Director Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic teams John Wayne with Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson.
There’s a cold-blooded killer in the small-town jail, and Sheriff John T. Chance aims to keep him there until the varmint gets a fair trial and a quick hanging. Unfortunately, the killer’s brother is the most powerful man in the territory, with scads of hired guns to enforce his whim of iron. Even more unfortunately, Chance is seriously out-manned and outgunned as he holds out against the bad guys.
During the sporadic siege, the sheriff’s only allies are a discredited drunk with a trembling trigger finger, a crotchety and crippled old coot, and a naïve young gunslinger with a decidedly non-cowboyish coiffure.
Nerves fray and tempers flare as the unlikely heroes pass long hours in the jail. Tensions mount to near-unbearable extremes, until the drunk, the coot and the gunslinger feel compelled to take drastic measures. And so, they… sing?
That’s right. In the Wild West according to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, characters reveal themselves through meaningful gestures. And since two of those characters are played by famous singers — crooner Dean Martin as the heavy-drinking deputy, teen idol Ricky Nelson as the callow sharpshooter — Hawks felt the best way to demonstrate their grace under pressure would be to have them join voices in a flavorsome frontier ballad (“My Rifle, My Pony and Me”). The musical mood lightens as the duo becomes a trio: The gimpy crank played by grizzled character actor Walter Brennan (My Darling Clementine, To Have and Have Not) joins the fun while Sheriff Chance, played by western icon John Wayne, grins approvingly.
Howard Hawks directed dozens of diverse movies — everything from musicals to war stories, gangster melodramas to screwball comedies — throughout a prodigious and prolific career that spanned from the silent era to the early ’70s. But Rio Bravo stands apart from his other certifiable masterpieces as a uniquely revered cult fave, one that elicits rapturous praise from fans and filmmakers alike. (Quentin Tarantino famously declared: “When I’m getting serious about a girl, I show her Rio Bravo, and she better bleeping like it.”) Its stature has relatively little to do with its simple but serviceable storyline – which Hawks and co-screenwriter Leigh Bracket later recycled for El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970) – and almost everything to do with its being a triumph of distinctive style over commonplace substance.
Hawks made Rio Bravo in 1959, a time when fully a third of the filmed series on prime-time network television were westerns. (Brennan and Nelson were regulars on popular TV sitcoms — The Real McCoys and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, respectively — when they strapped on their shootin’ irons for Hawks.) As Todd McCarthy notes in his invaluable Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, the director figured that, due to the sheer volume of broadcast horse operas, audiences were weary of overworked, formulaic plots. “But if you can keep them from knowing what the plot is,” Hawks reasoned, “you have a chance of holding their interest.” Which is why Hawks — justly famed for the snappy pacing and rapid-fire dialogue of his ’30s and ’40s movies — opted for a more deliberate and indirect approach while cantering through familiar territory.
In Rio Bravo, action is not nearly as important as reaction and interaction. That is, the movie is propelled by behavioral detail, not plot mechanics, as we savor a typically Hawksian scenario of isolated professionals who remain true to personal codes of honor and duty — even as they grapple with limitations, weaknesses, inner demons and really nasty hangovers — while bound together for a common purpose (in this case, keeping a killer behind bars while trying to avoid being killed).
As often happens in a Hawks film, male characters express their unspoken and entirely platonic affection through the exchange of favors or inanimate objects. (Chance often rolls cigarettes for his drunken deputy, who’s too trembly to complete the task himself.) Meanwhile, the most substantial female character —Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a leggy lady with a sordid past — proves her worthiness to the hero by making few demands, remaining self-sufficient, cracking wise just like the guys and, most important, not getting tediously teary when a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. She also paraphrases the memorable come-on of the ultimate Hawksian heroine — Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not — by pointedly reminding Chance that he doesn’t have to do much to have her.
During the first four minutes, Hawks returns to his silent-movie roots by vividly defining — with audacious precision, without a word of dialogue — the nature of the relationship between Chance and Dude (Martin), the depths of Dude’s self-loathing, the viciousness of a casual killer (Claude Akins), Chance’s unshakable devotion to justice, and Dude’s fumbling first steps toward self-redemption. Then, with the premise of the piece sufficiently established, Hawks shifts his focus and slows his pace while rising to his self-imposed challenge. In the end, Rio Bravo isn’t about capturing a killer or thwarting a jailbreak. Rather, it’s about stealthily telling a story while events unfold with a randomness that is far more apparent than real.