Howard Hawks didn’t direct a film for four years after the failure of his “Land of the Pharaohs” in 1955. He thought maybe he had lost it. When he came back to work on “Rio Bravo” in 1958, he was 62 years old, would be working on his 41st film and was so nervous on the first day of shooting that he stood behind a set and vomited. Then he walked out and directed a masterpiece.
To watch “Rio Bravo” is to see a master craftsman at work. The film is seamless. There is not a shot that is wrong. It is uncommonly absorbing, and the 141-minute running time flows past like running water. It contains one of John Wayne’s best performances. It has surprisingly warm romantic chemistry between Wayne and Angie Dickinson. Dean Martin is touching. Ricky Nelson, then a rival of Elvis’ and with a pompadour that would have been laughed out of the Old West, improbably works in the role of a kid gunslinger. Old Walter Brennan, as the peg-legged deputy, provides comic support that never oversteps.
The story situation was fashioned by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, two veterans who wrote Hawks’ great film “The Big Sleep” (1946). It centers on four men holed up inside a sheriff’s office: a seasoned lawman, a drunk, an old coot and a kid. This formula would prove so resilient that Hawks would remake it in “El Dorado” (1966), John Carpenter would remake it as “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976) and directors from Scorsese to Tarantino to Stone would directly reference it. It is a Western with all of the artifice of the genre, but the characters and their connections take on a curious reality; within this closed system, their relationships have a psychological plausibility.
Wayne, as Sheriff John T. Chance, plays what he himself called “the John Wayne role.” He even wears the same hat, now battered and torn, that he had worn in Westerns ever since John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939). Yet here he calls upon the role and his own history to bring nuance and depth to the character. Grumpy old Ford, seeing Hawks’ “Red River,” said “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.”
Wayne is effective above all when he simply stands and regards people. “I don’t act, I react,” he liked to say, and here you see what he meant. His Chance doesn’t feel it necessary to impose himself, apart from the formidable fact of his presence. He never sweet-talks Feathers (Dickinson), indeed tends to be gruff toward her, but his eyes and body language speak for him. There is a moment when he is angered that she didn’t get on the stage out of town, stalks upstairs to her hotel room, barges through the door and then — in the reverse shot — sees her and transforms his whole demeanor. Can you say a man “softens” simply by the way he holds himself? With the most subtle of body movements, he unwinds into the faintest beginning of a courtly bow. You don’t see it. You feel it.