film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rio Bravo (1959)

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One of my go-to actions after I see a film is to look up what other critics have said about it. Sometimes it pushes me to notice something I might have overlooked; sometimes it validates my own “hey, that was great” or “wow that was terrible” gut instinct. And then there are the times it just makes me feel like a stupid doof because the critics are waxing rhapsodic about the stunning plot or the complex characters or hey, didn’t you just love the cinematography in the third act? And usually this happens with a film I flat-out hated or thought was trite and dull and predictable, so my reaction to that is “uh….no?”

Like with this – Roger Ebert described this Howard Hawks/John Wayne picture the work of “a master craftsman”. “The film is seamless,” he gushed. “There is not a shot that is wrong. It is uncommonly absorbing, and the 141-minute running time flows past like running water.” He further calls this one of John Wayne’s best performances, raves about the romantic chemistry between Wayne and co-star Angie Dickinson, speaks well of singer Ricky Nelson in his supporting role, and caps that paragraph off with a nod to character actor Walter Brennan providing “comic support that never oversteps”.

However, I thought the whole thing was predictable, the “romantic chemistry” attributable mostly to that old “will they or won’t they end up together” trope, and thought that Walter Brennan was kinda one-note. Ricky Nelson wasn’t that bad, but he didn’t really have that much to do. But this is Roger Ebert who was raving about the film, so that left me wondering exactly what in the hell was wrong with me for missing what he saw – until I remembered that in matters of taste and aesthetics like this, my own opinion is just as valid as his, so there. (And hey, apparently Ebert hated The Usual Suspects and Gladiator, and loved Home Alone 3, so…grain of salt?)

Tradition has it that Rio Bravo was made in response to High Noon, and that Wayne signed on because he found that earlier film to be an “un-American” critique of McCarthyism. Both Wayne and Howard Hawks also found the plot of High Noon to be far-fetched – Hawks dismissed it as “a good sheriff […] running around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking for help”. So instead, for Rio Bravo, Wayne’s “Sherriff John Chance” is the strong, silent type, bravely preparing to single-handedly defend his small Texas town against some bad characters despite a whole lot of townspeople falling all over themselves to play backup. He does relent and accept help from a few folks, though – “Stumpy” (Walter Brennan), an older and disabled sharpshooter, is left to guard the jail, while the younger “Colorado” (Ricky Nelson) proves himself to be equally capable with a gun but also smart in a crisis. And for sentiment’s sake, Chance re-enlists his old deputy “Dude” (Dean Martin), who’s showing signs of finally being ready to give up the bender he’s been on since getting dumped two years prior.

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The plot is practically non-existent; Dude gets into a scuffle with local bad boy Joe Burdette, a bystander gets killed in the crossfire, witnesses say Joe pulled the trigger and Chance puts him in the klink and sends for a US Marshall – prompting Joe’s big brother Nathan (John Russell) to turn to increasingly violent stunts in an effort to “persuade” Chance to let Joe out while they wait. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it subplot involving Angie Dickinson as a showgirl Chance nicknames “Feathers”, who’s half of a couple wanted for illegal gambling; but when Chance confronts her early on, she protests that she was roped into it, and Chance lets her go – but Feathers decides to stay around anyway, having taken a shine to Chance during that one brief conversation.

Really, the plot is just an excuse for the various characters to Do Random Stuff. Feathers and Chance have several “flirtatious” arguments where he stubbornly insists she should be on the next stagecoach out of town and she just as stubbornly insists that he should admit that he deep down likes her, kinda. Dude struggles with overcoming his craving for booze. Colorado drifts in and out of his various scenes, sauntering in to say he knows he’s not working for Chance or anything, but he may want to hear some of the scuttlebutt he’s heard around the saloon… Stumpy says “colorful” things. There’s even a music break, with Dude and Colorado conveniently starting a singalong so Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson can show off their singing chops. And Chance has ample….chances to look wise, stoic, big-hearted, brave, stern, or whatever random emotion the scene has decided The Big Hero should manifest.

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And, I mean, it’s not that anyone is terrible in their roles. It’s just that the plot points are so transparently nothing more than excuses for characters to show off different character traits, as opposed to being things that organically happen – with the most blatant of the “let’s show off this character” plot points being reserved for Chance, piling on the Heroic Qualities to the point that they are no longer character traits but rather Proofs Of Manliness.

So yeah, I wasn’t all that impressed, it’s safe to say.

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