Monday, August 19, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Rio Bravo" (1959)

One of the few things I disliked about studying cinema at New York University was the constant politicization of movies. As a student I was frequently bombarded with articles and professor lectures that shoehorned a political interpretation onto a movie that I didn't feel belonged there.

It wasn't just that these analyses nearly always came from a leftist perspective -- and by "nearly always," I mean 100% of the time -- while I swing to the right. It was the fact that films that were avowedly unpolitical still got this treatment. So you'd read something about action movies of the '80s and how they reflected a fascist, Reaganite mindset.

I thought it largely bull, and simply set most of it aside in my thinking about film.

It's hard not to place a political slant on 1959's "Rio Bravo," however, since John Wayne, director Howard Hawks and others involved in the production have explicitly described it as a conservative response to "High Noon," which they considered a bunch of pinko Hollywood claptrap.

Both films have a fairly similar plot, about a lone sheriff standing against a gang of outlaws coming to town. While Gary Cooper's lawman spent most of "High Noon" unsuccessfully trying to recruit local citizens to help him in the coming gunbattle, Wayne's John T. Chance conspicuously avoid asking for assistance. In fact, he gruffly turns down the offer of a blazingly fast gunslinger because the youngster had previously opted not to stick his nose in other people's business -- a move Chance himself had deemed most wise.

I don't think either film is overtly political, but you can read some things from an allegorical standpoint, particularly the individual's relationship to the larger community around him. Both men are respected for upholding the law, but when they become a target of the very forces they're meant to rein in, the townsfolk react in very different ways.

Cooper goes begging for help, and is ostracized. Chance makes it clear that he's willing to handle things more or less on his own, and is flooded with offers of assistance. Some, like Ricky Nelson as the confident whippersnapper Colorado Ryan, offer to help with their guns. Others, like Carlos the saloon owner (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) or rambling gambler Feathers (Angie Dickinson), come through with moral and logistical support.

For Feathers, that includes the proffering of herself as a sexual plaything for Chance to take or leave as he pleases. It's a strong, sensual turn by Dickinson as a woman who's empowered by her sexuality rather than burdened by it. She may use herself as a sex object, but it's her choice.

Dean Martin has one of his meatier film roles as Dude, Chance's former deputy who turned into a timid drunk after having his heart broken. He wandered back into town a couple of years ago, begging drinks wherever he can get them, even if it is a silver dollar thrown contemptuously into a spittoon by Joe Burdette, the local tough.

In the film's surprisingly dialogue-free opening sequence, Chance kicks the spittoon to keep Dude from debasing himself, and is rewarded by being knocked out cold with a chunk of wood swung from behind. This sets off a fight with Burdette, a bystander is shot and killed, and the rest of the movie is spent waiting for the U.S. marshall to come fetch Joe Burdette for trial, while his rich brother Nathan (John Russell) surrounds the jail with killers hired for a $50 gold coin apiece.

Much of the interaction between Chance and Dude involves the former tutoring the latter in the ways of manliness. At one later point, after Dude has sobered and taken up the badge again, another gunman repeats the dollar-in-the-spittoon joke. Dude, having successfully killed the man on the balcony who had the drop on him, is content to leave it at that, with his reputation restored. But Chance reminds him about the fellow throwing the coin, and Dude makes the man grovel for his impertinence.

Back at the jail is Stumpy, the cantankerous old deputy with a screechy voice and a hitch in his giddyup, played by the veteran character actor Walter Brennan. He's the sort of crusty-yet-sentimental creature who often populates the background of Westerns.

Longtime Wayne co-conspirator Ward Bond is around for a few minutes in the early going, as an old friend of Chance who is a little too vocal about the people needing to lend the sheriff a hand. For his trouble he's gunned down in the street by a Burdette assassin.

At nearly 2½ hours, "Rio Bravo" is notable for its languid pace without ever feeling like it's treading water. Screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman delivered a comfortable, naturalistic script based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell.

There's a lot of scenes that basically consist of just a bunch of guys hanging around the jail, talking, drinking and even singing -- Martin and Nelson team up for a particularly pleasing rendition of "My Rifle, Pony and Me."

As much as I try, it's hard for me to dismiss -- or embrace -- "Rio Bravo" as a "conservative" Western. You could make the argument that the genre naturally lends itself to an emphasis on individualism, which is the historic domain of right-wing thinkers.

But even if John Wayne & Co. set out to make a conservative repudiation of "High Noon," it's difficult to see it as anything more than a well-made, engaging Western that stands sturdy on its own two boots -- politics be damned.

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