat Wayne wears in Rio Bravo is the same one he’s worn in every one of his westerns since Stagecoach in 1939. That explains why it looks so battered and worn. It’s kind of like connective tissue between all the good guy heroes he played through his career. 

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