Friday, 27 November 2015

"Rio Bravo," Howard Hawks, Film Review

Rio Bravo is a bit of a rarity in that it is a genre film present in the Sight and Sound Top 100 list but absent from the IMDB Top 250 list.  There are all manner of dreadful genre films present in the IMDB list that aren't in the SS list, but it doesn't happen so often the other way round.


Perhaps the reason it doesn't score highly among IMDB users is that it is a slow-burn, focusing more on building tension than continually delivering action scenes.  And perhaps the reason the critics and directors behind the SS list like it is because Howard Hawks goes out of his way to subvert the Western genre.

There are all sorts of expectations that get raised in the film that don't get realized.  The wagons that arrive early on loaded with fuel oil and dynamite stubbornly refuse to blow up.  The expendable-looking foreign hotel owner doesn't get shot.  The young sharpshooter who rides into town never really bothers to display a notable virtuoso display of sharp shooting.  The recovering alcoholic doesn't have an amusing lapse into drunkenness.  The two main baddies get quietly beaten, not shot.  At the end they are put into jail, off camera.  The sassy card-cheating girl doesn't get spanked or tied up, despite siding with the sheriff and standing up to the bad guys.  More generally, the action is centred on the town and its jail.  We have no campfires, no bean cooking, no riding horses through rivers.  What sort of a Western is this?

Review continues below...

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The beginning also makes little concession to the viewer, launching straight into action with multiple characters, giving little explanation as to who there are or what they're doing.  When Pat Wheeler (a friend of the sheriff) comes into town with his wagons and men and says, 'Now don't tell me what's going on. Just leave me wandering around in the fog.  I like it. I'm getting used to it,' he could be speaking for the first-time viewer as well as for himself.

John Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance as a kindly, almost Christ-like figure.  He associates with cripples, down and outs, and loose women.  He stands up for good while not being afraid to show tough love.  He attracts disciples.  While Christ said, 'To him that strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also,' John T. Chance says to recovering alcoholic Dude (Dean Martin) 'That's the second time you've hit me.  Don't ever do it again.'  I'm not sure Christ would have endorsed Chance's implied threat (Hit me a third time and I'll whoop yo' ass) but it's a similar idea.  It's clear from comments made by Dude and Chance's other employee, Stumpy (Walter Brennan) that Chance is supposed to be a hardass, a macho man who refuses to give praise or thanks.  I can't help but think that there's an element of vanity acting in Wayne's continual kindly chuckling and gentle downward glances.  He can't quite bring himself to be an out-and-out macho man.  The gentle giant is too attractive a character for him to move away from.

The young sharpshooter, Colorado (Ricky Nelson), seems to have been cast purely so he can sing a couple of cowboy songs with fellow crooner, Dean Martin.  It would be easy to write his character out of the script.  He comes across as an even more fay version of a young Tom Cruise in this film if you can imagine such a thing.

Overall, the tension builds nicely to several impossible situations for our heroes to solve (which they do in convincing and character-confirming ways).  The songs are an acquired taste and some of the characters aren't entirely true-to-life, but they're always entertaining, there are some good laughs and plenty of surprises.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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