Shot By Shot: The Opening Scene of ‘Rio Bravo’

The first minutes of ‘Rio Bravo’ are among the greatest in cinema history. Let’s break them down.
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By  · Published on May 7th, 2018

The first minutes of ‘Rio Bravo’ are among the greatest in cinema history. Let’s break them down.

Just after the final opening credit rolls, informing the audience that the four-year hiatus of director/producer Howard Hawks has come to an end, an old wooden door appears and slowly opens, beginning the story of Rio Bravo (1959). The only thing in worse shape than the beat-up door is the man who opens it just enough for his body to slide through and into the room. The man is Dude (Dean Martin), who the audience will come to know as the sheriff’s deputy turned alcoholic, whose hands were once the best in the West and now shake after a few hours without a drink. As Dude closes the door and looks around, Hawks lingers on his face for half of this thirteen-second opening shot. In that sweaty, dirty face, the camera sees a timid man, one who is alone and in need of, on the surface, a drink, but actually, a friend. As is true for most of this three minutes and fifty-seven seconds-long, thirty-eight shot opening sequence, there is no dialogue, only the soft chatter of the saloon’s clientele and gentle music playing in the background. The brilliance of Rio Bravo comes from Hawks’ ability to tell a visual story through the faces of his characters.

Though not the film’s protagonist – that role belongs to the town’s sheriff, John T. Chance (John Wayne) — the story of Rio Bravo belongs to Dude, not just because his entering the frame prompts the film, but because he is the character on a quest that is both professional and personal; seeking redemption and a chance to trade his heartbreak and penchant for booze for his old badge and friends. That the story belongs to Dude is reinforced in the film’s final scene, which ends with Dude walking out of the frame with Stumpy (Walter Brennan). In that final moment, Dude is clean, relaxed, and laughing with a friend. In short, he is in a state opposite to his introduction.

Dude’s timid entrance is further explained by the following shot, a three-second eye-line match, which shows the room he has entered is a crowded saloon. Though his alcoholism has yet to be revealed, the anxiety and sense of longing in his face visually relays this information to the audience. Furthermore, his implicit loneliness is intensified by his vagrant-like appearance, which is contrasted with the image of the saloon’s patrons, all of whom are sitting or standing with friends.

For the next thirty-three seconds, the camera, in front of Dude, pans and follows him as he makes his way into the bar. The medium shot allows the audience not only to see the saloon’s other patrons and Dude’s tattered clothes in their entirety but also his shaky hands. He clenches and unclenches his hands and moves them from the tips of his pants pockets to his face, twice. The second time comes after a waitress walks by carrying a tray of shot glasses, which Dude stares at longingly. This repetition is illustrative of Hawks’ mastery of visual storytelling; rather than using dialogue to identify Dude as an alcoholic, he shows us his alcoholism. After the waitress passes by, Dude stops in the middle of the saloon and looks around, as hopelessly lost as when he first entered. With the desperate Dude standing in the middle of the bar, looking for a lifeline, Hawks then cuts to the villain: Joe Burdette (Claude Akins).

Unlike Dude, the audience is not privy to Joe’s face when introduced. He is standing at the bar, with his back to the camera. He uncorks a bottle of booze, pours himself a glass, and tosses the cork on the ground. The bartender gives him a look of disgust, signaling this is a bad man. After spending four seconds on Joe, Hawks then cuts back to Dude for two seconds, who, again, rubs his hand on his face, and then back to Joe for two more seconds, who pours himself a drink and notices Dude staring at him. Hawks then cuts to a close-up of Dude’s face, who wipes his mouth with his hand once again. The camera shows the hesitation in his mouth and the longing in his eyes. We return to Joe, who finishes pouring the drink and then holds it up to Dude with a sinister grin on his face. The camera cuts back to the close-up of Dude, who nods, bites his lip and smiles, as if he is disgusted by his newfound luck. However, as will happen again and again throughout the film, just when Dude thinks he has caught a break, his luck runs out. The camera cuts back to Joe, who retracts his offer to give Dude a drink and instead rummages in his pocket for a gold piece, which he takes and tosses into a spittoon to Dude’s immediate left. Hawks then cuts to the spittoon for a brief second, allowing the coin to fall inside with a clash and the sound of a trumpet blast. This sound signals a shift in the scene’s tone and shows that danger is coming. The music grows harsher and louder. The camera returns to Dude, though this time with a medium shot, allowing the viewer to get a full view of Dude looking down at the spittoon and then back up at Joe. In these two seconds, with his arms hanging limp by his sides, Dude looks desperate. Hawks cuts back to Joe, who laughs and leans back against the bar. He is the one with all the power.

The next twelve seconds are difficult to watch. Dude rubs his face once more and slowly bends down, reaching towards the spittoon. Dude’s slow movement shows not only his poor condition and semi-reluctance to indulge his addiction, but is also a narrative device used by Hawks to build suspense. The audience has time to align themselves with Dude against Joe, and mentally urge him not to degrade himself by buying a drink with a spit-covered coin. Just as we are thinking this, and just as his shaky hand is about to enter the spittoon, a pair of long legs appear in the frame and kick the spittoon out of Dude’s reach. For three long seconds, Hawks linger on these legs, which are parallel to a rifle that is presumably being held by the owner of the legs. Though we see those legs for a brief moment, they can only belong to one man: the sheriff, Chance, John Wayne.

How Wayne is first revealed is reminiscent of his introduction in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) in its striking emphasis on his face. In Rio Bravo, just after the spittoon is kicked away, Hawks cuts to Chance’s face, which we see from a low angle — Dude’s point of view. He glares at the camera, giving Dude a look of pitiful disgust and a slight shake of the head. Again, Hawks emphasizes the face upon the introduction of a character, this time showing that Chance is not only a powerful figure but that there is a history between him and Dude. The relationship between Dude and Chance is essential to understanding one of the most important subjects Hawks deals with in the film: friendship. More specifically, the film explores the loving bond shared between two male friends. That Chance is first introduced to the viewer through Dude’s point of view illustrates this bond, and it sets up the journey they will take together throughout the rest of the film. It also reinforces Dude’s ownership of the story.

Hawks then follows this view of Chance’s face with an even more striking view of Dude’s, who glances up with his eyes wide open. In that face, we once again feel his vulnerability, and with his eyes we see regret and shame, brought on by the presence and disgust of Chance. We cut back to Chance, who turns his gaze from Dude to Joe, who returns the look seemingly unfazed by the sheriff. Chance then begins to walk towards Joe, stepping in between Joe and Dude as if he is protecting the former man from the latter. If Chance is about to defend Dude and confront Joe, he does not get the opportunity. As Chance takes his fourth step, Dude suddenly jumps up, grabs a nearby stick, takes Chance by the arm, spins him around, and strikes him over the head, knocking him unconscious. At first, it seems as though Dude has struck Chance to defend Joe and his chance at a drink. However, once Chance is safely on the floor, he lunges at Joe, whose men then restrain Dude.

Joe then walks over and punches Dude in the face and gut. It speaks to what a pathetic, evil man Joe is that he would attack a man when he is at his most vulnerable. This is contrasted with the heroism that Dude and Chance will show throughout the film, when they risk their lives and defend the town even when they are at their most vulnerable. As Joe brings back his fist for what may be the final blow, a bystander grabs his arm, telling him to stop. Joe is shocked. Hawks then cuts to the revolver hanging on Joe’s belt, which he then uses to shoot this nameless bystander, who falls to the ground dead. The man’s death is delayed, and just before he falls, he looks at Joe in surprise, as if to say, “What the fuck?”

The comic nature of this murder is significant, and relates directly to the narrative architecture of Rio Bravo. We never learn this man’s name or backstory, nor do we really ever want or care to know. In fact, in a later scene, the funeral procession for this man will pass behind Dude without him or anyone else really noticing. It is a subtle detail because this man and his death, as harsh as it sounds, do not really matter. The murder serves simply as a plot device, as a reason to arrest Joe and the impetus behind Chance’s hiring Dude, the development of their friendship, and Dude’s eventual redemption. As the film progresses, the murder in the saloon becomes forgotten, and the plot as a whole does not really matter. Instead, the film focuses on its main characters, and how they bring out the best, and worst, in one another.

After Joe murders the unnamed man (two minutes and thirty seconds have passed by at this point), he walks out of the saloon, leaving Dude in pain and Chance unconscious on the floor. We follow him outside, where he grabs and inappropriately looks at two women who pass by, making the audience loathe him and his cavalier attitude even more. He nonchalantly walks into another saloon and orders a drink. Just as we are about to think that this evil man will get away with his crime, the music tells us otherwise. The trumpets blare, and in walks Chance, with blood dripping down his forehead and rifle in hand. He walks towards Joe, stumbling and, as evidenced by the way he keeps puffing out his cheeks, on the verge of vomiting. Chance, like Dude earlier in the sequence, has just entered a saloon alone, disheveled, vulnerable, and in need of a friend. But, here, the outcome will be different.

It is in this moment, three minutes and twenty seconds into the film, that the first line of dialogue is spoken: “Joe, you’re under arrest,” says Chance. That this is the first line of the dialogue is significant. First, it makes it clear that Chance is, in fact, the sheriff. Second, Chance walking into a crowded bar injured and alone to make an arrest shows how dedicated he is to maintaining order in the town. This introduces us to an important aspect of Chance’s character, and one that is essential to understanding the film’s story. Chance constantly refuses to accept help until he has absolutely no other alternatives. It is well known that Rio Bravo is, in part, a response to High Noon (1952). Hawks hated the marshal in the latter film, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who was always asking for help to solve his problems. Chance is Hawks’ response to Kane: an independent, strong leader willing to bear the burden and solve problems. His first instinct is not to turn to others who may jeopardize his keeping the town safe. They must first earn his trust, they must earn his friendship. His actions here show how fiercely independent and somewhat irrational he is, to the point that he will place himself in dangerous situations without calling for any kind of help. However, Dude will soon earn back his friendship.

The irrationality of Chance’s actions is shown by the film’s second line of dialogue, where a man pulls out his gun, points it at Chance’s back, and tells him not to turn around. At this moment, Chance needs an ally, but it seems unlikely that one will appear. “Now what are you going to do Sheriff,” Burdette asks. Just as he says this, Hawks cuts to two of Joe’s men walking forward, about to take on Chance. In the background, we see Dude walking into the saloon. At this point in the film, we assume him to be no ally to Chance. But, to our surprise, Dude lunges forward and grabs a gun from the holster of one of Joe’s men. He then turns and shoots the gun out of the first man’s hands, freeing Chance. “You do just about what you want, Chance,” Dude says. We then cut to Chance, who takes his gun and smacks Joe across the face, just as Dude did to him. It is as if Joe is a stand-in for the worst side of Dude and this is Chance reciprocating the blow. It is worth noting that Dude’s heroics in this sequence, and in later scenes, comes in a bar. This is his way of reclaiming agency over alcohol. By entering a bar and aiding Chance and arresting Joe, instead of hitting Chance and fighting Joe, Dude begins to make good on his redemptive mission to become a sheriff’s deputy again and leave alcohol in the rearview mirror.

This latter part of the film’s opening sequence is the inverse of its first minutes. Here, the character who has entered the bar alone and vulnerable (Chance) actually gets the help he needs. This shows the symbiotic nature of the relationship between Chance and Dude. The opening sequence ends with the two men dragging Joe’s limp body out of the saloon doors. The shot is perfectly symmetrical, with each man holding one of Joe’s shoulders. They each entered two different saloons alone, but they are now leaving the same saloon together. Throughout the film, Chance and Dude will repeatedly make up for each other’s shortcomings. Friendship is central to Rio Bravo, and the way Chance and Dude work together in this scene illustrate Hawk’s view of friendship, which is that it is messy, difficult, and, if earned the right way, will be genuine.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.