Rio Bravo

High Noon was a film about a sheriff no one was willing to help. Rio Bravo is its counterpoint, about a sheriff called Chance that won’t take one on anybody. No one could have played him but John Wayne, who turns down offers for help perhaps much as Wayne himself helped turn High Noon scriptwriter Carl Foreman straight out of the ol’ USofA on suspicions of communist activities. Howard Hawks’ ostensibly exclusionist shootout shows its chummy heart when wilty Dean Martin and teen-throb Ricky Nelson lay the Americana on molasses-thick in a lil’ jailhouse croon. It’s a film with impending danger but none of the oppressive dread Foreman wrote into High Noon. In Hawks’ film, death threats roll off Wayne’s boy scout smile like rain off an imperious old duck; characters are named Feathers, Stumpy, Colorado and Dude. Rio Bravo doesn’t have the best upbringing, but nothing can stop it from being the best “hangout” in all the movies.

Dude (Martin) used to be a fine deputy before he became the town drunk. But Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) will take this one gamble on his redemption. The opening transpires without dialogue. A cruel saloon patron reminds Dude who he used to be, and Chance takes it none too kindly. To see lush and cocky Dean Martin as a deadbeat downer has a certain woe in it that Hawks doesn’t have to work for, like if Elvis played a bellhop. But Martin brings more than himself to the puppy-faced Dude, itching for a chance to prove he’s still worth his spurs. In Edward Dmytryk’s overstuffed war drama The Young Lions, Dean Martin (shoved in alongside Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift) proved he was more than a crooner. But Hawks’ brilliance is in keeping that debonair Holiday Special Martin clear in our minds, even while writing him a dark-hued past. Rio Bravo offers him a role that doesn’t replace the Dean Martin we know (as Dmytryk tried to do)—it uses a lot of misfortune to make Dean Martin seem like a good idea.

Colorado (Ricky Nelson) takes the cool third string behind Chance and Dude. Everyone wonders if he’s as good with a gun as caravan leader Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) says he is, but Nelson plays him like he’s too sure to prove it. “Is he as good as I used to be?” Dude asks wistfully. “It’d be pretty close,” Chance growls, “I’d hate to have to live on the difference.” Nelson has one face in Rio Bravo, moved around like furniture for the good folks at home to get a look at all his sides. Hawks casts him as the tall drink of cowboy with little to do and Nelson delivers. He gets a brief stint on a guitar in the jailhouse serenade, singing an abridged “Get Along Home, Cindy,” but can’t match Wayne’s swagger, or Martin’s swank.

Walter Brennan plays Stumpy, the sheriff’s trigger-happy coot too crippled for the shootouts but still worth keeping around for the downtime banter. He roasts Martin, complains endlessly, laughs and whistles and hoots through every scene he’s in. He’s probably part of what High Noon lacked that made Wayne call it, “The most un-American thing I’ve ever seen.” Stumpy’s antebellum humor and harmonica help thread the chums together in that subtle friendship Hawks affirms only in passing glances, like an inside joke. He’s the oldest bootstrap in the bunch but pulls himself up with the rest of ‘em when the going gets rough at the inevitable barnyard shootout. The plot is a dusted off dime novel (the brother of a gang leader gets arrested so the gang comes to spring him, yadayada). The essential spirit Rio Bravo has in its honest bones is the banter between these four, a fine ensemble that the earlier studio days might have consigned to a contract of a dozen low-budget hangouts.

Perhaps most surprising is Angie Dickinson’s breakthrough role as lithesome Feathers, the young gambler just in town with her eye on the corn-fed prize—she passes on lush Martin and twinkly Nelson for wide-shouldered Wayne. He has twenty-four years on her but she holds the cards in a film Hawks purposely makes with as little romance as possible. His lovers are all like participants in a con, bickering and playing fields. When Feathers threatens to go downstairs in burlesque lace and fishnet, Chance stops her. “I’ve been waiting for you to tell me you love me!” she says, or something to the effect. A far cry from Grace Kelly’s stony blond mistress, chin upturned, eyes candied and hard.

The music by Dimitri Tiomkin particularly portends the coming age of the spaghetti western, the haunting trumpet concerto "El Deguello" serving as the villain’s war cry beaming over the dusty streets as surely as though the Man with No Name were perched in the heat on the end of the horizon. Hawks keeps whole segments in silence, as in the eerie, forceful opening. He restrains himself from closeups (there are four in total in Rio Bravo, often on Dude’s view of a tempting drink) and it gives it a sense of detachment, like it all happens on street level. As in Chance’s philosophy, who people are in Rio Bravo means far less than what they do. When the camera keeps its distance, the sweat, the crinkled brows, the fearful snarling lips don’t seem as present as the broad strokes of honor and derring-do. It is Wayne himself in movie form.

Above all its schlocky plotting, Rio Bravo asserts Americana the way Wayne would have it: rugged, chivalrous, devoted, from its quaint credits to its self-composed tune at the chummy “The End.” It’s as friendly a roamer as he ever made, as unafraid as he is to croon the day away if the bad guys aren’t coming till mornin’ (or let better crooners do it for him, as chance would have it). Dickinson has a great knack for checking out tall like she really means it and Hawks gives her the tallest of all with slyly gallant Wayne. Not every line is read like an actor, but like most of Wayne’s characters it wouldn’t feel right if it were too good. I don’t know if it’s better than High Noon but I’d hate to have to live on the difference.


Image is a screenshot from the film. 

Cast & Crew

Howard Hawks

Jules Furthman

Leigh Brackett


John T. Chance John Wayne
Dude Dean Martin
Colorado Ricky Nelson
Stumpy Walter Brennan
Feathers Angie Dickinson
Pat Wheeler Ward Bond
Nathan Burdette John Russell

Official Trailer


Sponsored Links

Leave a Comment

7 + 2 =