John Wayne in Rio Bravo.
Mary Evans Picture Library/Warner Bros./Everett Collection

In a story that could be apocryphal, but probably isn’t, just before the great British-Canadian critic Robin Wood died in 2009, he dictated a list of his favorite movies to a close friend. At the top was Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. What a way to go. In this perfect western—this perfect movie—John Wayne is an aging sheriff named Chance who takes a stand against a gang of criminals with the help of a deputy with a bum leg (Walter Brennan), a barely-dry and still shaky recovering alcoholic (Dean Martin), and a baby-faced, guitar-strumming youngster (Ricky Nelson). A wanted woman named Feathers (Angie Dickinson) also happens to be shimmering around Chance’s periphery, stirring up a different kind of trouble. Though there are shootouts in Rio Bravo, the picture is short on action and long on talking. Some see this as a flaw, but if you’re a certain type of person you will gravitate all your livelong days toward those who think of the dialogue in Rio Bravo as the kind of trail that makes a movie worth following from beginning to end. (The script is by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, from a story by B.H. McCampbell.) This is a movie of second chances and cowboy songs, of “worthless” people who prove their worth beyond gold, of the only certainty we can ever trust in: there is nothing certain in this world. What more could you ask, or want, from a movie?

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