The idea for Rio Bravo (1959) began with Howard Hawks hating High Noon (1952). In 1962, Hawks explained this to me, referring to High Noon as that picture “in which Gary Cooper ran around trying to get help and no one would give him any. And that’s rather a silly thing for a man to do, especially since at the end of the picture he is able to do the job by himself. So I said, ‘We’ll do just the opposite, and take a real professional viewpoint.…”
The key word there is “professional,” because Cooper was playing a sheriff in a small town, to which a killer is about to return to murder him. Yet protecting the community was the sheriff’s job, for which he is being paid, and Hawks (who had himself done three movies with Cooper) deeply believed that his character’s behavior was, simply and thoroughly, unprofessional. So in Rio Bravo, when Sheriff John Wayne, in a similar situation, is offered help, he refuses it, saying in effect, “If they’re really good, I’ll take them. If not, I’ll just have to take care of them.” Hawks went on: “We did everything that way—the exact opposite of what annoyed me in High Noon—and it worked: people liked it.”
People loved it. Rio Bravo didn’t get any Academy Award nominations (High Noon got seven), but it was a far more popular movie with audiences than High Noon, for which Cooper won his second Best Actor Oscar (his first had been in 1941 for Hawks’ Sergeant York). Critically, Rio Bravo was received as a likable new John Wayne western, nothing much else. Some reviewers complained that it was crass of Hawks to have Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (whose first grown-up part this was, as a gunslinger) sing in the movie. I mentioned this once to Hawks and he said, guilelessly, “Well, they were both known as singers, I thought the audience might like to hear them sing.” He didn’t mention that he’d had similar singing sequences in a number of his films, similarly used as a way of bonding the characters. That Rio Bravo was actually the brilliant culmination of a 40-year career by one of America’s finest film artists was something only the French New Wave and a couple of similarly minded Englishmen and Americans (like Andrew Sarris) pointed out.
As Jean-Luc Godard wrote: “The great filmmakers always tie themselves down by complying with the rules of the game.… Take, for example, the films of Howard Hawks, and in particular Rio Bravo. That is a work of extraordinary psychological insight and aesthetic perception, but Hawks has made his film so that the insight can pass unnoticed without disturbing the audience that has come to see a Western like all others. Hawks is the greater because he has succeeded in fitting all he holds most dear into a well-worn subject.”
What Hawks held most dear was professionalism; all his adventure films deal with this subject—professionals in dangerous situations: The Dawn Patrol (war), Only Angels Have Wings (primitive flying), To Have and Have Not (foreign intrigue), The Big Sleep (private detective), Red River (cattle drive), etc. On the other hand, Hawks’ comedies put the pros into ridiculous situations: Bringing up Baby (paleontologist), His Girl Friday (newspaper reporters), Ball of Fire (encyclopedists), I Was a Male War Bride (Army), Monkey Business (chemists).
Amazingly, although he worked in virtually every genre (even musicals, with professional gold diggers in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Hawks has every bit as consistently personal a body of work as Hitchcock, who basically worked in only one genre. It’s no coincidence that when the French revolutionized cinema with their 1950’s politique des auteurs (mistranslated here as “the auteur theory”), they became known as “the Hitchcocko-Hawksians,” because their primary examples of serious artists working deep within the Hollywood system were these two essentially antipodean picturemakers: the voyeur and the adventurer.
Hawks himself was very much like the men in his movies—as a youngster, he built racing cars and drove them, and was a flier when flying was new. He had a dark sense of humor, and was a loner. “The Gray Fox of Hollywood,” he was called, and he talked and moved with the casual, laconic air of a Hemingway character, as unpretentious as he was sophisticated. He was a lethal ladies’ man, and his female characters are by now proverbial as “Hawksian women,” the no-nonsense lady, who can take it and dish it out with any guy—lean, sexy, aggressive, funny (with infinite variations): Louise Brooks (A Girl in Every Port), Carole Lombard (Twentieth Century), Frances Farmer (Come and Get It), Rita Hayworth (Only Angels Have Wings), Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday), Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep), Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo). Several of these women he introduced to the screen.
Talking about the most archetypal example—Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not—Hawks once told me that when he had shown this picture to Marlene Dietrich, her response to him afterward was, “You son of a bitch—that’s me, isn’t it?” And he answered, Yes, and that in a few years he would do the same thing with another woman. As he did a decade and a half later, with Angie Dickinson. But his goal of creating an American Dietrich—which took root right after Josef von Sternberg and Dietrich first collaborated on The Blue Angel and Morocco (both 1930)—didn’t reach perfection until his first movie with Bacall. He succeeded just as well, in a softer tone, with Angie.
She even has a couple of the same gambits with Wayne in Rio Bravo as Bacall did with Bogart in To Have and Have Not. The second kiss with Bogie, and Bacall says, “It’s even better when you help”; the second kiss with Wayne, and Angie says, “It’s better when two people do it.” Exasperation at the man’s reluctance to commit: Bacall says, “I’m hard to get, Steve. All you have to do is ask”; Angie says, “I’m hard to get, John T. You’re gonna have to say you want me.” Hawks had no compunction about stealing from himself. He gives to Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo a nose-rubbing habit that was used by both Wayne and Montgomery Clift (as his surrogate son) in Red River. If it worked once, he would say blithely, why not do it again? He didn’t mind stealing from others either, if it would fit into his view of the world.