Generally regarded as a career peak for Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo is both the culmination of the Hawksian action ethos and the gateway to Hawks’ relaxed late period. In his ground-breaking 1968 book on Hawks, Robin Wood identified a post facto trilogy - Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and Rio Bravo - that forms the backbone of Hawks’ oeuvre. Though Wood described the films as loose remakes of each other, their plots aren’t very similar. On the surface, what they have in common is a lot of recycled dialogue and bits of business. Below that, all three films are centered on idealized characters whose state of being is not at risk. Because they themselves are not put up as the stakes for the drama, the drama is subtly devalued. More important to the film’s effect is a performance space, carved out from the plot, where these heroes and their group of allies and comrades can enjoy themselves when they are not dealing with story issues. Though that space corresponds to real locations – in Rio Bravo, the jail and the hotel – it’s really more of a space within the fiction, in that events there enjoy some degree of independence from story concerns.
In addition to being the capstone of this central trilogy, Rio Bravo also bears a relationship to the five films that Hawks would make in the final decade of his career. Rio Bravo was a substantial commercial success, after a dodgy period in the early 50s when Hawks wondered how to position himself with regard to a changing industry. Speaking to Peter Bogdanovich, Hawks described the lesson he took away from Rio Bravo: “I also decided that audiences were getting tired of plots and, as you know, Rio Bravo and Hatari! have very little in the way of plot – more characterization and the fun of just telling a story. And it worked out very well. People seem to like it better than the other way.” Certainly Hatari!, Hawks’ next film, pushed the boundaries of how little narrative structure a Hollywood film could get away with. Here the performance space expands to become the film’s dominant feature: it’s the lightly-borne plot that is hemmed in by walls of behavioral pleasure. The genie would not go back into the bottle: though none of Hawks’ later films were quite as daring as Hatari! about discarding narrative, all of them liberate performance from story to a large extent, and wind up feeling like documentaries of actors hanging out on sets.
But, though one understands why Hawks thinks of Rio Bravo as a film of characterization, its plot is more prominent and functional than Hawks lets on. In fact, if Rio Bravo stands out in Hawks’ filmography, I’d say it’s because it adds to Hawks’ more familiar virtues a distinctive command of storytelling, organizing small events within overarching story movements so adroitly that the viewer has few opportunities to check his or her wristwatch during the film’s 141 minutes.
Here’s an example of how Hawks uses the jail/hotel axis and the characters’ motifs to sustain actions for long stretches of time. The night of the story’s second day starts with Dude fighting the DTs in the jail, prompting Chance to take him out for “a turn around the town.” (The last sentence, like those to follow, represents a fully developed and leisurely paced scene.) The walk gives rise to a number of small events (a few false alarms, a confrontation with a Burdett henchman) and, in the fullness of time, carries Chance and Dude to the busy hotel bar, where Chance has a long talk with his friend Pat Wheeler about the futility of offering help to the lawmen, ending with Wheeler’s employee Colorado opting for “minding my own business.” Chance’s attention shifts to a card game in a corner of the room, and he follows Feathers upstairs as she leaves the game, leading to a confrontation in which Feathers is accused of cheating. Colorado interrupts their talk to propose that “the man in the checkered vest,” not Feathers, was the cheat in the card game, and everyone goes downstairs to watch Colorado expose the perpetrator. Chance and Feathers have one more conversation, partially resolving their conflict, before Chance and Dude finally leave the hotel – only to see Wheeler gunned down on the street. The pursuit of Wheeler’s killer begins, first with Chance charging into a barn from which the killer manages to escape, and then with the famous saloon confrontation, itself a graded dramatic module in which the alcoholic Dude, seemingly heading for public humiliation, shoots the killer out of the rafters with angelic grace, setting the stage for Chance’s vengeful, act-closing warning to the Burdett men. In a lengthy postscript to the night’s action, the heroes talk over their exploit in the jail, with Dude’s inability to roll his own cigarettes signifying his continued psychic vulnerability; finally Chance goes to sleep at the hotel, where he has a late-night talk with Feathers in which he makes peace by offering to call in the sheriff’s flyers that identify her as a criminal’s accomplice. Only here does the action that began with Dude’s DTs in the jail, nearly 35 minutes of screen time earlier, come to rest.
This long continuous development of a single action is not unique in Rio Bravo. Perhaps an even better example occurs on Day Four, in which a jail-to-hotel-to-jail movement that encompasses both the flowerpot-throw gunfight and Dude’s uncanny redemption from alcoholism is honeycombed with ancillary conversations in which Dude, Feathers and Colorado are pushed along a step or two in their journey to membership in the Hawksian commune. One wonders which of the script collaborators was principally responsible for the film’s intricate, difficult plotting, or how this job of work fell out of Hawks’ memory. In any case, the pleasure of watching Rio Bravo is slightly different from (and, I would say, slightly greater than) that of any other Hawks film, thanks to the intertwining of Hawks’ ambient, behavioral vision and this framework of deceptively compelling storytelling.
More than any Hawks film I can remember, Rio Bravo is keyed to characters watching each other, to cross-cutting on glances. Chance and Stumpy watching Dude's withdrawal symptoms in the jail; Dude watching from across the street as Chance’s authority forces a Burdett henchman to retreat; Feathers wincing as Chance pulls a chair from under a bad guy; Chance monitoring Dude’s performance in the precarious saloon confrontation with Burdett’s men; the glances of amazement as Dude pours the whiskey back into the bottle – in all cases the cross-cutting feels primary rather than secondary, a way of creating a film about relationships rather than exploits. Robin Wood, noting that Chance is a moral leader but dependent on his cohort’s help at every turn, and that his virtue seems to exclude him from the communal song sequence, suggested that Hawks was problematizing the image of the self-sufficient hero. But I'd say that Hawks was never deeply invested in the notion of self-sufficiency. He uses it as part of the thematic structure of films like Only Angels Have Wings and To Have and Have Not, but Hawks is always inclined to start his movies from a foundation of such genre-defined cultural associations, and the solitary inclinations of Geoff Carter and Harry Morgan are more story premises than sources of artistic inspiration. (Don Siegel would be a counterexample of an artist whose exciting ideas generally form around the mystery and mythology of solitary figures.) Hawks’ greatest enthusiasm is reserved for the web of personal connections that his characters happily weave around themselves. That Rio Bravo contains no substantial struggle between self-sufficiency and communal life feels less like a new tack for Hawks than a step in the process of purification and de-genre-fication that was to become marked in Hawks’ late period.