Rio Bravo

riobravoposterMore often than not, the movies you watched and loved as a kid stick with you. Case in point, my love of John Wayne movies. I started with The Alamo and never looked back. One of my favorites and hopefully always will be, 1959’s Rio Bravo is one of the best Duke westerns ever, and on a bigger scale, one of the best westerns ever. Simple as that.

In the border town of Rio Bravo, a man named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) has brutally gunned a man down and walked away from the scene. The town sheriff, John T. Chance (Wayne) and his drunken deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), track him down and throw him in a jail cell. Burdette’s brother, Nathan (John Russell), is a powerful rancher though with his hand in everything. With a small army of gunmen, Nathan bottles up the town. Chance can’t get Joe out of town, and he can’t bring help into town. Left with no alternative, Chance and his deputies sit back and wait. They think the Burdettes will make a move at some point, but in what capacity? The odds are definitely against them.

I can’t think of too many westerns that are more enjoyable, more fun, more charming. From director Howard Hawks, ‘Rio’ is a gem of the genre. It avoids most of the trappings that plagued so many “adult” westerns in the 1950’s, finding a balance among story, characters, drama, laughs and gunplay. Maybe a touch long at 141 minutes, but I’m still never bored. There aren’t any dark undertones or heavy-handed attempts at drama. Just all the separate pieces working together to create an even better final product, a true classic.

Since delivering maybe his career-best performance four years earlier in 1955’s The Searchers, Wayne had gone away from the western genre only to see his next 4 films struggle at the box office. His western return was a triumph! My opinion obviously, but I think this is Wayne’s coolest performance — for lack of a more well-spoken description. He looks the part, sounds the part and looks to be having a ball with a great cast that’s loaded with chemistry. This film began the second half of his career — as he became the Duke more than John Wayne — but his Sheriff John T. Chance becomes an iconic western character; the stout, stubborn, capable small-town sheriff. Odds be damned, he intends to do what’s right.

The cast in ‘Rio’ wouldn’t seem like a gimme if you just look at the cast listing. Odd choices, interesting choices, but you know what? They ALL work. Chance’s crew of deputies include Dean Martin as Dude, a gunslinger who’s fallen on hard times courtesy of a drinking problem, Walter Brennan as Stumpy, a motor-mouthed old man with a significant limp, and singer/teen idol Ricky Nelson as Colorado, a young gunslinger who’s quick on the draw but inexperienced. John Russell makes the most of a small part as intimidating gentleman Nathan Burdette while Claude Akins sneers and jeers as his punk brother, Joe.

According to Wayne and Hawks, Rio Bravo was at least partially a response to 1952’s High Noon. I’ve read Wayne even thought the Gary Cooper western was un-American as countless townspeople refused to help Cooper’s Will Kane. Not the case here. Chance has a drunk, a cripple and a youngster, but he’s got help. Many other people offer to pitch in and lend a hand, but Wayne’s Chance refuses almost all of it. The catch is that the chemistry of the oddball crew in Rio Bravo is amazing. This is a great dialogue-driven script. Check out the memorable quotes from IMDB HERE. It’s a gem from beginning to end, and the cast doesn’t disappoint in bringing it all to life.

One of the more interesting aspects of Rio Bravo is the casting of 28-year old Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a saloon girl that Chance tries to chase out of town but ends up butting heads with and eventually falling for. The age difference is noticeable with a 50-year old Wayne, but my goodness, every scene they have crackles together. Dickinson keeps Wayne on his heels at all times, talking and questioning and generally driving him nuts. Westerns so often waste their female leads with non-essential…well, everything, but Dickinson is such a scene-stealer, you can’t help but sit back and watch the on-screen chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Ward Bond plays Pat Wheeler, a wagon train leader who has a friendly history with Chance and wants to help. Also look for Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as Carlos, the hotel owner who is close friends with Chance as well. He has some great lines as he hams it up in certain scenes and underplays other scenes. Estelita Rodriguez plays Carlos’ wife, Consuela.

I caught something interesting on my most recent viewing. ‘Bravo’ has elements of a stage-based play with only two key locations, the jail and the hotel. Sure, the main strip in the town of Rio Bravo is key but almost the entire story is told in either those 2 locales (with some departures here and there for drinking at saloons and shoot-outs). Just an observation.

One of the qualifiers with classic westerns is memorable lines, memorable shootouts and set pieces that help it stand above the rest. The wordless opener is a gem, almost 7 minutes without a word spoken, no explanations given. I’ve always loved the scene too where Chance and Dude walk into a saloon looking for a murder suspect…except he disappeared. But how? A classic. With talents like Martin and Nelson too, there’s even a chance for some singing. Forced, even jammed, into the story? Sure, but it’s so good you don’t even care. Give the 2-song set a listen HERE. It’s all aided by a classic score from composer Dimitri Tiomkin, including a great main theme and a test run on his Deguello sample he’d use a year later in The Alamo.

A movie I love a little more with each viewing. A true classic. So much to recommend. You’d better just go watch it to be safe.

Rio Bravo (1959): ****/****

Bad Day at Black Rock

bad_day_at_black_rockDirector John Sturges helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1963’s The Great Escape. He specialized in tough guy movies, and in 1955 directed an interesting mash-up that features elements of several different genres, including film noir, mystery and western. How could that not work? Here’s 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.

It’s late in 1945 in the isolated western town of Black Rock. After four years of not stopping, a train stops at the station and one man steps off. His name is Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). He’s outfitted in a black suit and black hat and is carrying a suitcase, but no one has ever seen him before. No one in town has ever even heard of him. Polite and mannerly, he drifts around the one-street town, instantly arousing suspicion to his intentions. A local rancher, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), owns the town, intimidating anyone who gets in his way. Smith and his men are concerned about what Macreedy is up to but they can’t figure it out. What is he looking for exactly in Black Rock?

What a great movie. Clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, this is a movie without a wasted moment. It does effortlessly combine film noir, mystery and western archetypes in a way you wouldn’t expect. You think the story is going one way and then WHAM we’re going a different way. There is a minimalist style to it, but all these separate pieces meld together perfectly. Definitely a must-see movie.

Leading the way is Spencer Tracy as our mysterious lead, John J. Macreedy. He enters town with an unannounced mission, a smile on his face and some questions he’d like answered. An established Hollywood legend by 1955 (and then some), Tracy makes it look easy. Met with interference, stone faces and roadblocks everywhere he turns, he seamlessly moves along down another avenue. It’s only late when he’s pushed too far that he finally pushes back. His eventual confrontation provides one of the movie’s great moments, a genuine shock as he handles the situation. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give an actor is it doesn’t seem like they’re trying too hard. Tracy is a prime example, stealing scenes without us even realizing he’s doing it.

Typically directing guy’s guys types of movies, Sturges does not disappoint here. Ryan is the steely-eyed Smith, the town owner who knows more than he’s letting on. His scenes with Tracy crackle, intimidation just seeping through all his lines. His henchmen of sorts are pre-star Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, equally intimidating and ominous. The rest of the townspeople include Walter Brennan as the doctor, Dean Jagger as the washed-up sheriff, Anne Francis as Smith’s girl and the garage owner, John Ericson as the hotel owner (and Francis’ sister), Russell Collins as the telegraph operator and Walter Sande as Sam, the bartender. Some good characters all delivering with key supporting parts.

An additional member of the cast is the on-location shooting in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills. The little one-street town features five or six small, rickety buildings with one main road splitting the town. Mountains hover in the distance over the town, a train zipping through once a day but never stopping. Sturges films the streets scenes low, both the cast and the mountains seemingly looking down at the camera. You feel the isolation and loneliness, a town seemingly separated from the rest of the world. That uneasy feeling of being trapped plays a key feature as Macreedy continues to ask questions. Has he dug himself too deep? A sun-drenched, uncomfortable setting for a story that takes place in a period of just 24 hours.

A classic that doesn’t always get its due. A must-see.

(1955): ****/****

My Darling Clementine

1946-my-darling-clementineI recently reviewed 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, one of many versions Hollywood has done of Wyatt Earp, the Cowboys and Tombstone’s infamous history in the 1880s. Not drifting too far here today with another version of one of the west’s most iconic moments, 1946’s My Darling Clementine.

As they drive a herd of cattle west to California, former lawman Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his 3 brothers stop outside the time of Tombstone. While visiting the town, rustlers steal the herd and kill the youngest Earp brother, James. In hopes of finding his brother’s murderer, Wyatt takes a job in Tombstone as the town marshal. It’s there he tangles with several key people in town, including gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and cattle rancher Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan). Now, all Wyatt has to do is get proof of who killed his brother and stole the herd of cattle.

Notice anything? This 1946 western has basically little to no connection the real-life historical incidents. Yes, there was a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone…and…well, that’s about it. The story takes place in 1882 (a year after the actual incidents), Holliday is a surgeon and not a dentist, Old Man Clanton was dead and never actually met Wyatt, and James Earp lived into the 1920s. So if you’re looking for a history lesson, this isn’t it.

What’s the end result then? Like many John Ford westerns, ‘Darling’ is more interested in the legend, the mythology and the romance of the old west. Based on a true story, this is as close to an arthouse western as there ever was. Filmed in black and white, it is episodic, romantic, idyllic, hauntingly pretty and has touches of a film noir in its use of shadow and light. Other than the song My Darling Clementine, the soundtrack is minimal. We’re transported to a little down in the Arizona desert with no sense of the rest of the world. There’s a sense we’re somewhere different, somewhere far-off. Little to no gunplay, style over substance, this western is one of a kind…mostly for the good.

Henry Fonda is an all-time great for a reason. He has countless roles that I could identify as his most famous, best, most iconic, whatever description you want to say. His performance as Wyatt Earp belongs in that conversation, but I struggle with a specific reason. It’s his easy-going, laconic manner…until he’s not. It’s the smile that pops up. It’s the gentle physicality, like the iconic shot of him in a chair, leg propped up on a post as he surveys Tombstone. He moves so gracefully too, especially as he leisurely walks up the street to the O.K. Corral. I don’t know if this is what the real Wyatt Earp was like — history and revisions say it was not — but there’s something straightforward, charming and immensely likable about Fonda’s Wyatt.

Reading about ‘Darling,’ Victor Mature seemed to be Ford’s whipping boy during production. His Doc Holliday is interesting, but whether it’s the script (where I lean) or something else, Mature isn’t given a great chance to shine. His Holliday is too moody, too intense for his own good. There’s some good chemistry between Fonda and Mature — especially a scene early as they wait for a play — but the not so accurate history does them no favors. All records indicate they were at least partially friends in real life (Wyatt and Doc that is), but here, they’re barely on speaking terms. Some good potential for the character, but it falls short.

Who else to look for? Brennan as Old Man Clanton is an out and out villain, a sneering, intimidating murderer. John Ireland plays his youngest son, Billy, while Grant Withers mostly looks mean with a beard as Ike. The Earp brothers include the always welcome Ward Bond, Tim Holt and Don Garner. Linda Darnell plays Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl who loves Doc (and sings a couple songs), while Cathy Downs plays Clementine, a past love interest of Doc’s who Wyatt takes a shine to. Also look for Ford regulars Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Jack Pennick and Ford’s brother, Francis Ford, in small supporting parts.

It had been years since I watched this western, but something struck me on the most recent viewing. I found myself bored with this first hour. There is little to no story with the pacing at an almost glacial pace as we meet Wyatt, Doc and Tombstone. An episodic story is one thing, but ‘Darling’ just sorta drifts along. I found myself drifting more than I remembered. Things definitely pick up over the last 40 minutes, but I had to at least bring up the pacing issue.

That said, definitely give this John Ford western a shot. Shot on location in Monument Valley (asĀ  a background to Tombstone), ‘Darling’ is a visual treat. Ford’s movies have a reputation for their style, look and visual appeal, but this may be him at his best, right up there with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. An iconic western with plenty of memorable scenes, it’s an excellent film and well worth checking out.

My Darling Clementine (1946): ***/****