"Red River" (1948) is probably the best western ever made. Howard Hawks was the director, John Wayne was the star, and Walter Brennan was an important supporting actor. The three reunited more than ten years later for another western, which had a more relaxed feel. Hawks is not in a hurry with "Rio Bravo", adding romantic subplots, comic relief characters, and even musical numbers that are not part of the main story.
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Wayne is a small town sheriff in the old west. Dean Martin is his deputy, suddenly off the bottle after a long stint as town drunk. Brennan is the jailer, a cantankerous old man with a bum leg. Ricky Nelson is a young, confident gunslinger. Angie Dickinson is a gambler and entertainer with her sights set on winning Wayne, despite the quarter century difference in their ages. Ward Bond plays a gruff wagonmaster, in the last of the 23 films that he made with John Wayne.
Wayne jails a brutish Claude Akins for murder. Akins has a wealthy cattle rancher brother, however, who is determined to free Akins before the arrival of a U.S. marshal. Paid gunmen by the dozen arrive in town, hatching various plots to force Wayne to release Akins.
"Rio Bravo" was intended by Hawks and Wayne as a response to "High Noon" (1952). The sheriff in that film begs for help, but ends up facing the gunmen alone. The situation is reversed in "Rio Bravo", with Wayne patronizingly turning down help, but receiving it anyway. The two films are opposites in other ways. "High Noon" is a grim, unhappy film, with Gary Cooper's character despising not only his role of sheriff, but even the town that he must protect. "Rio Bravo" is much looser, with Wayne seeming to relish his position as the town's most important citizen and protector.
But like "Red River", "High Noon" is much superior to "Rio Bravo". The difference is not only in the extent and consistency of the dramatic tension, but in the casting and characters. Ricky Nelson is present to draw teenage interest, but gives only a perfunctory performance. The parallel is to Montgomery Clift in "Red River", but Clift's performance was much better and his character far deeper. While it was requisite to have a leading lady, Dickinson isn't fully up to the role. She tries to generate spunk, but she pales in comparison to Marlene Dietrich from "Destry Rides Again". Even Wayne isn't at his best. While he remains a charismatic, commanding presence, his character lacks the intensity of his roles in "Red River", "The Searchers", or even "The Man who Shot Liberty Valance". Not only doesn't he mind when Dickinson dresses to kill, he doesn't even get upset at Dean Martin when he clubs him over the head. His fits of anger are more bark than bite, and he often seems amused when serious situations arise. Walter Brennan is an outstanding character actor, the winner of three Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. But while always entertaining, his crotchety old man routine sometimes seems like a parody of his sidekick character in "Red River". Close your eyes when he is talking, and you see a cartoon character.
There are some problems with continuity as well. Wayne tells saloon owner Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) to put Dickinson on the stage. She refuses to go, and Carlos gets a black eye. Next thing you know, Dickinson is working for Carlos in his saloon. Dean Martin's character transition from a drunk clubbing Wayne over the head, to a heroic deputy coming out the unlikely victor in a fistfight with the much-bigger Akins, seems phony. His character provides artificial drama as he is given lines like "I've got the shakes really bad".
The reason that I am being critical of a good film like "Rio Bravo" is that seems to be overrated. It received no Academy Award nominations, and was not held in high esteem when first released. Its reputation has grown over the years along with that of Wayne and Hawks. Of course "Rio Bravo" is an entertaining way to spend two or three hours. But it asks very little from its audience with its familiar, breezy characters and story. (66/100)
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