The Music of Chance
Julien Allen on Rio Bravo

One of the many remarkable things about Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo is the way it lulls you into believing you’re just watching an ordinary western. For an unlucky few, this sensation might even remain intact right until the end, but chances are that something in the film will break the spell—and for each viewer it is a different thing at a different time. When it does it is likely to hit you hard. And you’ll suddenly get an inkling that you might be watching a masterpiece.

Rio Bravo’s principal claim to “greatness” (though one notes from its disheartening omission from the recently published Sight & Sound “great films” poll that it has far from achieved unanimity in this regard) might reside in Hawks’s ability to disguise within a package of pure crowd-pleasing conventionality the hallmarks of high cinematic art—and the perfect expression of Hawks’s own thirty-year old career in films. Perhaps he disguises it too well. Few films are so humble, yet so profound; so gently comical yet so contemplative; so tralatitious yet so unique. For it’s not only a remake of Hawks’s own Bogart-Bacall vehicle To Have and Have Not, but Hawks subsequently remade it again himself, twice (El Dorado and Rio Lobo—both imitations to be forgotten), while John Carpenter followed suit in 1976 with the cult favorite Assault on Precinct 13 (itself remade in 2005—the spiral goes on). The appetite to reinvent the magic of Rio Bravo is as understandable as it is fruitless.

Seeking to extract the marrow from a genre he had already essayed with Red River, Hawks bid farewell with Rio Bravo to the Fordian image of the Wild West as a desert wasteland in which adventurers roamed and fought. Instead he presents a gentrified, almost bourgeois border town where adventurers are no longer welcome and heroes—in the traditional sense—are to be actively resisted. John Wayne’s sheriff John T Chance is trying to defend the town against a posse of deadly outlaws (the Burdettes) with the help of a drunk deputy (Dude—Dean Martin), an old cripple (Stumpy – Walter Brennan), and a rookie gunslinger (Colorado—Ricky Nelson), while a mysterious woman who “came in on the stage” (Feathers—Angie Dickinson) provides something more than a distraction. The Ringo Kid from Stagecoach is but a distant memory. Wayne is the law now, he’s old and moves awkwardly, his decision-making is brave but stubbornly flawed, and at times he is even made to look ridiculous (the story of the red “pants” turns him into a Hawksian male almost on a par with Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby).

At the same time, Rio Bravo was ushering out the era of the classic western as well. In the previous year, Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun had used psychoanalysis to explain the behavior of a young cowboy. Spaghetti westerns were just around the corner, paving the way for political demystification (Soldier Blue, Little Big Man, Peckinpah’s lurid The Wild Bunch) and parody (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Clint Eastwood’s 1992 throwback Unforgiven, despite its opening dedication to Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, was much more closely related to Rio Bravo in its humanism, its deconstruction of the impact of killing, and its forensic emphasis on character than any western had been since, even if its tenebrous resolution could not have been less Hawksian.

Hawks’s generosity, his inclination to share his own pleasure with us, and his refusal to manipulate the audience (unlike, say Hitchcock, who reasoned that an audience wanted to be led down the darkest alley) could easily be—and often was—misjudged as inoffensive, uncreative, and tame, when in fact his desire to place emphasis on slices of life, as opposed to spectacle or plot, would qualify him today for art-house status. Almost all of humanity is in Rio Bravo. Its respect for its audience’s intelligence is an intrinsic factor in the jubilation one feels while watching it. Hawks and his writers, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, provide a master-class in the art of storytelling without telling—only showing. The opening scene of Rio Bravo, partly perhaps in homage to Hawks’s own background in silent films, is dialogue free, yet jam-packed with incident. It starts with the villainous Joe—one of Nathan Burdette’s boys—throwing a coin into a spittoon for Dude to get down on his knees to retrieve.

Leaving aside the immediacy and intensity of our sympathy for Dude, by opening in this manner, where exposition cedes its place to incident, the film “invites” us in, to somewhere very familiar (a western saloon) and lets us pick up the action ourselves. Witnessing these events first hand, we don’t need anything explained—clues and signals are as available to us here as they are in real life (Dean Martin merely wiping his hand across his mouth, for example, is worth a dozen scenes of drunken behavior). Rather than simply dramatize a natural comeuppance for Joe (it is after all, John Wayne who comes to the rescue), the sequence veers off in another direction, with a disarming emotional complexity. Chance appears and kicks the spittoon away, disgusted at Dude having succumbed to this degradation; instead of being grateful, Dude assaults Chance in return for his hurt pride at having been scolded like a child (!) and Joe escapes. When Chance comes to, he follows Joe to another bar (the Burdettes’ favored haunt) and walks in, blood dripping from his head, to arrest Joe at rifle-point, speaking the film’s first words: “Joe, you’re under arrest.” Just as he seems cornered in hostile territory, Dude appears from nowhere brandishing a colt and wrong-footing the mob with his first line: “You can do just about what you want, Chance.” (This is the first time we even realize he knows Chance.) They lead Joe away and lock him up, and the events in the first saloon are never spoken of again. Symptomatic of the earthy intricacy of Rio Bravo, these early tensions outline the characters’ relationship with a richness not normally associated with the genre.

In dramatizing the slow build-up to an inevitable stand off between Chance’s men and the Burdettes, Hawks proceeds to overlap each of his characters’ own individual struggles along with the others, allowing us to observe the impact of such interactions and choices on each character's ultimate fate. Chance entreats Feathers from the start to get back on the stage and ride out, yet will finish, after a struggle to match the Burdette showdown, in her arms; Colorado’s friendship is crucial to Dude’s rehabilitation, yet he had at first sensibly refused any part in Chance’s campaign. Stumpy is ordered by Chance to stand down when the going gets tough (leading to his memorably poignant line: “Old cripples ain’t wanted”), yet chooses instead to join the fray and makes a decisive intervention in the final gun battle.

By associating each protagonist with their own location: the saloon (Dude) the hotel (Feathers), the sheriff’s office (Chance), and the prison (Stumpy), Hawks reprises one of his favorite themes of imprisonment (most obviously exemplified by the museum in Bringing Up Baby and, less figuratively, the pyramid in Land of the Pharaohs) and sets each character on a quest to escape their own. In so doing, he choreographs a repetitious musical ronde between each location, multiplying the interactions between the protagonists and gradually building to a euphoric collaboration based on the intense emotional identification we have built up with the characters over the life of the film. Thus, Hawks almost obsessively eschews the point-of-view shot (the main exception being the first image of Chance as viewed by Dude from below) and overwhelmingly favors what the French call the plan américan, the medium shot which places two or more characters on the screen at once—allowing you to observe whichever you choose, just as a Bach fugue offers you a choice of either of the overlapping parts to follow without prioritizing one or the other. Aside from this invigorating musicality, the collegiality here between director and audience echoes the collaboration of the people on the screen. Having been “invited” into the film since the beginning, we can share in the characters’ warmth and joy.

The decision to include a sung duet between Colorado and Dude (one of the most controversial sequences) is entirely consistent with the film’s pervading and seductive sense of de-contraction, yet tends to be lampooned as either ludicrous, exploitative (Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson were known musicians whom the studio would have insisted should sing), or overtly homoerotic. Even one of the foremost authorities on Rio Bravo, the English critic and film professor Robin Wood, himself a gay man, admitted on occasion to wishful thinking where it came to Hawks’s intentions here. To ascribe to Hawks either a deliberate or inadvertent use of gay subtext is either to out him as a closet homosexual or to refuse him a sincere belief in the possibility of love (being something stronger than companionship) between two men of an entirely platonic nature. Yet a number of Hawks’s films seek to dramatize precisely that, and Hawks always strongly denied any deliberate implications of the characters’ homosexuality. Rio Bravo is at best inconclusive on this point—though in keeping with the open and sharing nature of the film, each will feel free to form his or her own opinion.

A brief word on Angie Dickinson, as Feathers—the culmination of the Hawksian female (more seductive than Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and more complex than Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby), whose femininity makes her strong but whose humanity makes her vulnerable. Her performance constitutes, with the possible exception of Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar, the most memorable female performance in all western films. She devours her every scene with Wayne, flirts with Martin with impunity, and even transforms what could have been a disappointingly exploitative sequence of her in her underwear into a show of relaxed defiance.

See it big to get a closer look at the details and moments that make the time you spend with these characters so exhilarating. Watch carefully as Dude pours the whisky back into the bottle without spilling a drop; get a closer look at the mixture of cheek and longing on Feathers’ face as she tells Chance “you’re going to have to say you want me”; don’t miss the brilliant red of the blood in the beer glass. With a film as giving as Rio Bravo, to quote Dude, you can do just about what you want.

Rio Bravo played August 4 and 5 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.