Dear Rio Bravo,
There is as heavy dose of nostalgia as we take a load off and begin this simple tale, all too common in many old westerns. I think being such a common story of the day allows the director to establish the setting so seamlessly that it’s hard to appreciate it if you haven’t seen the film before. While this simple environment is being established, we meet a rather complex, down on his luck drunk that has it bad and gets into an encounter with the town bully that ends with a man dead and this bully – with a particular dangerous family – being held for the obvious murder of the man.
Things get complicated for not only for our drunk friend but also the sheriff played by the legendary John Wayne. As he effortlessly begins his vigil over the dastardly Joe Burdette, played supremely by Claude Akins, we see the day to day of this sort of slow Wild West showdown. As the U.S. Marshal is nearly a week away, the waiting routine is set for the small town jail and its protectors, which includes a late career iconic character turn by legend Walter Brennan as Stumpy.
As I pause and consider this masterpiece, (and make no mistake it is one of the best westerns ever made,) I try to pin down what makes it so good. Is it the many story elements seamlessly blended by a skilled Howard Hawkes? Or is it the easy, deeply affecting and well worn chemistry between the characters both bad and good? Perhaps it’s the magical but rare ability to make life and death situations rise above the intensity of the moment to allow the human element to shine clearly through so action never eclipses narrative?
Indeed it could be all of that and the amazing humor throughout the film! After a handful of times laughing out loud, I marvel that this film is so funny, rough and tumble, poignant and romantic all at the same time. It seems so convoluted as to seem lifelike, and that may very well be its greatest legacy. As Dean Martin drys up from being the bad drunk he has become, we also see that a very young and glorious Angie Dickinson is looking to create a new life in the eyes of our Sheriff and stop her wandering ways.
As things escalate and when Martin, as ‘Dude,’ starts to prove his old mettle, we see the slow and sly transition to a serious encounter with Joe’s cronies comes to a head. At this point we get to meet the ‘kid’ who is a steel nerved blazing six shooter played superbly by a young Rickie Nelson. With the good guy triumvirate proving tougher than nails, and while I watch the final encounter occur via the use of a little dynamite, it’s satisfying to see the bad guys brought to heel. Just as satisfying as the closing romance scene between the Sheriff and Ms. Feathers. While I chuckle along with everyone else at the stockings draped around Stumpys neck, It sinks in just how thoroughly entertained and delighted I am because of this rich and satisfying film.
Bravo indeed Rio Bravo!