I’m a sucker for Westerns, but a long diet of classic Bollywood, with its abundant songs and happy endings, has rather spoilt things for me: I find I don’t like the dark and moody Westerns that go deep into the psychology of a silent and brooding hero. Rio Bravo, therefore, was right up my street: lots of action, a bit of humour, and even two great songs. Dean Martin. What more could a girl want?
Deep in Presidio County, Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne) is a worried man. He’s just arrested Joe Burdett (Claude Akins), who’s evil as they come—and has just killed a man. What’s worrying Chance is that Joe’s brother, wealthy rancher Nathan (John Russell), has pulled together all his men and got the town bottled up. Chance is sending out a message to a United States Marshal, but it’ll be six days before he comes.
As Chance’s friend Wheeler (Ward Bond), who’s just arrived in town with a wagon train carrying fuel and dynamite, says: “If I ever saw a man holdin’ a bull by the tail, you’re it.”
And Chance has very few people he can depend upon. One is Stumpy (Walter Brennan), an old man with a game leg, who cooks, cleans and watches over Joe Burdett. He’s unbelievably trigger-happy and needs little excuse to pepper the door of the sheriff’s office with bullets.
There’s Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), owner of the Hotel Alamo. He’s sweet, garrulous, and does his best to help, though he’s clearly no good with guns.
And there’s Chance’s ex-deputy Dude (Dean Martin), who used to be great with a gun—until he fell for a girl who left him. Ever since, Dude’s taken to the bottle with a vengeance. He’s dirty, his hands shake, and he’s even willing to pick a dollar out of a spittoon so he can buy a drink.
Chance manages to get a badge back on Dude, but the road back to sobriety is long and painful for all concerned.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s a girl (Angie Dickinson. We don’t get to know her name; everybody calls her Feathers, because she carries a feather boa). Feathers gets off the stage and Chance recognises her from a handbill he’s got. Feathers used to be married to a card sharp, and though he got killed four months back, her description is still on the Wanted handbill, along with her dead husband’s.
Chance starts off suspecting Feathers of cheating at cards, but that gets cleared up. Feathers forgives him readily enough, and she’s obviously taken a shine to him.
But Joe Burdett’s still in jail, and Nathan’s getting restive. Wheeler offers Chance the services of Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson), a kid who’s riding for him and is very good with a gun. Colorado declines—this isn’t his fight—but then Burdett’s man dry gulches Wheeler in the street.
Chance and Dude go after Wheeler’s killer and track him down to Burdett’s saloon. Burdett’s men jeer at Dude—for them, he’ll always be the town drunk—but Dude has a few aces up his sleeve. This is a superb scene, and just one instance of why this movie earned Dean Martin second place in the Golden Laurel category for Top Action Performance. Heck, he should’ve got first place, is what I think.
Even as they go back to Chance’s office, Chance realises they’re in a stalemate of sorts. He doesn’t have the firepower to attack Burdett and his men, and Burdett won’t attack, because Chance has promised the first person he will kill is Joe Burdett. And the Marshal is still three or four days away…
Colorado’s joined the gang by now, so all four of them—Chance, Dude, Stumpy and Colorado—decide to hole up in the sheriff’s office and wait it out till the Marshall arrives.
Excellent film, not cerebral, but good fun and with some great action.
What I liked about this film:
Actually, everything! But what I liked best:
Dean Martin. He’s perfect. Perfect as the shivery, shaky drunk who’s willing to sacrifice his self-esteem (whatever’s left of it) for a drink. Perfect as the man out to prove he’s still good with a gun. And of course, perfect as a singer too. He’s got two songs in this movie, both duets with Ricky Nelson: Just my rifle, pony and me; and Cindy.
The music, by Dimitri Tiomkin. The two songs are good, of course, but the background score is great too.
What I didn’t like:
Too little Dean Martin. Seriously. I like the Duke, but Dude needed more screen space, I think. But otherwise? Very enjoyable.