In 2012, when Sight & Sound Magazine released the results of its most recent decennial poll, fans of Howard Hawks searched the top fifty "Greatest Films of All Time" in vain. Is the reputation of classical Hollywood cinema's most versatile master in decline?
Though the Sight & Sound poll is a blunt instrument, collecting ballots from "846 critics, programmers, academics, and distributors" does provide the fullest picture of "the canon" at a given moment, and Hawks's numbers are illuminating. His only film in the top 100 of the critics' list, "Rio Bravo" (1958), tied for 63rd, and he failed to crack the magazine's poll of 358 film directors entirely. But, as Film Stage and Movie Mezzanine contributor Forrest Cardamenis noted in a blog post at the time, Hawks received 88 votes from critics across six films, placing him 22nd with Sergei Eisenstein in the unofficial "body of work" category.
Making too much of the data is a fool's errand, but the evidence of vote-splitting suggests that Hawks's renown as a jack of all trades may have led him to fall from favor. Iconic expressions of directorial style ("Vertigo," "Tokyo Story") and ambitious, career-defining visions ("Citizen Kane" and "2001: A Space Odyssey") are ascendant, and Hawks, a canny craftsman of genre, is not so easily pinned down. Whether this has fostered a knock-on effect in the teaching of film is difficult to assess, but my memory of film school at USC, where I majored in critical studies, is of Hawks's comedies passed over for "the Lubitsch touch" and his Westerns for John Ford. Only "Scarface" screened with any frequency.
As the Cahiers du Cinema critics and their auteurist descendants recognized in resuscitating Hawks in the 1950s and 1960s, Hawks's ability to blend his anarchic sensibility seamlessly into genre fare was central to his humane charm. In the clarity of his camerawork, Hawks made room for what Robin Wood called "the aliveness of so many of his people," aided by a genius for eliciting electric performances. And his people are flawed and ferocious, mowing through dialogue as though trying to outrun the celluloid, forever landing in the borderland between upholding convention and blowing it to bits.
Perhaps the disappointment that attended the filmmaker's low standing in the Sight & Sound poll was just the Hawksian kick in the pants necessary to revive him once more. Last fall, the Museum of the Moving Image devoted two months to "The Complete Howard Hawks," and he gets the Criterion Collection treatment for the first time on May 27, with the dual format release of "Red River."
After the jump, TOH! has ranked the must-see 16 Howard Hawks films (from one to five stars) to appreciate his mastery anew. -- Matt Brennan