The four men sit cramped in the sheriff’s office, keeping watch on the murderer behind bars in the back. Outside, dozens of hired guns prowl about, waiting for their chance to bust the prisoner out. To ease the tension in the tiny jail, two of the deputies break into a lilting cowboy song, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” This is either an entertaining interlude in Rio Bravo or the entire point of the movie: that with danger all around, these men choose to sit tight, sing a song, and do the right thing—no matter the potential price.
John Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance doesn’t sing in that scene (he wisely leaves that to Dean Martin’s Dude and Ricky Nelson’s Colorado), but he carries the song’s air of nonchalant integrity with him everywhere he goes. With his distinct, almost comical drawl and vaguely bird-like visage, Wayne wasn’t immediately imposing as an actor, until you notice the way he stands in a doorway or against a post. His casual posture, combined with his 6’ 4’’ frame, always communicated one thing, even if he was outnumbered: I’m the guy in charge here. I’m the one in control.
In Rio Bravo, Chance exudes this sense of command despite the fact that his only backup is Dude, a recovering alcoholic with a bad case of the shakes, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), an aging trigger finger with a considerable limp. Nelson’s Colorado joins them after his boss is murdered by one of the hired thugs, but he’s barely old enough to hold a gun. Still, it’s not skill but honor that matters most in the moral universe that Rio Bravo has constructed.
Wayne wasn’t immediately imposing as an actor, until you notice the way he stands in a doorway or against a post.
Directed by Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo has its fair share of gunfights and saloon showdowns (including a bravura opening confrontation that unfolds with barely any words). Yet the film resembles other Westerns less than it does Hawks’ snappy romances, such as Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and To Have and Have Not. The dynamic between Chance and Dude, who used to work together until Dude went off the deep end, is at once tart and tender, with Wayne exuding gruff tough love and Martin hitting surprising notes of regret. And while Brennan comes on a bit strong as comic relief, there is a sweetness too to the way Chance regards the older man. His value lies in his principles, not in his agility.
Even better—and more reminiscent of something like To Have and Have Not—are the scenes between Chance and Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a gambler with a shady past. Feathers locks her eyes on Chance the first time they meet, either because of genuine admiration or because she identifies him as the safest bet if things go south in this touchy town (or possibly both). Startled by her attention—and who wouldn’t be, given the way Dickinson can undress a man simply by narrowing her eyes in his direction—Chance loses that nonchalant air of assurance in her presence. Flustered by their first kiss, Chance manages to return the gesture the second time, which elicits this immortal line from Feathers: “It’s better when two people do it.”
The actors’ charisma and the script (by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) have a lot to do with the success of these scenes, of course, but it’s also in Hawks’ blocking and framing. Rio Bravo isn’t a Fordian display of vast Western visas; the contours explored here are emotional, those of a man lamenting the demise—and hoping for the rise—of his alcoholic friend, or a woman eventually throwing her lot in with the underdogs because she feels the pull of something other than her own survival. These feelings are captured as much in how the characters are placed within the frame as in what they say. During that musical number, Dude rests on a cot in the center rear of the screen, a leg casually crossed over his knee as he begins “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” as an a cappella solo. Stumpy sits on a backwards chair closer to the camera on the left, eventually joining in with his harmonica, while Colorado mirrors him on the right, holding a guitar and sitting atop a table. The triangle this creates is one of intimacy and comfort, built not on the security of their situation (narratively, things aren’t looking too good for the good guys at this point), but rather in a solidarity of purpose. They’ve made their peace with their choice to stand on the side of justice. And with that decision arrives a peace all its own—come what may.