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THE HAWKS FILE - PART 1

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by Peter Bogdanovich
September 15, 2012 1:40 PM
4 Comments
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While I kept a card file on every movie I saw, 1952-1970, I also kept track of films I watched by directors I was most interested in at that time, fifty-five of those, from Aldrich, Robert, to Wilder, Billy. I had separate cards for these, listing their pictures in the order in which I saw them (see actual cards below). We’re going to go through these Howard Hawks cards in that same fashion, starting with his Monkey Business, which I saw when it came out in 1952, and ending with Rio Lobo, Hawks’ last film, which I viewed also when it was first released in 1970.

Reading my comments gives a pretty good idea of how my thoughts and feelings regarding Hawks evolved over the years. When I was ten (two years before I started the movie file), I didn’t know anything about directors, but three of my favorite films were Hawks pictures: Red River, I Was A Male War Bride, and Sergeant York; I just had no idea that the same man had made all of those—and so many more I would come to love. Not to mention the man himself, whom I got to know beginning in 1962, and became friends with, until his death in 1977. The extremely long interview I did (over years) with Hawks was published in my book, Who the Devil Made It, which has just recently become available also as an e-book.

The title of that work, in fact, comes from a Hawks quote; when I asked him which directors he had liked best over the years, he said, “Well, I liked almost anybody that made you realize who in the devil was making the picture… Because the director’s the storyteller and should have his own method of telling it.” There couldn’t be a better definition of what the French called le politique des auteurs, improperly translated in English as “the auteur theory.” In succinct Hawksian terms: Who the Devil Made It? With Howard Hawks pictures, there was never any question.

MONKEY BUSINESS (1952; d: Howard Hawks).

1952: (Wacky little comedy about some crazy youth-potion experiments… Well directed and acted, particularly by Cary Grant.)

Added 1961: Very good* (A hilariously vicious comedy-satire about man’s ridiculous but unending search for youth, taken to the extreme. Fast, unrelentingly funny, beautifully acted in high style. Hawks at his comic best: zany, incisive, frenetic.)

Added 1962: (The film has a certain basic seriousness through all its seeming frivolity. Youth, after all, means a lack of experience, wisdom and understanding. Why does man search for youth then? This film is a song to age rather. Hawks’ portrait of Marilyn Monroe as the eternal dumb blonde is not particularly flattering, but the sane and highly mature relationship between Grant and Ginger Rogers reveals his true purpose. An excellent movie that gains tremendously as the years go by.)

Added 1969: (It is not as funny or as successful on a ha-ha level as Hawks’ other comedies, but it is fascinating nonetheless in its conception and in the savagery of the satire on youth-cults and nostalgia for youth; a celebration of maturity, it is a continually engrossing work with several hilarious, unforgettable sequences.)

O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE (1952; d: Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Henry King, Jean Negulesco, Henry Koster).

1953: Good- (A bit too slick, but otherwise well acted and written dramatization of five of O. Henry’s best surprise-ending short stories.)

Added 1961: (The only story that really works is Hawks’ sequence --- a particularly dry, humorless comedy --- expert and purposeful, about a couple of city-slicker kidnappers, a hick town, and a child worthy of the hate of W.C. Fields.)

RED RIVER (1948; d: Howard Hawks).

1955: Exceptional* (Superbly directed and photographed, brilliantly acted and written western epic about the first cross-country cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail. Dramatic, entirely personal, filled with incident, character, always strong, vital, and tremendously exciting.)

Added 1962: (Without doubt, one of the finest westerns ever made, and certainly among Hawks’ major achievements. The friend-rival relationship between Wayne and Clift is magnificently handled and brought to an uncliched, convincing and moving conclusion. One of the giants of the American screen, Hawks, in his first western, brings as much skill, understanding and personality as he has to every genre he has attempted, and that includes all of them.)

Added 1965: (Ford is the master of the western, but “Rio Bravo” and “Red River” remain my favorites in the genre: endlessly fascinating, entertaining, rugged, and inimitable.)

Added 1966: (Not in the least diminished by years or repeated viewings: the best epic western ever made, in which it is still the characters that command attention. A great film.)

Added 1967: (Could it be the best film ever made?)

Added 1969: (The visual beauty of it is absolutely overwhelming, and the inter-relationships, the undercurrents, what is conveyed without words --- all that is pure genius, pure Hawks.)

THE BIG SLEEP (1946; d: Howard Hawks).

1955: (Not very exciting, but well played and directed, pretty meaningless detective mystery.)

Added 1961: Exceptional* (Hawks, a brilliant director with an intriguing personality, an expert technique, and a perverse sense of humor, has made an extremely effective film of Raymond Chandler’s superb Philip Marlowe murder mystery, permeated with an enveloping mood of evil, excellently adapted for the screen, and played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart. Surely the finest private-eye movie ever made, it is also a great entertainment and a masterpiece of darkly comic artistry.)

Added 1962: (Aside from every other wonderful thing about this masterpiece, it is the crystallization of the Bogart character: he is simply brilliant in it and for it.)

Added 1962: (This is rapidly becoming my favorite Hawks film, no little accomplishment since he made nothing but great films.)

Added 1963: (What a gloriously original and daring piece of work that is --- it never ceases to amaze me, the perfection of its every detail.)


TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT
(1944; d: Howard Hawks).

1955: (Fast, sizzling, very exciting melodrama with an underlying grin that keeps it light yet suspenseful, though yet somehow tender, like Bogart was.)

Added 1960: Exceptional* (One of Hawks’ most entertaining and typical films, completely personal and brilliantly played, written, conceived. A masterpiece.)

Added 1961: (This great and beautiful work, with its deeply moving relationships and subtleties, becomes more remarkable on every viewing. It is also, without doubt, one of Bogart’s most satisfying performances.)

Added 1964: (Certainly one of the most continually delightful movies ever made: there is just not one moment in it that pales. On the contrary, its scenes seem to get brighter and deeper with age.)

Added 1969: (The casualness of the style, the intensity of its effects, the depth and truth of the relationships --- all visually conveyed --- all these and a hundred other things make this among Hawks’ unqualified masterworks.)

SERGEANT YORK (1941; d: Howard Hawks).

1957: Exceptional (Stirring and excellently made film about the World War I pacifist-hero: a moving life story used as a build up to the war deeds that made him famous. An exciting, honest, inspiring film, superbly played by Gary Cooper.)

Added 1961: (A great film, Hawks being one of the most brilliant and personal of American directors. Actually this movie reaches tragic proportions in its depiction of a devoutly religious man rewarded for going against his deepest beliefs. In every conceivable way, this is a major work.)

Added 1962: (Apart from everything else, in the battle scenes (and in many others), Hawks proves again that he has no peer in the action field. He is a superb craftsman and a deeply committed, personal artist.)

TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934; d: Howard Hawks).

 1957: Exceptional (A wacky, racy, witty and outrageously funny farce about theatre people, directed at breakneck speed and featuring two absolutely unforgettable and inspired performances by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard; a comedy classic.)

Added 1962: (Hawks’ comedy is faster, sharper, more satiric and intelligent than anyone’s; he has an uncanny sense of just where to put the camera, when to cut, and how to move his actors within the frame.)

Added 1969: (So funny you can’t always laugh; it is the greatest look at theatre people ever filmed, and flawlessly done. Barrymore gives his greatest performance as well.)
 


RIO BRAVO (1959; d: Howard Hawks).

1959: Exceptional* (A simple plot has been written with an emphasis on character rather than action, is directed in such an unhurried, just-slick-enough manner, and acted with such warmth and easy humor that it becomes something like a pleasant and exciting two and a half hours with a bunch of delightful old friends.)

Added 1959: (Dean Martin’s performance has remarkable depth, and John Wayne and Walter Brennan are both inimitable and perfect in roles that fit like custom-made boots. One of the most entertainingly fresh westerns ever made.)

1961: Nothing Added.

Added 1962: (Among Hawks’ major achievements: a western odyssey of honor and friendship in a hostel society, superbly color photographed, with a classic structure, sharp, original dialogue, and really beautiful acting. The amount of truth, humanity, understated love and compassion inherent in the film is quite remarkable. On any level, as art, as entertainment, as philosophy, this is an unqualified masterpiece by a director at the peak of his form.)

Added 1962: (Surely this picture is the best of its kind --- and yet it is really unique --- made in the last decade. One of the finest of westerns, a great movie and, without a doubt, a Hawks masterpiece.)

Added 1963: (The incredible thing about this sixth time around is that its 141-minutes seemed to last only about an hour. Not only one of the best three films Hawks has made, but among the best in movie history.)

Added 1965: (Certainly one of the most entertaining movies ever made, and I still marvel at Hawks’ deep understanding of men and their relationships to other men; it is his raffish perversity that gives the picture its freshness and abundant humor. Seventh time around, still a great film.)

Added 1966: (It is Hawks’ ability to catch the subtle undercurrents of life and the ambiguity of motives that continues to impress so much; he is also so incredibly cool, never to be caught “directing.”)

Added 1969: (An endlessly entertaining and complex work of great maturity and artistry; certainly among Hawks’ finest works.)

THE BIG SKY (1952; d: Howard Hawks).

1959:  Excellent* (Surely one of Hawks’ most personal pictures --- a sublime and tragic epic of a man alone, about an 1880’s river trip to Minnesota and a bond of friendship between two strong rivals. Magnificent in conception and in execution, and deeply moving as the two friends, in the end, are separated by a woman whom one loves and the other doesn’t. She, however, loves the one who does not return the affection. To keep his friend’s love, however, he stays with her. One of the best pictures of the 50s.)

Added 1962: (Yes, this is a monumental work; in every way, a subtle, deeply felt piece of work, and one of Hawks’ most archetypal achievements

LAND OF THE PHAROAHS (1955; d: Howard Hawks).

1960: Very good- (Not among Hawks’ best pictures, but certainly among the most interesting and intelligent period spectacles ever produced; impressive and occasionally quite powerful story of a pharaoh’s obsession with having all his possessions around him in his after-life, resulting in the building of an impenetrable pyramid. Excellent use of CinemaScope, fine color photography, etc.)

Added 1962: (Better this time, I thought. Hawks told me that he didn’t know how a pharaoh talked, and this is evident in the picture, but it is nonetheless an effective and fascinating piece of work.)

The rest of the Hawks cards will come in the subsequent weeks; to read more of what I have written about Rio Bravo, and Hawks, go to our Special Links: The Shortest Long Western.

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4 Comments

  • mike schlesinger | September 27, 2012 6:38 PMReply

    My feelings exactly. I love your use of the word "unhurried." It's the perfect description of many of his films, especially the later ones--and a quality most of today's directors would do well to emulate.

  • MDL | September 26, 2012 9:04 PMReply

    This is quite fun to read. It's good to see an evolving opinion. My feelings for Hawks' films has not changed much - in part because they are so good. But I will say a couple movies [not mentioned here] have not stood the test of time for me. As in, they are still good but they don't have the impact they once did. Am curious to see what your other posts have to say about those films.

  • PB | September 18, 2012 10:48 AMReply

    Thanks, James. Yes, the big difference between sixteen and twenty-two. The Big Sleep is way too sophisticated for a teenager, over his head.

  • James | September 17, 2012 9:39 PMReply

    Thanks Peter,

    I was hoping we may get the Hawks files after Ford. They bring a great insight to not only the films, but to the changing times and experiences of the reviewer. I love the instant appraisal of The Big Sleep as 'not very exciting' then six to seven years later it's 'exceptional', a 'masterpiece', 'perfection.' What a six years they must have been!

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