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Rio Bravo

Directed by Howard Hawks.
With John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson.
US, 1959, 35mm, color, 141 min.
Print source: HFA

Viewed by many as the peak of Hawks’ career, if not the Western in total, Rio Bravo boasts the director in full command of his peculiar brand of plotless genre cinema, grinding narrative momentum down to a slow crawl to keep the spotlight on the rich character interplay for which his work is revered. At the heart of the film is a drawn-out duel between a sheriff (John Wayne) and the powerful rancher (John Russell) whose brother he locked up for murder, but the real meat of this lengthy, digressive “hangout” movie is the camaraderie shared between Wayne and his co-stars while their characters negotiate their next moves in the small-town jail. As the sheriff’s right-hand men, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan mine humor and depths of feeling from cliched archetypes, while Angie Dickinson, clad in a dazzling array of costumes, embodies an ideal Hawksian love interest as the whip-smart gambler who steals Wayne’s affection. In its general allegiance to good vibes over plot—never more apparent than when the film halts all mounting suspense for back-to-back group musical performances (a sequence singled out by critic Nick Pinkerton as quite possibly “the apex of American culture”)—Rio Bravo offers perhaps the most radical storytelling exercise in Hawks’ oeuvre, one that altered the course of his art thereafter.

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