Rio Bravo, 1959.
Directed by Howard Hawks.
Starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond and John Russell.
A small-town sheriff enlists the help of a cripple, a drunk, and a young gunfighter to help keep the brother of a wealthy land baron in prison.
John Wayne is a walking Alamo. He defends his heart with his southern drawl, squinted eyes and stubborn posture. The characters he plays rarely differ across his films, but that’s what adds such depth to the performances. Each film is a new appendix to the John Wayne identity. In a John Wayne movie, you don’t watch John Wayne play a role. You watch John Wayne. You watch an icon.
In Rio Bravo, Wayne is John T. Chase. The ‘T’ stands for trouble, not Tiberius. Chase is the town sheriff, and he doesn’t have much help these days. Since his deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), turned to drink, all he has for back up is the old and lame Stumpy – and all he’s good for is guarding the gaol.
The film opens with Dude at his lowest. Desperate for his next drink, he stumbles between patrons in the local saloon. He is shot with a high-angle forcing us to physically look down on Dude and his pathetic begging, and in a way we also share his perspective. You stare at the floor if you’re that drunk and depressed because you can’t bear to look people in the eye. Martin doesn’t play Dude as the loveable or comedic drunk; he plays him as the pitiful addict.
Some cowboy flips a quarter for him into the spittoon and the bar cackles at Dude’s dilemma. Thankfully, someone else makes his decision when Chase’s boot kicks it away. He looks down at Dude with an angry disappointment, to then go after the offending cowboy who just so happens to be Joe Burdette, leader of the town’s most fearsome gang. Minutes later, Joe randomly shoots an unarmed man right in the gut.
Chase, Dude and Stumpy lock him away in the town gaol, and the film follows their attempts to keep him there until his transfer. Dude, after three years in the liquor, has a lot to prove. Unfortunately, the detainee’s brother, Nathan Burdette, is the county’s richest ranch owner. Nearly every man in town is his hired gun; leaning on shop walls, menacingly picking their teeth night and day, biding their time to raid the old sheriff’s prison. Mid-way through, on one of his intimidating visits to the town, Nathan flicks a few gold pieces to the Mexican band in the bar across the street from the gaol. It’s a lot of money, so they play his request on repeat till the end of the film: the death march of the Alamo.
The irony isn’t lost on our heroes as they sit guarding Joe’s cell. They’re stuck in their own Alamo –backed into defence whilst facing impossible odds. They bicker and reconcile to pass the time – the “death march” outside can make things a little tense – each working through their own sub-plots and character flaws. Dude’s hands constantly tremble without his precious booze, and we learn he suffers from a broken heart too. Feathers (Angie Dickinson), the town’s new hotel guest, drives Chase wild. She has quite the screen presence. You’d have to if you want to register alongside The Duke. There’s something in the way her hands caress nearby objects. Or maybe it’s the corset. Either way, she wastes not a single movement.
For the film’s running length, there is very little action. Most of it is sustained, subtle character development whilst being under-siege. It really draws you in. At the film’s conclusion, you’ll realise these characters are nothing like how they started out, and that you hardly ever noticed them change. Like the minute hand on a clock, its mechanics are cloaked by an overwhelming refinement.
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