In praise of Dean Martin in Howard Hawks’ joyous western Rio Bravo

On the centenary of Rat Pack legend Dean Martin’s birth, we sing the praises of his immortal turn as the drunken Dude in the classic western Rio Bravo.

Rio Bravo (1959)

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this before,” says Ward Bond’s not-long-for-this-earth Pat Wheeler, early in Howard Hawks’ 1959 masterpiece, Rio Bravo. He’s talking to Dude, the one they call ‘Borachón’ (“It means drunk”), the same deputy sheriff we’ve just seen beaten and humiliated in the film’s opening scene. We’ve not seen the actor playing Dude like this before either. The Dean Martin that sidles into that wordless opening with a thirst and a sweat on, his skin scorched by the Texas sun, is a world away from “the coolest man who ever walked the earth,” as more than one YouTube hagiography of Martin would have it.

The erstwhile crooner’s cinematic career was a curious one. Some 16 films as straight-man to Jerry Lewis’s manic whirlwind preceded the Rat Pack’s tabloid highs, before a descent towards the Bond-lampooning lows of the Matt Helm spy series. Yet three films in the late 1950s suggested a different story. If The Young Lions (1958) and Some Came Running (1958) proved the adaptability of Dino’s movie star charisma, it was Rio Bravo that gave him the against-type role of his career.

Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (1959)

If saying that Rio Bravo is ultimately Dude’s story ignores the importance of the film’s group dynamic, it’s safe to say that his arc provides its central theme (one central to the whole Hawksian mode): that acceptance in said group is dependent on one’s ability to perform the tasks at hand – on being “good enough”. Dude may be the character most obviously singled-out as in need of salvation, but his battle remains explicitly his own – “Sorry don’t get it done, Dude.”

For a film that runs almost two and a half hours, there’s remarkably little by way of plot. Yet the mastery of late-period Hawks – of which Rio Bravo marks the beginning – lies in the filmmaker’s ability to hone narrative, action and theme organically out of character. The laconic approach to plot matters little when it’s such a pleasure simply keeping company with the gang. Casting proved key, but Hawks understood the importance of gesture in building relationships between characters, and so much of the film’s magic stems from moments of understated nuance, the grace notes of interpersonal business.

John Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959)

The dynamic between sheriff John Wayne and Martin is economically established up top, as Duke’s entrance – towering over a cowed and humiliated Dude – sets up the power balance between the pair. We see the former-crack-shot deputy before we learn the reason for his slide into disgrace (a woman, natch), feel his wounded pride as he slugs his boss, before he later saves his bacon by making an outnumbered move on the villain. If the rules of archetype with which Hawks toys suggest Dude is set up as the tragic figure, it’s the humour and pathos brought by Martin, the resignation and then defiance at his allotted role that allows Dude to transcend a familiar fate.

That the pair became fast friends off screen pays dividends in their on-screen chemistry, with Martin’s deference to Wayne bringing out a paternalistic softening in Duke (he even calls him Papa at one point). It was Wayne’s suggestion that he roll cigarettes for the DT-addled Dude, and while the dialogue that sees the deputy aspire to “goodness” for his sheriff came courtesy of screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, the adoring eyes were all Dino’s.

John Wayne, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan in Rio Bravo (1959)

The protection of the jail ultimately takes a back seat to Dude’s readiness for the job, the film’s emotional climax being Martin’s triumphantly steady hand as the band strikes up ‘The Alamo’ again, pouring his whisky back into the bottle (“I didn’t spill a drop”) moments after having handed in his resignation.

The climactic dynamite-tossing serves up some gang’s-all-here larks, a stage set for Dude to play his part. But really, it’s as superfluous an excuse for on-the-job camaraderie as an earlier sequence that’s quintessentially Hawks. The jailroom singalong may have been conceived along commercial lines to make use of Dino and Ricky Nelson’s pipes, but it’s a poignant moment for Dude and the rest of the ragtag crew – as much a close-knit reminder of what’s worth fighting for as an expression of pure joy.

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