TSPDT 45-54: Rio Bravo (1959) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

TSPDT 45-54: Rio Bravo (1959)

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I'm going through the list of all the films I have not seen on They Shoot Pictures Don't They.  It is arguably the most comprehensive and varied "best ever" list assembled.  If I have seen a film on the list previously, I will write short thoughts followed by a full review of the unseen film alternating between the top and bottom of the list.  Today's film is from the top of the pile, Howard Hawks' 1959 western Rio Bravo.

45. In the Mood For Love (Like) - The space, the red, the slow motion - all tantalizing and agonizing at once. This is the only film of Wong Kar-wai's I've seen aside from The Grandmaster, and based on the intense yearning of In the Mood For Love I'm looking forward to it.  It's a romance that never culminates, living entirely in that electric space between partners who feel the mutual attraction on their skin.

46. The Third Man (Like) - Disorienting and playful to a disarming degree.  By the time Orson Welles shows up to deliver the famous cuckoo clock monologue we've watched Americans make a mess of things time and again.  Then, on reflection, the charm masks an argument advocating for continued war.  Such a sweet coating for a bitter pill, and arguably the height of Carol Reed taking the piss out of American do-goodery.

47. Playtime (Like) - At some point in the future, I will purchase the Criterion Collection's assembly of Jacques Tati's finest.  Playtime is my favorite, a grand collage of ultramodernist business practices and architecture where every corner is an opportunity to tell a joke.  Chaos comes in degrees and Tati, still charming in his M. Hulot guise, delights in teasing out the cracks in the sleek façade.

48. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (Like) - Discussed at this link.

49. Chinatown (Like) - Not the best daytime noir (I'd rank Brick, L.A. Confidential, and After Dark, My Sweet ahead of this), but with water being reframed as a luxury instead of necessity it's arguably the most prescient.  Aside from plot shenanigans, Jack Nicholson is the standout playing a man out of time so straight his desperation to get to the truth overwhelms the rest of the film.

50. Ugetsu Monogatari (Like) - I owe Ugetsu a rewatch. I remember a gentler, and just as perceptive, tale of ghosts and tragedy like Kuroneko. Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff left deep marks in me while Ugetsu is a whisper.  No matter, the whisper is a humanistic lift all the same.

51. Barry Lyndon (Like) - Discussed at this link.

52. The Apartment (Like) - Discussed at this link.

53. M (Like) - The moral implications of M are something I continue to wrestle with.  I do not believe, under any circumstances, that anyone has the authority to decide who lives or dies. Lang's gradual turn into the killer's perspective shows sympathy for uncontrollable bloodlust.  He doesn't make it easy to wish death on the killer, nor extend sympathy to the point of empathy.  What Lang does is regard, distort, and leave it to the audience to decide what's "right".

54. Rio Bravo -

There is not a millimeter of fat on Rio Bravo. This film works at such a steady pace that even the seemingly out-of-place musical interlude works wonders amid the tough guys going through a depressive spell.  Above all, Howard Hawks direction exemplifies just how flexible a genre the American Western is.  About forty minutes or so in I realized Rio Bravo worked just as well as any classic thriller as it does a piece of Americana.

It's weathered Americana, but Americana all the same. The kind of film I'd expect from someone who's been around the block a time or two knowing things don't always work out well.  Hawks was in a bad place when he came out of a somewhat self-imposed retirement to direct Rio Bravo and he doesn't pull out a self-reflective "one last job" kind of story.  Instead he sees these archetypes with pain and clarity, opening on a low only to end on a marginally better high.

And oh my goodness what an opening.  There's a nice wide shot of horses and riders coming in on a dusty trail, typical cowboy stuff.  Soon Hawks is tight on Dude (Dean Martin) looking desperate and pained, pleading with his eyes for some relief, only for career criminal Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) to watch as his lackey tempts Dude with a silver dollar chucked straight into a spittoon.  Sheriff Chance (John Wayne) gets his own solo shot, distant and disgusted, before Dude takes his aggression out on Chance and Joe casually strolls away after murdering a man in cold blood.This is all without a single word spoken.  The distance between Chance and Dude communicated through a beaten man's point of view, Martin's spectacular closeup acting of his desperation, every action punctuated with sharp precision on the soundtrack - then the unexpected sight of the usual hero knocked bloody and senseless, stumbling in to another bar to try and do the right thing.  These are men on defense, not the thrilling frontiersmen forging out on their own, and old pains linger in exposed weaknesses men like Joe look to exploit.

I've gotten so used to many critics writing about how Westerns are deconstructed that it was a pleasurable change of pace to simply exist in lockstep with Rio Bravo. As tight and assured as Hawks' direction is, I think the most important factor in Rio Bravo is Martin's performance.  I had no idea he had this kind of acting talent in him, knowing him mostly for the Rat Pack and serviceable work in Wilder's worst film, Kiss Me, Stupid.  I see shades of Martin's simple but deeply empathetic work, concentrating on Dude's pain in his eyes and gradual reawakening in his poise, in films as recent as Brick.

Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett's screenplay works so well by focusing on the cracks in these characters.  They'll never be fully repaired - as is the case with us all - and the situation is so dire in the town that every line could be written as someone's last.  I love that they basically established the fortress film formula by opening with the protagonists already on the losing end.  There's a lot of enjoyable tension in later riffs on the fortress theme like Panic Room or 13 Assassins, but starting a step ahead with the heroes already on the losing end makes for a fascinating study in how they're able to fight back.And just because Hawks' direction is precise and clean does not mean he lacks deeply evocative shots.  The climax takes place over a small stretch of land filmed so low and foreboding it might as well be a war of attrition several miles long instead of the actual several yards.  My favorite ties in with Martin's performance, his "about to crack" detoxification, and a blood-stained glass of beer.  It's Rio Bravo in microcosm, the good guys on the defense and tempted with the bad guys ready to pounce at any weakness.

As for the Duke - John Wayne if you're feeling formal - I loved him in Rio Bravo. I've never loved a performance from him but liked plenty.  Here the ambiguity he showcased in The Searchers is stretched to a breaking point with a magnifying lens on him.  Hell, even Chance's romance subplot with Feathers (Angie Dickinson) works because of how gradually he lets himself relax into letting his guard down.  On Feathers' end, she's nicely written with plenty of hints as to what she does to protect Chance and Dickinson's sly confidence a welcome contrast to the often ragged men.

I'm sure if I buckled down, dusted off some of my post-structuralist texts, and put Rio Bravo under a microscope I could get a senior undergraduate thesis out of it.  But I'm older now, got my share of cracks and creases, and sometimes I just want to be at peace with a film firing on all cylinders.  Maybe Rio Bravo is a perfect film, or maybe it's just perfect for me - right now - getting comfort out of a cadre of beaten down characters finding their purpose again.

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Rio Bravo (1959)

Directed by Howard Hawks.
Screenplay written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett.
Starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Angie Dickinson.

Posted by Andrew

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