Friday, 17 October 2014

Movie Review: Rio Bravo (1959)


A classic few-against-many western, Rio Bravo is a study of determination against the odds. The story of a sheriff and his two allies doggedly holding out against the overwhelming forces of a corrupt businessman is a thrilling standoff in defence of what is right.

When the dimwitted Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) shoots and kills a man in a saloon fight, he is arrested by Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne). Chance holds Joe in the town's small jail, guarded by old timer Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Chance's only other ally is his deputy Dude (Dean Martin), who is struggling to escape the clutches of severe alcohol dependency. Chance has to await a Marshall who will arrive within days to transport the prisoner. The problem is that Joe's brother Nathan (John Russell) is the richest landowner in the area, and he wants his brother set free.

As the siege grips the town, Chance gradually gains a few allies. Young gunslinger Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) first insists on minding his own business but starts to change his mind after his mentor Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) is killed by Nathan's men. Meanwhile card shark Feathers (Angie Dickinson) arrives in town and catches Chance's eye. Nathan intensifies his efforts to intimidate and threaten Chance into releasing Joe, but the lawman and his allies are determined to bring Joe to justice, leading to a series of ever more violent skirmishes with Nathan's men.

A response and rebuke aimed squarely at High Noon (1952), in Rio Bravo the sheriff is comfortable standing tall on his own. Wayne and director Howard Hawks wanted to portray a law officer who refuses help from the ordinary townsfolk, but gets it anyway. In this version of America, the hero stands up to his individual responsibilities despite the obvious risks, and by doing so inspires others to step forward.

Rio Bravo is a masterpiece of mounting tension, as a state of physical and psychological siege creates a perfect canvass for classic western themes. Chance, Stumpy and Dude have to defend a shrinking perimeter around the jailhouse, their enemies already present inside and outside the town, and ready to pounce at any instant and upon any sign of weakness. And Chance's allies are far from perfect or dependable. Dude's battle against the bottle hangs in the balance, and the movie opens with a brilliant, dialogue-free scene of Dude reduced to retrieving coins from a spittoon to get yet another drink. Stumpy is an old-timer, trigger happy but handicapped by a limp leg and a caustic attitude.

Arrayed against these three is an army of cowboys on Nathan Burdette's payroll, plus mercenaries happy to kill in exchange for Nathan's money. Gradually Nathan tightens the noose and intimidates or kills those who express support for Chance. But still the community does not turn its back. Hotel keeper Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), wagon master Wheeler, gunslinger Colorado and the passionate Feathers all show varying degrees of support, and as the stand-off moves towards an inevitably violent climax, their support becomes more overt and active.

The script by Jules Furthman Leigh and Brackett Hawks mixes plenty of character interaction and development with bursts of action to keep the pressure building. By the time Hawks unleashes all the guns to explode into action for the raucous final showdown, Chance and his friends are remarkably well developed, having faced down their real demons and come to terms with their destinies.

John Wayne is iconic as John T. Chance ("T for trouble", according to Feathers), a man who knows his role, ready with an answer for everything but reduced to a puddle of uncertainty when placed in the cross hairs of Feathers' affection. Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson rarely had better roles. Martin is the most complex character in the film, Dude struggling against his past potential, present dependency and unsure if he deserves a second chance for a better future. Dickinson is a combination of confidence and sensuality that allows Feathers to match wits and stubborn commitment with Chance.

Rio Bravo celebrates righteous struggles against enemies both external and internal. As is often the case, winning the fight against self-doubt makes disposing of outside foes that much easier.






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