Saturday, September 7, 2013
Rio Bravo - dir. Howard Hawks. 1959. Museum of the Modern Image.
Sheriff John Wayne and deputies Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan have their jailhouse laid siege to by hired guns trying to jailbreak the incarcerated brother of a powerful rancher. Smoking hot Angie Dickinson threatens to break John Wayne’s concentration.
I don’t have the knowledge base to talk about this film with much insight. I much prefer film writing that emphasizes historical context rather than the kind of thematic analysis on which I am about to embark. All I can really say is, this film is great and Howard Hawks is a genius and John Wayne is amazing. The opening scene is as striking as any in cinema, introducing the characters in a breathless and mostly dialogue-free, rapid-fire confrontation of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Hawks has an oddball sense of humor that always takes one by surprise, both in its timing and its content, like Wayne clobbered with a two-by-four the very moment you first see him, or like in a later scene where an argument between Wayne and Brennan ends with Wayne teasingly kissing the bald pate of Brennan’s old coot and then getting retributively slapped in the ass with a broom. The film is superbly well written, its dialogue ranging from the terse, antiquarian, Western man-speak of Wayne’s scenes with his old pal Pat Wheeler and the very modern, clipped cadences of Wayne and Dickinson’s romantic sparring.
This Western is not set on the open desert or the high mountains or the rolling fields, but in a hotel and a jailhouse and occasionally in the street that connects them—one domicile for Capital and one for the State, both strictly short-term occupancy only, connected by a public space that’s for moving through rather than for congregating in. The town is a portal the West. A checkpoint for flows of people and goods. Keep it movin’ folks. The drama of the film is that of congestion—what happens when people and things that are supposed to keep on moving get stuck in place. The main plot: Wayne is unable to transport a prisoner out of town because, as Wayne repeatedly gripes, the prisoner’s affluent brother has the whole town “bottled up” with hired guns. Wayne’s plan is to wait for the US Marshalls to arrive and unclog the system. The romance sub-plot: Angie Dickinson passes through town on the stagecoach, wanted as an accomplice to her now-dead gambling cheat of a husband. She’s supposed to be on the run from the law, but instead she falls in love with it in the person of John Wayne. She refuses to leave town, despite Wayne’s repeated efforts to put her on the next stage out. And another subplot: Ricky Nelson and Pat Wheeler are supposed to be passing through in a caravan escorting a shipment of dynamite further West, but Wheeler ends up murdered by outlaws and Nelson has to stay for revenge.
The only characters who do live in the town do so because their innate itinerancy has been hobbled—literally, in the case of poor, crippled Brennan, whose character, named “Stumpy,” hardly ever even leaves the jail house. Wayne ended up in town when he got “too lazy to keep selling [his] gun all over the place” and decided to sell it to just one place. Alcoholic Dino is compared to a tumbleweed—an aimlessly drifting piece of social detritus—but also to something one keeps tripping over in the street. I guess he’s the gunk that clogs your arteries.
The only characters who do have relatively organic relationship to the town are the Mexican couple who runs the hotel. For all that is of its time about how these characters are drawn—a comical, diminutive, Mexican sidekick and his fiery Latin wife—perhaps there is (maybe) a kind of respect for their (I hate to use the word) authenticity in the use of Spanish throughout the film: in the nickname of Dino’s character, “Borrachón;” in the title of the film (the Mexican name Rio Bravo as opposed to the American bastardized term Rio Grand[e]); and, most prominently, in some Spanish-language verbal comedy that goes unsubtitled and untranslated.
Wayne and his men have cloistered themselves in the jailhouse, besieged not only by outlaws but also by sex. Their West is not just a geographic frontier, but a social one, a new land awaiting a new, homosocial society to founded on and governed by manly virtues like honor, strength, and self-reliance, striking a balance between mutual respect (“Every man should have a taste of power before he’s through”) and the hierarchies that naturally emerge in a society founded on strength. It is a society of civic virtue where life would be oriented toward public duty rather than private interest, which is associated in Wayne’s mind with women and the domestic. When Wheeler offers to let Wayne borrow a few of his men to guard the jailhouse, Wayne turns him down, saying that wheeler’s’s men would only be a liability: in a firefight their heads would be full of thoughts of their wives and children while the outlaws would be thinking only of money.
We see what women do to a man in the prodigal Dean Martin, a recovering alcoholic whom we learn used to be Wayne’s deputy long ago but left his job when the wrong woman came along, broke his heart, and reduced him to drink. The film is, in part, the story of Dino’s rehabilitation, symbolized (of course) by him overcoming the shakes to re-master his pistol. John Wayne rewards Dino by returning to him the fancy clothes and gun belt that Dino sold off long ago to fund his alcoholism. Wayne bought back the items and fastidiously maintained them, waiting for the day Dino would return—one of many touchingly maternal gestures by the Duke, whom we forget is as much, if not more so, a fussy old woman as a patriarch. Just as Dino is the Duke’s Younger Man, so the Duke was Brennan’s Younger Man once. Now that Brennan has become old and enfeebled, the Duke takes on the role of Brennan’s younger, caretaker wife.
The specter of sex first rears its head not in Angie Dickinson but Ricky Nelson, a supposedly great gunfighter who wants to join Wayne’s band but whom Wayne turns down for reasons that seem specious. Perhaps Wayne is troubled by Nelson’s soft face, his dreamy, boyish looks, his tender blue eyes, the golden tenor of his voice, the way that his gun belt, draped over his pelvis, frames his cute little ass and modestly bulging cock. Wayne finally takes Nelson on but only to make Dino jealous, a bit of reverse-psychology aimed at forcing him to pull his shit together on the verge of a relapse and reclaim his rightful place as Wayne’s Special Boy.
And then there is the woman. The romance between Wayne and Dickinson begins when he apprehends her on suspicion of having cards up her sleeve at a poker game. Dickinson flirtatiously insists that he search her, one of the many times that Dickinson insists Wayne prove his desire for her by punishing her. Like I said, she’s not just in love with Wayne, but with the Law. Their scenes together deteriorate over the course of the film from very funny back-and-forths between Wayne and Dickinson to just hysterical monologues by Dickinson in which she projects all sorts of sexist attitudes on Wayne that he does not actually express (“You don’t want me to wear these stockings, do you?! Is it because they show too much of me?!”). Dickinson’s character knows what movie she’s in—she’s seen that stony, skeptical look on the Duke’s face before, she knows that it means. She’s so totally internalized the problem she represents to the Homosocial Frontier that the he doesn’t have to say a word. She says that she put the stockings on so that the Duke would know “what kind of woman” she is (the slutty kind), a phrase that she repeats throughout the film. Although, aside from the stockings, however, there is never any concrete indication that she actually is “that kind of woman," she knows that, in this social context, every woman is “that kind of woman.” The Duke finally gives in and says what she wants to hear, “I don’t want you to wear those stockings because I don’t want anyone to see you in ’em but me.” But when she hands him the stockings, he throws them out the window, where, in the closing shot of the film, they are recovered by his true loves, Dino and Stumpy.