Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett
DP: Russell Harlan
Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Score: Dimitri Tiomkin
Producer: Howard Hawks
Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez
Distribution: Warner Bros.
Length: 2 hrs. 21 min.
The story goes that Rio Bravo was conceived as a response to Fred Zinnemann's 1952 western High Noon. In High Noon, a town marshal is threatened by dangerous outlaws and turns to the townspeople for help, but they callously turn him away. Howard Hawks and John Wayne both disliked Zinnemann's film, but for rather different reasons. Hawks, explaining why he made Rio Bravo, felt that a proper marshal shouldn't ask civilians for help; Wayne, in an interview with Roger Ebert, expressed his belief that in a frontier town, a town made up of people who braved the elements to make new lives for themselves, the townspeople would never have hesitated to help their marshal in his time of need.
So, Rio Bravo's Sheriff John T. Chance doesn't ask for help, but people offer him help anyway. They do this at their own risk, because it's not just a matter of public safety. It's not even necessarily a matter of morality. The villains, Joe and Nathan Burdette, preach pragmatism, insisting that others should submit to them for the sake of survival. They dare the heroes to say there's anything wrong with this, and they do.
Of course, any number of movies treat on similar themes. But among them, Rio Bravo has exceptional resonance. This is partly due to the performances. But in the film's best scenes, one of the strongest factors is the looming presence of death, and the way the characters struggle with a strain between camaraderie and their coping mechanisms.
Dean Martin's character, a deputy named Dude has a reliance on alcohol. Another deputy, an elderly man named Stumpy, talks incessantly to ward off his own anxiety, causing some strain in his relationship with the other deputies. A character from outside the town, a woman named Feathers played by Angie Dickinson, provides another example: her vice is gambling (though she's admittedly quite good at it), and when Chance takes that away from her while also inadvertently exposing her to his trouble with the Burdettes, her stress is palpable. Dickinson's performance is admirable, revealing a pained uncertainty behind Feathers's words while never fully surrendering her hardiness. Feathers's tough nature isn't a facade; it's a facet of her personality the same way Dude's ability to be a good law enforcer is a part of his. The film challenges its characters' better natures, but never dismisses them.
On the other side of things, some characters do submit to the Burdettes. Members of the community betray their own sheriff because they were paid off. The film even opens with Joe Burdette throwing tossing a coin into a spittoon for Dude to buy a drink, tempting Dude to debase himself and indulge in his bad habit; no one but Chance challenges this behavior. And while the Burdettes' influence fails to foster relationships based in more than money, the film suggests that such relationships are still something some of their henchmen want: one of Burdette's followers becomes angry with sheriff Chance, saying "Some of those you killed were friends of mine," referring to people bested by Chance and his deputies earlier in the film.
An especially remarkable sequence occurs after of Nathan Burdette's hired guns kills a friend of Chance's. Chance and Dude pursue the killer; Dude takes a shot at him, but he still manages to lose them. They enter a nearby saloon to search for him. Chance lets Dude take control of the situation. The saloon patrons all snicker at Dude as he inspects them one by one, while the bartender maliciously offers him a drink. We can see the shame, hurt, and self-doubt in Dean Martin's face. But then he notices something: blood dripping from the ceiling into a glass of beer on the bar. Dude realizes that his target is hiding in the rafters and immediately shoots him down. They take the killer away and Chance holds everyone in the bar accountable for lying to the authorities.
The killer was bleeding because Dude had been able to hit him when he tried to flee from them earlier. This is one of the scenes where Dude's shame over his alcohol dependency is strongest, but when we realize he was able to hit the killer we realize that he's still above the alcohol, that the version of himself he wishes he could return to still exists. The beer is stained red, a picture of Dude's talent conquering his vice.
The way the camera moves in this scene reflects the shifting balance of power, punctuated by the characters' reactions. Dude's weakness and Chance's attention to him are both visible, but so are differences in how they exercise their power after Dude overcomes his weakness. Chance is dominating, and his violence is always lying in wait; Dude is specific, and his violence emerges carefully and precisely.
Nathan Burdette offers stability, but it's a decadent stability, one that keeps him in power while turning everyone else into stepping stones for him. He serves base impulses disguised as pragmatic ideals. It's tempting for us to say that Chance and his deputies should just yield to the Burdettes, that they should just turn Joe over to Nathan and save themselves the trouble. After all, Nathan doesn't seem like a fool; he lives far away from Rio Bravo, and would probably take Joe with him if they let him go. But if they do, this film makes a strong and convincing case that, in fact, something immaterial would be lost.