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The Essentials: 5 Great Howard Hawks Films

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
May 30, 2012 10:56 AM
2 Comments
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"His Girl Friday" (1940)
Much attention has (rightfully) been paid to the whiplash-inducing dialogue and the fizzy chemistry between leads Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Hawks' version of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s oft-adapted stage play “The Front Page” (which had already been made once before, and would be remade by Billy Wilder in 1974, and bastardized in 1988's "Switching Channels"). Breezing past the page-a-minute average of most screenplays, the adaptation by Charles Lederer, follows editor Walter Burns (Grant), who hopes to stop ex-wife and star reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell) from leaving town to get remarried by getting her to cover the story of an upcoming execution. Hawks' film got an injection of energy from switching the two main characters from a pair of male journalists to feuding exes played by Grant and Russell, a pairing that matches Grant's work with both Hepburns and Irene Dunne for sheer fire. The romance is as fast-paced as the dialogue, but viewers shouldn’t overlook the contributions of the Greek chorus of journalists, including Porter Hall, Cliff Edwards and Roscoe Karns, who add character and a bit of authenticity (there's also great support by Helen Mack, as the girlfriend of the soon-to-be-executed man). But it is the Grant & Russell show, and the gags fly so fast between them that you couldn't possibly hope to catch them all the first time around. That, and the fact that its satire of the journalism trade remains entirely bang-on today, explains why it's a comedy that's only grown in stature over the years.

"The Big Sleep" (1946)
Having already played one of the great screen P.I.'s, Sam Spade, in 1941's "The Maltese Falcon," Humphrey Bogart took a swing at another five years later, by taking on the mantle of Philip Marlowe in an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep." And you couldn't ask for  a better group of collaborators, with a script by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, and a reunion with both his director and co-star from "To Have And Have Not," Howard Hawks and Lauren Bacall. Even today, the plot remains terrifyingly complex (to the extent that when the filmmakers contacted Chandler to ask who killed the chauffeur, they were told that the writer didn't know either), but essentially, it follows Marlowe, as he is hired by the wealthy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to resolve some family gambling debts, only to become emtangled with blackmail, murder and the General's femme fatale daughter Vivian (Bacall). While the film doesn't make a ton of sense (it was partially gutted by a need to adhere to the Production Code), it's also a glorious puzzle box to dig into. The seedy world that Hawks creates, thanks to great character actors like Elisha Cook Jr., is also a deeply weird one -- there's something almost Lynchian in the way that Marlowe has to trawl deeper and deeper into the mire. It's beautifully paced too, with some of the greatest black & white photography ever (courtesy of the great Sidney Hickox). But above and beyond anything else, the thing you'll never forget is Bogart and Bacall. The two were only recently married when they shot the picture, and even more so than on "To Have Or Have Not," you're looking at two people who can't wait for the director to call cut so they can go home and fuck each other's brains out. In fact, the studio asked for reshoots to add more provocative scenes of the pair, and as one can see from the original version (which was restored and re-released in 1997), it's one case where the studio was absolutely right to interfere.

"Rio Bravo" (1959)
The ever-diverse Hawks went to the Western well several times, and while his excellent (though perhaps overly indebted to John Ford) "Red River" has many fans, it says something that in the last years of his life, he loosely remade his 1959 film "Rio Bravo" not once (1966's "El Dorado"), but twice (1970's "Rio Lobo"). The original (which also inspired John Carpenter's "Assault On Precinct 13") might be relatively frothy, but it's also as fine, and purely entertaining, an action Western as was ever made. The set-up is simple: Sheriff John T. Chance (a seminal turn by John Wayne) and his drunken deputy Dude (Dean Martin) arrest Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder, and find themselves under siege by the killer's brother, rancher Nathan, and his men, with only gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson, in a part originally intended for Elvis Presley) to help. The action is positively crackling, still holding up today, but it's the character interplay and atmosphere that are really worth watching. Among the highlights is Wayne's stiffness and pride being worn down as he falls for Feathers (Angie Dickinson), while gradually accepting that he can be helped by the motley group around him, and Martin (in his best screen role by about a million miles) facing up to the responsibility he long since abandoned. It's funny too (perhaps one of the reasons some find the more po-faced "Red River" superior), and includes a couple of songs that never feel extraneous. There are issues here, mainly in the shape of Nelson, who's flat and uncharismatic, clearly cast in order to appeal to a younger generation, and sticking out like a sore thumb. But for the most part, Hawks is on top form with his compositions -- which hardly ever include close-ups, really amping up the claustrophobia -- and his handling of the action showing a master at the top of his game. If we'd made "Rio Bravo," we might have made it twice more too.

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2 Comments

  • Samir | June 7, 2012 2:22 PMReply

    Um, hello, where is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?! Easily one of the greatest and most bizarre musicals ever made, and a cultural landmark with a lot to say about the social construction of gender, materialism and male chauvinism. And why didn't The Thing and Scarface make the actual cut? I would place them above Only Angels Have Wings and Bringing Up Baby.

  • StephenM | May 30, 2012 4:47 PMReply

    Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo are definitely my favorites. Hawks's comedies are sometimes grating and a little too cruel, I find, but his comedy in more dramatic films is often the highlight of the picture. I love his professional-men-getting-the-job-done films best.

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