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Rio Bravo: Special Edition

Anybody can direct an action sequence. Though Hollywood spends millions making 'em, as little as $7,000 can buy something to get your pulse racing. What's more impressive — what separates the men from the boys in this cinematic locker room — is being able to integrate those sequences into a coherent, believable whole, where character motivates said action. Enter Howard Hawks, director of such great and diverse films as His Girl Friday, Red River, Scarface, and The Big Sleep to name only a few. Rio Bravo (1959) is not only the perfect encapsulation of all that Hawks stood for; not only one of the greatest westerns ever made; not only one of the great American movies; but about as much fun as you can have watching films as can be imagined. When town bully Joe Burdett (Claude Akins) kills an unarmed man, Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) takes him into custody, but Burdett's brother Nathan is one of the richest men in town, and he doesn't take too kindly to his brother being locked up. With his town bottled up by Burdett's men, Chance's plan is to wait until the Federal Marshal can come to town (in about two weeks), but he's left with few willing to stand between him and the Burdetts — he's got Dude (Dean Martin), an ex-deputy and recent ex-drunk who, unintentionally, provoked the violence that put Burdett in jail; and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a cripple who has long been Chance's assistant. His old friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) tries to drum up some help, but Chance rejects it, figuring any outsiders would just be more targets for Burdett's gang to shoot at — something painfully proven when Wheeler is killed. Slowly, others join Chance's side: Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a card player who falls for the big lug; gunman Colorado (Ricky Nelson), one of Wheeler's men; and Carlos (Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales), the local hotel owner. All the while Chance — who doesn't want help — is constantly needing the assistance his friends provide, since Burdett's men are itching to start something.

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With a small group of friends defending the ideals of American justice in a southwest border town, Rio Bravo was meant to be the antithesis of High Noon (1952), which featured a sheriff begging for help, only to not need it. And while Noon featured an iconic Gary Cooper, Howard Hawks usually put together good casts — in Rio Bravo, they're perfect. John Wayne was never better in one of the few times he was believable as a romantic lead, something helped immeasurably by the sly and beautiful Angie Dickinson, who gives the their scenes together a screwball tone by her rapid-fire delivery (watch how their interplay borrows from Hawks' 1944 To Have and Have Not starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall). Wayne is bested only by Dean Martin, who gives one of the few great performances in his film career, but both are helped immeasurably by the always-watchable Walter Brennan and such genre players as Bond, Gonzales-Gonzales, and Akins. Even Ricky Nelson acquits himself nicely as a young gunslinger who's wise beyond his years. It speaks well of Hawks' extraordinary gift with actors that he brings out good qualities from Nelson, but he always brought out the most appealing and star-like qualities in those he worked with — Humphrey Bogart was the most Bogart in his Hawks films, and the same could be said for Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe. It may have something to do with his edict for the performers — "Good acting means having three good scenes and no bad ones" — but it helps to have a well-written and imminently quotable screenplay. Here, it's by longtime Hawks scenarists Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, who keep things moving at a fast pace but also allow for a musical sing-along between Martin, Nelson, and Brennan. Some may find the music disconcerting, but Hawks loved giving the audience what it came for (how could you have Nelson and Martin in a movie and not have them sing?) Ingeniously, the number fits perfectly into the narrative, revealing the characters' interdependent relationships. How people relate to each other is a cornerstone of Hawks's films (something he learned from the screwballs he pioneered), but for a character-driven story, it's impressive how many set-pieces Rio Bravo has, from the opening sequence (a silent-film homage running three minutes without dialogue), to the saloon showdown led by Dude, to the flower-pot fight sequence — really, any of the showdowns are masterful examples of Hawks' intuitive sense of camera placement and use of economical shots for maximum audience involvement. But what's most impressive is not any sequence in itself, but Hawks's ability to blend them into the narrative as set-pieces. Due to its lack of pretension and genre status, Rio Bravo may never be thought of as one of the ultimate achievements of cinema , but don't let its dusty façade fool you. This is one of the greats.

Warner's second DVD release of Rio Bravo arrives as a two-disc "Collector's Edition" — the anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is an improvement over the first disc, with slightly more color saturation and barely any hint of collateral wear on the source-print, while the monaural audio (DD 1.0) puts out a lot of noise in the right places. Dropped from the original release are the textual cast-and-crew notes, but they are succeeded by far better supplements — Disc One includes a commentary with film critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter, as well as trailers for Rio Bravo and four other John Wayne titles, while Disc Two includes the 1973 documentary "The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks" (55 min.), the new retrospective "Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo" with comments from Angie Dickinson, John Carpenter, Peter Bogdanovich, and Walter Hill (33 min.), and a look at the filming location in "Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked" (8 min.). Included in the dual-DVD slimline keep-case are eight black-and-white postcard photos, while a separate "Ultimate Collector's Edition" throws in reprints of a vintage press book and Dell comic book.
—DSH



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