Saturday, October 22, 2011

Howard Hawks | Rio Bravo

leaving nothing to chance
by Douglas Messerli

Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (screenplay), Howard Hawks (director) Rio Bravo / 1959

 The first of Howard Hawks' western trilogy, representing some of the last films he directed in his long career, Rio Bravo is perhaps the best and most complex, despite what at first appears to be a light-weight cast. The idea of crooner Dean Martin, young singing-idol Ricky Nelson, ingénue Angie Dickinson (playing the role of a hardened gambling woman), and an slightly overweight John Wayne teaming up to help save a small border town from the clutches of the evil rancher Nathan Burdette seems, on the surface, almost ludicrous; and there were still titters in the audience at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's late Hawks' retrospective that  justify those feelings. Nearly all film critics agree, however, that Rio Bravo one of the better westerns in film history.

      Hawks takes us through the few days between the arrest of Burdette's brother, Joe and the inevitable showdown, much in the way that Fred Zinneman did in the classic High Nooon. But the differences between these two movies are crucial in their effects. While Gary Cooper, in his attempt  to "save" an idealized and quite lovely small Western town from Ben Miller and his gang, is refused help from every citizen he asks to join him, Hawks, in response to High Noon, presents Wayne as Sherriff John T. Chance, supported at first only by his cackling old deputy Stumpy (hilariously played by Walter Brennan), as being ready to tackle the job almost by himself until he is joined by has alcoholic former sidekick, Dude (Dean Martin). The three of them spend much of the early part of the film prowling the streets of the gritty-looking, slightly seedy Rio Bravo, telling other folk to get out of the way. 

      If High Noon's Hadleyville is a spiffed-up village of wood-framed houses filled with proper middle-class citizens, Rio Bravo is as culturally-mixed as any border town probably was in its day: Carlos Robante and his wife Consuela run the local hotel in which the Sheriff sleeps, eats and drinks; Burt, the local undertaker, is Chinese. Other than Chance, Dude, and Stumpy, it appears, the only Caucasians in Rio Bravo are from the outside: Burdette's men, the cattlemen passing through, and the recently arrived card shark, Feathers (Dickinson). When cowboy head Pat Wheeler is killed by Burdette's gang, one of his young assistants Colorado Ryan (Nelson) casts his lot with the Sheriff, as he and Feathers save the Sheriff's life. In short, nearly everyone in this bustling little collection of low-stucco buildings is willing to help, and even those who might only watch the outcome, help to save the Sheriff being from being shot down on the street, since they might serve as witnesses.

     Because the outcome of the final shootout, accordingly, is fairly apparent—justice will triumph—Hawks can spend most of his film revealing the interrelationships of these ragtag figures, demonstrating the power of friendship, loyalty, and love that connects them. And love in this drab outpost is not just reserved for the relationships between man and woman (Chance and Feathers, Carlos and Consuela), but—perhaps due in part to screenwriter Leigh Brackett's perspective as a woman—is equally expressed between the men, particularly through the complaining housewife-like role played by Stumpy (like many a Western housewife the Sherriff has consigned his partner to the back room of their little "house"/jail cell, in this case armed with a rifle to protect it from all intruders), and in the admiration and love between Dude and Chance, the latter of whom has bought back his friend's gun and other belongings when, in his drunken nadir, Dude was forced to sell them. With the arrival of the young Colorado, the prickly trio becomes a happier foursome, as Dude and Colorado break into song.

      Music is quite essential in Rio Bravo; if the cowboy songs "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me" and "Get Along Home, Cindy" reveal the isolation and hidden desires of the singers, the enemy's repeated degüello, with its references to the battle of the Alamo, haunts these men barricaded in the jailhouse and torments them with their own failures. But their very fraternizing spirit ultimately strengthens them, cinematically revealed in the class of whiskey Dude has just prepared to consume successfully returned to its bottle without a spill. It is their love and friendship that saves the day.         

     Only after normalcy has been restored to this village frontier, does Feathers get her chance, in more ways than one. But it is she who does the proposing, leaving nearly nothing to Chance, the man, but to bashfully accept their inevitable partnership.

   The delight of Rio Bravo, unlike almost any other Western I've seen, lies not in the characters' heroism, nor even in their dedication to justice, but in their own personal and often idiosyncratic connections with one another. Rio Bravo may be a rundown collection of desert dwellings, but I'd prefer it any day to the clean, white houses and churches of Hadleyville with its Sheriff's Quaker bride.

Los Angeles, March 27, 2009

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