Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"A game-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?"

We're gonna take a break this week from Matt Helm, but I haven't forgotten that I still have The Wrecking Crew left to cover.  See, that's the only way I know Dean Martin: from comedy.  Though, I'm sure Dino wouldn't have any problem with that legacy. I first saw him as a kid in the Cannonball Run movies, and then later from clips of his old roasts on PBS, and later on it was with the rest of the Rat Pack in the original Ocean's 11. So, since I like to fill in the spots where I see gaps in my experience, I decided to take in the serious side of Dean Martin and watched Howard Hawks' 1959 western, Rio Bravo.

The movie opens with Dude (Dean Martin), the town drunk, reaching for a dollar that's been mockingly thrown to him into a nearby spittoon by Joe Burdette, the brother of the town's wealthy rancher, when John Chance (John Wayne), the sheriff, kicks it away out of pity. Dude hits Chance knocking him out, and Burdette's men hold up Dude for Joe to go to work on.  When a bystander tries to intercede, Joe shoots him in cold blood.  This leads to Joe's capture and the start of a long stand-off between the sheriff and Nathan Burdette, the wealthy rancher while they wait for U.S. Marshalls to come for Joe.

With all the singers, John Wayne fights to keep the movie from becoming Paint Your Wagon...
For the most part, the movie is good fun if a little slow for a couple of jags.  It never exactly gets tiresome, but every now and again, I felt like I kept waiting for something to pep things up just a hair.  There's a lot of walking from the jail to the hotel, banter in the hotel, walking back to the jail, banter in the jail, and then walking back up the street again.  Now, when I say it's a stand-off, that's because Nathan stashes men in the town to make sure that the sheriff doesn't try to sneak his brother off to the authorities under his nose.  The only problem is, his men largely just stand around and aren't really all that intimidating until they finally make a move here and there.

A lot of this is because the movie was in reaction to the western High Noon (1952). High Noon starred Gary Cooper as a marshall who had to face down the vengeful members of the Miller gang all alone when no one will come to his aid.  It's long been known to be an allegory of the House of Un-American Activities hearings in Hollywood that led to the black-listing of the Hollywood Ten, a group of filmmakers who had affiliations with the Communist Party.  John Wayne was famously not a fan of High Noon, and enlisted Hawks to help him make Rio Bravo as a response.  So as the sheriff who can't help but turn down help, Bravo definitely wins the "feel good" prize, but it simply can't compete with the desperation and suspense, the palpable dread, of High Noon.

But it does feel good, and it is nice and enjoyable to see a movie that's not so jaded and shows a whole town pitching in with its sheriff to keep the rich guy from bullying his way into setting his murderous jerk brother free.  It's just not very nail-biting.

Considering his reputation, Dino deserved an award for this scene alone....
The only thing that had me nervous was Dino's character, Dude.  He's essentially the heart of the picture.  See, the problem too often with Wayne is that he's always John Wayne in nearly every picture, and the "Duke" is almost a little too indestructible. I can only think of two exceptions where he wasn't Wayne: 1) The Conqueror (1956), the strange movie that saw him playing Genghis Khan, and 2) my favorite Wayne picture, The Searchers (1956), which was one of his most complex and extremely unlikable characters.  Dude, on the other hand, is all too vulnerable, though he's greased lightning with a gun.  The sheriff explains that Dude was a former deputy who ran off with a girl who was no good only to return to take up his new position as the town drunk.  And Dino gives a strong performance as he fights off the shakes and set-backs that keep pointing him back to booze.  It was the surprising amount of screen time they gave his resurrection that had me waiting for the inevitable fall...but I won't say how or to what degree the movie delivered on that score.

The movie gave the ladies Ricky, I'll leave this for the fellas...
The supporting cast also does a fine job. The obvious stunt casting of Ricky Nelson as the new kid with a pistol only really grates during a song number late in the film; however, having both Ricky and Dino in the movie, I knew they had to sing something at some point. But it arrives late, and just when you feel the final action should be swinging into motion.  Angie Dickinson is very enjoyable as the Duke's love interest, the gambler's ex-girl, Feathers.  The scene where she has Wayne on his heels suggesting he give her a strip search is quite a corker.  Unfortunately, her fast paced dialogue, a Hawks' trademark, seems a little ill-at-ease as the movie wears on, especially in a western setting, and it seems like the tender scenes are being forcibly wedged in there for the benefit of the women in the audience. As if throwing them Ricky wasn't good enough.

Looks like Howard would concur...
In all,  for soaking up a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, you could do a whole lot worse than this relaxed and enjoyable picture.  After all, Howard Hawks and John Wayne must've been happy with it as they more or less remade it two more times.