Film: Rio Bravo (1953): A Perfect Shot

The perfect shot in Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1958) takes place during the tense barroom scene in the first third of the film. That scene depicts a close interrogation of the bar’s patrons by Dean Martin’s character Dude, and John Wayne’s sheriff John T Chance as they try to track down a murderer on the run.

The scene rotates around the reliability of the Dean Martin character; a drunk in the process of drying out under Wayne’s strict stewardship.

Dude is the only one who has spotted the murderer entering the bar to seek sanctuary. After his humiliation at the start of the film, and years of living in a drunken haze, Dude is a man struggling to regain respect.

Initially, as Chance’s deputy, Dude commands authority in the room, stating that the murderer he saw running into the bar had muddy boots. Both he and Chance disarm the bar’s customers and arrange a line-up. Each man is inspected, but as they finish with the bartender, the boots are all mud-free.

It is then that the authority that Dude has commanded in the room until that point starts to fade. He becomes the butt of the barroom’s jokes, as the patrons’ confidence starts to return. The barman tempts him with a drink, and Dude seems to take him up on the offer so as to stall for time. At that point that he notices drops falling onto the bar from the mezzanine floor above. Small drops of blood are falling into a glass of beer sitting at the bar; no-one else has noticed.

The perfect shot comes when, to everyone else’s surprise, Dude swivels suddenly on his feet and shoots the murderer hiding upstairs. Stone dead. Instant justice. In one action Dude lays the foundations to rebuild his long tarnished reputation. No longer is he the joke of the barroom. He is an ace marksman and deadly with a pistol.

These aren’t the actions of a drunk, they are the actions of a hunter who has successfully tracked down and killed his hiding prey.

Chance’s confidence in Dude has been rewarded, and despite being outnumbered in the town, John T. and his small band of irregulars begin to look like they shouldn’t be dismissed too lightly.

Redemption is a key theme of Rio Bravo, primarily in the context of Martin’s Dude and Angie Dickinson’s Feathers character. Both characters are redeemed through the faith and tough love Sheriff John T Chance places in them. They in turn are loyal to him, a loyalty rewarded through the ultimate rebuilding of their reputations.

In Rio Bravo the classic redemption scene for Dude is usually cited as the scene during which he pours his “last” glass of whisky back in the bottle without spilling a drop. That act is taken to signify that he has overcome his demons and is ready for the film’s final showdown.

For me though his journey to that point in his rehabilitation starts with his killer shot in the barroom. With that perfect shot he first signals that he is a force of authority to be reckoned with in the town.

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