Saturday, August 26, 2023

Western Watch: Rio Bravo (1959)

Watched:  08/26/2023
Format:  Max
Viewing:  First
Director:  Howard Hawks

Sometimes a movie just works, and there's a reason that folks keep watching it, decade over decade.  Rio Bravo (1959) has a bit of a reputation as Dean Martin's best role, or at least that's what I recall hearing, and I always assumed I'd get to the movie, but just had not.  

Had I known it also stars Angie Dickinson, I would have gotten to it more quickly.  But it surprised me to learn this was Howard Hawks, not John Ford, and that Leigh Brackett had been involved with the screenplay.  So, you've got a lot of things going for the movie right out of the gate.

I'm also aware that John Wayne is now considered a terrible human by folks younger than myself, but if you want to be mad about (a) things that are likely a myth, and (b) every opinion and attitude of generations prior that do not match your own - we're going to be here all day.  

For going on a decade, I've compared the superhero film to the Western.  It's a broad category encompassing a lot of movies that share common elements, but it's also a dubious and overly broad categorization, and no indicator of quality one way or another.  Plenty of terrible superhero films are released, just as plenty of terrible westerns were made, but there are also great, thoughtful superhero film just as there are phenomenal movies made featuring characters who wear hats and six-shooters.  

Rio Bravo is a Hawks film, so don't expect the sweeping Utah landscapes of John Ford.  It's 85% studio-shot, with a few minutes of exteriors filmed somewhere not on a backlot nor a go-to Hollywood ranch.  But as a Hawks film, it's also got beautifully painted characters, subplots that support the main plot, zingy dialog, and relies more on the interior life of the characters than a sweeping landscape and a whole lot of horses (not that I complain about those things).  

The plot has faint echoes of High Noon mixed with the usual attempts to keep the powerful at bay with a gun and a lot of gumption that makes up plenty of other classics (see: Shane.  No, really, see Shane).  But rather than a single man being driven by a deadline and the cowardice of others, it's a man working through the unlikely allies he does have as the walls close in - a drunk, a cripple, an untested kid and Angie Dickinson.*  

Wayne plays a Sheriff who arrests the brother of a wealthy landowner in West Texas (outside of the fictional Rio Bravo, Texas), and who knows this means trouble.  The guns hired by the wealthy rancher are as expendable and near-faceless as Stormtroopers, but also available in as limitless a supply.   

But with crisis, characters are driven to figure themselves out.  Dean Martin's drunk has to find the courage to get sober (by drinking beer instead of whiskey)**, Ricky Nelson's young gun has to figure out when to get involved instead of playing it cool, Angie Dickinson has to figure out if sticking around this guy is wise, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan) wants to be taken seriously for three seconds in a row.  

Anyway - it's a solid script, well done, right up to having a curiously light gunfight at the end, almost acknowledging what we all know:  our heroes will win the day.  The real fight was everyone coming together.  

I'd be remiss not to mention Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as Carlos, the inn-owner and bartender and Estelita Rodriguez, who plays his wife Consuela.  It's always curious to see how Hispanics are depicted in the films of this era, and your mileage may very.  Carlos is not centered as much as others in the story, but he is the swiss army knife of support for our heroes, as well as a default moral center.  And! he shows up to participate in the action at the end, as much to John Wayne's surprise as much as my own.  It's not exactly all-star authenticity in representation, but it's a bit different from how we tend to think of Hispanic characters appearing in film in 1959.

All in all, I really enjoyed the movie.  Good character work, all the stuff I mentioned at the top.  I did miss some of the vistas, but this is a movie that takes place 30% in a jail and 40% on hotels and saloons.  I don't think a movie that has lasted this long needs my approval, but it's got it.

*I'll always bet on whomever has Angie Dickinson
**clearly the inspiration for Gene Wilder's character in Blazing Saddles

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