Thursday, July 21, 2016
As far as I know, most people like Rio Bravo and the film's critical reputation, steadfastly promoted by critics like David Thomson, has grown. I've seen Howard Hawks' 1959 Western start to finish at least three times, and have dipped into the film on many other occasions, and must admit that I dislike the picture -- indeed, I think the film is not just rebarbative but perversely irritating. Rio Bravo is strangely ugly -- the film consists of one interior shot after another and the picture's color scheme is nauseating: everything is the color of what you might find in a 8 month old infant's diaper. There are very few exterior shots and those generally show an Old West main street, probably built for some other movie and used for a dozen other pictures (as well as TV shows) -- the set is devoid of interest, plopped down in a barren desert that is also devoid of any scenic interest. The film is intensely static -- it's subject is a stand-off between a small group of beleaguered law men and a horde of incompetent bad hombres. In Peckinpah's Westerns, and John Ford's pictures for that matter, the bad guys are intensely individuated -- they have picturesque appearances and habits. In Hawks' Western, the bad guys are led by a bland fellow who seems to be modeled on a low-level corporate executive. With the exception of one dude who looks like he should be speaking Farsi, the henchmen are just fungible cannon fodder. After John Wayne has killed about 12 of them, it occurs to me that the real heroism in this film is shown by the ever-diminishing group of criminals who valiantly keep up their doomed attack even though it is apparent that the good guys are infallible, dead-eye shots, and, also, seemingly impermeable to bullets. The movie is slapdash, carelessly assembled (important plot points are forgotten for long periods of time), and highly repetitive -- the film is mostly shots of John Wayne and his colleagues sitting around drinking coffee or images of them striding around the nondescript main street. Some pictures that are just thrown together, apparently, on a whim, have a certain shaggy charm -- that's not true of Rio Bravo: the movie feels immensely long, doesn't build suspense in any way, and, although it has some clever thirties' style tough-guy talk, most of what we see is forgettable and, even, deplorable. Angie Dickinson as Feathers spends most of her screen-time trying to get John Wayne to undress her -- she is so pathetically needy as to be almost unwatchable. This subplot has a particularly nasty flavor because Wayne seems to be about thirty-five years older than her -- Wayne didn't age particularly well and, in this film, he's often shot in an unflattering way that makes him look more elderly than his curmudgeonly side-kick, Stubby (played by Walter Brennan without his dentures). It's impossible to understand why Feathers would have any sexual interest in John T. Chance, a gruff, socially inept gunman old enough to be her father. The plot as everyone knows involves John Wayne as Chance, the hamlet's sheriff, guarding a bad man and murderer. Chance's deputy is played improbably by Dean Martin. Martin is a drunk and much of the film commends the use of beer to combat alcoholism. Martin, who looks physically wet and sticky, seems to be half the size of John Wayne and he is probably the best thing about the film -- his whisky-addled desperation seems, more or less, realistic. (Of course, Hawks' spoils this aspect of the movie by putting in a couple musical numbers for Martin to sing with the male ingénue, Ricky Nelson -- the songs are actually pretty good and considering that nothing much else is happening in the film, the musical interlude isn't half-bad.) The final gunfight is effectively staged although half-way through the shooting, the whole thing deteriorates into a kind of sport entirely lacking in any kind of suspense and, also, unpleasant in the sense that it suggests that the good guys are murdering the bad guys for sport, that is, for the sheer hell of it. There is a Mexican innkeeper and his spitfire wife who embody just about every cliché about Hispanics that can be imagined. Comparing the film to Anthony Mann's greatly superior Man from Laramie, Rio Bravo lacks Jimmy Stewart's quivering, barely repressed hysteria -- in fact, all the lead characters in Man from Laramie seemed to suffer from a sort of peculiarly masculine hysteria, every one was afflicted with some species of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an undertow of powerful emotion that made the violent confrontations seem much more violent and consequential. By contrast, Rio Bravo feels curiously detached -- none of the shootings mean much of anything. When Ward Bond, playing John Wayne's old friend, is gunned-down in the street, there is no emotion shown by anyone; in fact, the most emotion shown in the film is Dean Martin's quaking hand as he reaches for a shot of whiskey. I understand that the essence of Rio Bravo is an intense, almost psychotic stoicism -- but stoicism is not as photogenic as more emotional reactions to the events depicted. (Admirers of the film would probably claim that the emotion is repressed -- but I don't see any emotion at all.) The most memorable thing about Rio Bravo is Walter Brennan's demonic cackle after he uses his shotgun to kill two bad guys trying to ford a tiny creek. (By the way, there is no Rio Bravo in Rio Bravo -- the title is meaningless misnomer.) The problem with Rio Bravo is that it is ugly, offensive, and, most of all, exceptionally tedious.