Monday, May 28, 2007

'Let's take a turn around the town ...'

While reading the comic book that comes inside the Rio Bravo: Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD, it occurred to me that this movie is done no justice in print (whether on a blog or a blandly-drawn comic). Translating Rio Bravo to a comic book couldn't have been fun since it's such a dialog and atmosphere-driven movie. It's hard to convey in print why a Western with a couple of explosive shootouts and an unremarkable story can be one of the genre's very best. Rio Bravo's perfection lies in what cannot be translated by any print medium.

The first time I saw Rio Bravo it didn't affect me immediately, but for the rest of that week I couldn't stop thinking about how much I wanted to watch it again. It's one of the few movies I can see myself starting over immediately after the credits roll. What makes it so memorable for me is that its structure is unlike almost any other film: it's long and delicately paced, but never loses your interest; the main villain is rarely seen, but his presence plays a large part in almost every scene; our heroes are committed to defending a town whose residents we never meet, and the lawmen seem to spend most of their time discussing why and how they're doing their job.

And though it's an outright classic, Rio Bravo will never be accused of being an epic Western in terms of story. In simplest terms it's the tale of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) and his two sidekicks -- a drunk (Dean Martin) and an old cripple (Walter Brennan) -- who refuse to back down from their duty as lawmen, even in the face of wealthy land baron Nathan Burdette, whose brother just happens to be jailed for murder. It's an underdog story: Burdette's confidence in his money and hit men, and overestimation of Chance's motley crew is his undoing. But as Chance is quick to remind, he and his men are simply doing their job, so what's the fuss? It's this last part that famously made Rio Bravo a personal retort from director Howard Hawks to 1952's High Noon, which finds Gary Cooper's sheriff soliciting help from any and everyone in town before the vengeful brute Frank arrives on the train. Hawks' undressing of this concept often comes across in non-too-subtle terms: Chance says that any extra help will merely be "more targets" for Burdette's crew, and even though Dude and Stumpy may not be the best, they're still professionals and ahead of any able amateur. In response to "that's all you got?" Chance puts it bluntly: "That's what I got!"

Chance's unflinching confidence in his situation is what drives the movie. Outnumbered with federal help at least six days away, Chance nonetheless goes about it business-as-usual, and that includes his ritual for entering the Sheriff's Office: hat on the rack by the door, gun in the rack on the back wall, butt on the seat and feet on the chair. We see this ritual numerous times during the movie, and Wayne is able to make it come across as something Chance doesn't even think about. Smarter people than I have related this to a near tai chi or ballet that Chance habitually practices, which is one of the reasons Rio Bravo is pretty much alone in its genre of Horse Ballet (or ballad, take your choice).

I likened The 'burbs to Rio Bravo in that the locale is so blissfully limited, and after awhile you start to think you could get by OK in this one street town: there's the hotel with great service (and a nice dame serving drinks), the doctor around the corner, Charlie's bar (with a front and back door, a hidden loft and a shotgun under the counter) and at least two other bars (no shortage of nightlife in Rio Bravo). So Rio Bravo feels like a real Western town, but it also acts like one. Notice how we never really see any townsfolk after the opening shooting -- for the rest of the movie the streets are almost always deserted and it seems only Burdette's men fill the saloons (perhaps they've been through this sort of thing before and are wise enough to stay inside?).

We may never again see a dramatic trio so in tune with each others' melodies as we have with Wayne, Brennan and Martin. For Brennan and Martin, they find themselves in the unquestioned roles of their lives, perfectly suited to their strength with writing that never lets them down. Martin obviously had experience playing a drunk, and he's always able to show that underneath all that alcohol is a talented lawman with a fragile ego who's dying to do good for Chance. Brennan brings everything he can to the table, which is his prototypical old coot no bullshit humor -- he finds a way to turn any interaction into a crowning bitch fest, and it's beautiful. Both shine in their opportunities to show Chance he was wise not to doubt them -- Dude's triumph in Charlie's bar leaves the room silent, and Stumpy's shotgun improvisation literally saves the day. Of course, it's not actually a trio of heroes with the introduction of the young and fearless Colorado (Ricky Nelson). A quick-shooting pretty boy, Colorado adds another dynamic to the movie as he has to overcome the age difference with his friends and foes and also convince himself why he shouldn't just get on his horse and leave this God-forsaken town.

And I haven't even gotten to Angie Dickinson's character Feathers, who helps bring an element of To Have and Have Not interplay with Chance to the film. There's so many outstanding supporting characters (Ward Bond, Claude Akins, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, anyone?), it's amazing there's even room for them with how the four main characters dominate the script. Watching Rio Bravo, you feel yourself wanting to make like the characters -- but not to replicate their stunts or bravado -- but simply to toss your hat on the rack and kick your feet up, it's a relaxing 141 minutes.

The DVD: Long, long overdue for an upgrade, Rio Bravo comes (like The Searchers did last year) in a two-disc special edition and a slightly snazzier Ultimate Collector's Edition. Headlining the extras is a commentary track by recently-maligned film critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter, who needs no introduction. Both obviously idolize the movie and speak in a loving tone throughout, with Schickel dominating the track with informative takes on his personal experiences with Hawks and anecdotes from the set. Carpenter says right up front that Rio Bravo is one of his all-time favorite movies and Hawks is his favorite director, so it's interesting to hear a sort of 'fan boy' take from a veteran director. Carpenter has obviously researched the movie and its director a great deal, and it shows (he keenly informs us that Charlie the bartender is played by Robert Mitchum's brother, John). The two men obviously recorded the track separately, so there is no conversational element to it, but it is also apparent that they are speaking spontaneously and from memory, not from a rehearsed essay (an effect that plagues many critics' commentaries).

The featurette 'Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo' is a new look at the film from a variety of rich sources, such as Dickinson, Carpenter, Peter Bogdanovich and Walter Hill. Some of the material from the commentary track is repeated here, but it's mostly an entertaining half-hour that fans of the movie will eat up (Dickinson reveals how big a part she played in the title, as she objected to the original 'Bull By the Tail,' to the delight of Hawks, who felt it was an important critique in a city full of yes-men). 'The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks' was also put on the Bringing Up Baby DVD and is a rich, but decades-old biography. "Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked" is a fun and short look at the Arizona faux town where Rio Bravo and many other Westerns were shot.

If there is any complaint with the DVD it is with the Ultimate Collector's Edition upgrade, which has a value and price that will be tough for even the most ardent of DVD completists to defend. The MSRP for the upgraded set is $20 more, yet all you are getting is a small comic book, press book and more glitzy packaging. This is consistent with what Warner Bros. did with The Searchers last year, but it was hard to complain in that case because for only about $10 more you could buy the John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection, which contained the aforementioned Ultimate edition as well as seven other quality movies. With Rio Bravo there is no such defense, and it's even more of a rip-off because the un-Ultimate edition comes with exclusive glossy on-set photos. In the Ultimate set, you're stuck with bland lobby cards. It basically comes down to the question of if you want to pay almost double the price for more handsome packaging (and it does look nice). I say skip the Ultimate edition.

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