Sunday, July 12, 2009

RIO BRAVO - Blu-Ray (Warner Bros. 1959) Warner Home Video

Based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell, director Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) represented something of a major comeback. By the time of its release it had been almost five years since Hawks last movie.

The laconic Hawks, who had exhibited three decades of versatility behind the camera on films like Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Big Sleep (1946) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) had seen his reputation plummet with Land of the Pharaohs (1955); a DeMillian epic that ironically failed to catch on with the public and was all but lambasted by the critics. Also in this interim, the studio system that had coddled directors like Hawks had severely eroded, leaving Hawks at sea in terms of reestablishing himself with both his peers and the public.

Employing long time collaborators Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman to pen the screenplay, Hawks turned to long time friend and star, John Wayne for backing on the project. Like Hawks, Wayne’s career had faltered with a series of minor misfires throughout the early to mid-1950s. In fact, Wayne had not had a hit or appeared in a western since John Ford’s iconic The Searchers (1956).

In casting Rio Bravo, Wayne’s name on a marquee still carried major clout. And although Walter Brennan’s name was quick to accompany Wayne’s on a short list of actors the director knew and trusted, to round out his cast Hawks made two uncharacteristic choices that proved fortuitous and ever-lasting to the film’s box office appeal and success.

The first of these was Dean Martin; then seen as half of the ultra-popular comedy act Martin and Lewis. A rift with Jerry Lewis made Martin a free agent and more than eager to make his bones on a Howard Hawks picture. However, Hawks feared that Martin’s light persona was at odds with the harsh portrait of drunkenness he had in mind for the character of Dude. Nevertheless, Hawks granted Martin an audience and later, an audition for the part and was sufficiently impressed by both to hire Martin for the film.

The latter uncharacteristic casting choice Howard Hawks made for Rio Bravo involved pop icon and teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson to play the gunslinger, Colorado. At the time Ricky Nelson was the biggest name in the cast – having grown to prominence on TV’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. However, Hawks was rather unimpressed by Nelson’s first few days of shooting, eventually coaching him to observe the mannerisms of actor Montgomery Clift in another Hawks’ western – Red River – to develop his own cadence and mood for the part.

The plot to Rio Bravo begins in earnest with the imprisonment of Joe Burnette (Claude Akins) for the murder of an innocent man during a bar room altercation that involved Deputy Sheriff Dude (Dean Martin) and the town Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne). Burnette’s posse doesn’t take lightly to his incarceration and neither does Burnette’s brother, wealthy rancher Nathan (John Russell).

After the Sheriff’s long time friend Pat Wheeler offers to help guard the jail – and is murdered by Burnette’s men as a direct result – Wheeler’s hired gun, Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) decides to unite with the Sheriff, Dude and town jailer, Stumpy (Walter Brennan) to hold down the fort until the U.S. Marshall’s arrival.

There are two back stories running simultaneously with this central narrative; the first involving the Sheriff’s growing affections for Feathers (Angie Dickinson) – part of a card game con who is on the lam and out to romantically snare the Sheriff. The other narrative thread worth mentioning is Dude’s triumphant resurrection from the clutches of alcoholism brought about by a previous love affair gone rancid.

Eventually, all of this quiet sustained tension culminates in an explosive showdown between the Sheriff, Dude and Colorado vs. Nathan Burnette and his men. However, just prior to this finale Hawks finds a perfect moment in the screenplay to illustrate his appreciation for male bonding by having Dude and Colorado lead Stumpy and the Sheriff in two quaintly familiar songs; thereby extolling the singing virtues of Martin and Nelson – a definite plus for audiences of their day.

Not all of Rio Bravo is great but so much of it is solid entertainment that it is impossible not to be captivated by the movie as a whole. There are several long stretches where the action seems to drag, particularly during the first third of the movie. The last act however, is pure gold. Hawks is working with stellar material and certainly, stellar talent.

The film is as much a reunion and return to form for all concerned as it is about making a great western to counterbalance and/or offset Hawks own contempt for the anti-establishment western classic, High Noon starring Gary Cooper. In the final analysis, Rio Bravo is sparkling entertainment and so deserving of its place in cinema history. It’s no wonder Hawks elected to remake it twice more in his later years.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray offering easily bests its Collector’s Edition standard DVD. Yet, the image still isn’t quite up to par. Despite a print made by Technicolor, the anamorphic image exhibits a rather ruddy and undefined color palette. Browns, oranges, blacks and grays all take on a non-descript muddy tone. Flesh tones are often too reddish pink or flat orange. Both in long and medium shots, fine details seem to be buried under a light patina of film grain and clumpy color.

Overall, the image will certainly not disappoint – but it doesn’t seem to be pushing the boundaries of Blu-Ray’s high resolution either. The audio is 5.1 lossless. The real beneficiary is the two songs sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin, obviously remixed from the original mag tracks and reedited back into the sound mix for this update.

Extras are all direct imports from the SE DVD, including the three documentaries (one on the film, the last two on Hawks), plus an informative audio commentary from John Carpenter and Richard Schickel, and, the film’s original theatrical trailer. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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