Move aside Hitchcock, Welles, Ozu and Ophüls. They only managed to make what I consider the greatest movies. Howard Hawks made the ones I love.
Rio Bravo, not to be confused with Rio Lobo or the director’s other pale imitation, El Dorado, is Hawks’s masterpiece. And a weekend BBC movie matinee slot some three decades ago was a perfect introduction. Watching Rio Bravo demands the best part of an afternoon or evening and a particular frame of mind. It is a nigh-on two and a half hour western in which the tumbleweed lazily rolls across the main street from one character to another. Of course there are shootouts, but there’s also time to include a languorous duet from two late-50s celebrities – showbiz crooner Dean Martin and pop idol Ricky Nelson. And, as with all Hawks’s films, lots and lots of talking.
What there’s precious little of is plot. Simply put, John Wayne’s marshal and his bunch of misfits are guarding the jail from the lawless Burdette clan aiming to free the gang leader’s brother, who is likely to hang for murder. Famously, Hawks drew his inspiration from High Noon, which he hated and in which, as the director put it: “Gary Cooper ran around trying to get help and no one would give him any. And that’s rather a silly thing for a man to do, especially since at the end of the picture he is able to do the job by himself.”
Hawks proceeded to “do the opposite” in Rio Bravo and the only help Wayne gets is from a drunk (Martin), a rookie teenage gunslinger (Nelson), a disabled man – a memorable portrayal by Walter Brennan – and a woman on the run from the law herself, played by a young Angie Dickinson. They answer respectively to the names Dude, Colorado, Stumpy and Feathers. Wayne is known by his surname, Chance.
The use of nicknames is important. Hawks’s richly drawn characters are on familiar terms with each other and, just as importantly, the audience feels close to and is rooting for them. These are people moviegoers are going to enjoy spending time with. We feel deeply involved as each of them faces up to their particular challenges. What mattered to the director was creating a world in which, as happened time and again in his movies, a group of professionals, typically men, have to prove themselves to others in that group, or gain or renew their self-respect or strive for redemption.
Those only familiar with Martin’s appearance in the Rat Pack films and as straight man to the madcap Jerry Lewis will be astounded. Hawks revealed that the actor/singer, whose reputation for heavy drinking was already widely known, was “hungry” for the part, and I defy anyone not to be moved when Dude pours his “last” glass of whisky back in the bottle without spilling a drop to signify he has overcome the DTs and is ready for the climactic showdown.
The same is true of the scene when Feathers breaks down with relief after she has helped save Chance, the man she loves, but only at the expense of four other men’s lives. I have watched this scene and heard Feathers’s speech innumerable times – and I still can’t say I fully grasp its complexities. Critic Robin Wood, in his BFI Film Classics monograph on the movie, writes of the character’s “existential choice”. And in her exclamation “We’re all fools” there’s certainly an echo of another of my favourite films, Limelight. In that 1952 movie a fading music hall star, played by Charlie Chaplin, and a suicidal ballet dancer (Claire Bloom) look to each other to salvage some hope and give meaning to their lives. “We’re all amateurs,” declares Chaplin at one point. “We don’t live long enough to be anything else.”
The idea that friendships, underlined and shaped by our choices and actions, give our lives meaning is central to Rio Bravo too. Brennan’s Stumpy, for the most part a comic foil to the film’s stars, has a similar role to his one in Hawks’s To Have and Have Not in that, in both, he is utterly loyal to those who have taken a stand – in the earlier film against Nazis in occupied France; here in opposition to rapacious land baron Nathan Burdette. “Four hundred and sixty acres might be little to you, Nathan, but it was a lot of country to me,” he says, in answer to the villain’s suggestion he bears a grudge.
If all this makes Rio Bravo sound like a po-faced treatise, that is most definitely not the case. Hawks’s movies took in every major genre from gangster (Scarface) to sci-fi (The Thing from Another World), film noir (The Big Sleep) to musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), but can broadly be categorised as either comedy or adventure films. Compelling cases have been made for each in the case of Rio Bravo. It is one of the film’s lasting delights, and evidence of Hawks’s supreme achievement, that it switches effortlessly between both.
As in similar Hawks movies, such as Only Angels Have Wings and indeed To Have and Have Not, where the threat of death is a constant backdrop, the tension is palpable but Rio Bravo effortlessly segues from a scene in which Wayne and co are in the most danger to the funniest, when the sheriff mockingly kisses Stumpy after he has complained he never gets any thanks, and Brennan reacts by whacking Wayne on the backside with a broom.
Hawks also makes Feathers’s pursuit of “John T” Chance as enjoyable as any movie seduction in the era of the Hays code. No other director had such fun with the sex war or subjected his male leads to such indignities at the hands of their female counterparts. (Think Cary Grant in Katherine Hepburn’s flouncy dressing gown in Bringing Up Baby; Rock Hudson’s humiliations in Man’s Favourite Sport?; or Grant, again, wearing women’s clothes in I Was a Male War Bride.) Hawks clearly relishes the games he plays with the Wayne persona and Chance’s flummoxed reaction to Dickinson’s pursuit.
Over the course of Rio Bravo we are treated to an entertainment masterclass, a high watermark of Hollywood cinema in its heyday. I may not go as far as Quentin Tarantino, who declared that he would show the film to any new girlfriend and end the relationship if she did not declare her undying love for Hawks’s classic, but it is the movie I return to again and again, to revisit old friends and remind myself what form optimism takes in a work of art.