Archive for Howard Hawks

The Sunday Intertitle: A Devil’s Carnival

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2016 by dcairns

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Josef Von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927) brought the gangster picture back from obscurity — if Griffith’s MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY is the first wave, and Walsh’s REGENERATION inaugurates the second, this one starts another torrent which continues almost unbroken into the Warner Bros talking era.

Now that great confabulator Howard Hawks, a quasi-friend and sometime collaborator of Sternberg’s (they shared the screenwriter Jules Furthman) claimed that when he proposed a gangster pic to Ben Hecht, Hecht wasn’t interested because he felt the genre was played out. Hawks pitch of “the Borgias in Chicago” is said to have changed his mind. But if Hecht was afraid of repeating himself with SCARFACE (1932), would he have reprised so many of the earlier film’s tropes?

Bull Weed (the repulsive George Bancroft) looks up at a neon advertisement promising “The City is Yours.” Tony (Paul Muni) admires a sign which declares “The World is Yours.” Arguably, the second version is an improvement: Bancroft feels vindicated by a statement which is practically true, or feels true. Muni sees an unfulfillable promise, the lie of the American dream, of life.

Hawks stages a party aftermath strewn with streamers which closely matches the dying hours of the ball which Hecht had concocted for UNDERWORLD. Though I’m inclined to give Sternberg a little credit here — the idea of a society engagement for the underworld is delightful, whimsical. Hecht knew gangland from his newspaper days. Sternberg decried research and liked to work from a position of romantic ignorance.

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There’s a contest for moll of the year. I love all the nicknames.

Hawks also claimed to have suggested Dietrich’s tuxedo in MOROCCO, which is possible, I guess. But, though some rumours suggest Hawks was bi, and he gave several of his leading ladies a masculine edge, perversity is really more of a Sternberg thing, and Dietrich’s girl-girl kiss would seem more up his street. But who knows? Hawks’ anecdotes all revolve, in a way that would be monotonous if he wasn’t such a good storyteller, around his own mastery of every situation, his brilliant creative decision-making and his ability to get everybody to do exactly what he wants. Then again, his films are usually good enough to make you believe he really was that proficient.

Did Hawks invent the money thrown in the spittoon in UNDERWORLD? Is that why he felt entitled to basically just steal it for RIO BRAVO? Or did he just figure it was worth doing again, thirty years later, since the audience has a short memory? At any rate, RIO BRAVO improves on the idea since it gives John Wayne more motivation to intervene in Dean Martin’s alcoholic degradation than George Bancroft had in pulling Clive Brook out of the gutter.

Funny, Fiona hates stuffed shirt Brook in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (“He’s a chin,” explained Sternberg to Dietrich, when she asked what he new leading man was like), but since enjoying his one directorial effort, ON APPROVAL, she is open to liking him. She liked him in this, and was rooting for him and Evelyn Brent (as “Feathers”). It helps that George Bancroft really is disgusting.

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Hawks and Sparrows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2015 by dcairns

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Douglas Fairbaks Jnr. looks with affection at his last hand grenade.

The movie is the 1930 version of THE DAWN PATROL. Richard Barthelmess’s hard-drinking WWI flier in this looks set to transmute into his character from THE LAST FLIGHT, made the following year. This is an early Howard Hawks talkie. If SCARFACE is atypical of the filmmaker, with its psychopathic characters and expressionistic flourishes, other titles of the same period often show Hawks searching for the fluidity of his mature style, and wrestling with subject matter that isn’t always sympatico.

Aviator/writer John Monk Saunders’ source story, The Flight Commander, deals with people on the verge of destruction, with equal odds whether said destruction will be self-inflicted or brought about by war. Hawks never liked crybabies much, and would have made a lousy grief counsellor, so for the first half of the film he struggles to generate sympathy for Neil Hamilton’s booze-and-guilt-ridden Major. But Hawks liked the story enough to recycle elements later — the active pilot hates the desk jockey, and then he gets the desk jockey’s job, sending other men out to die.

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Richard Barthelmess (great, underrated actor), in engine oil and goggles hobo clown makeup, comforts a traumatized Gardner James. While the callous viewer prays that GJ can get shot down to lighten up the film.

The movie seems to get more fluid as it goes on. Early scenes are stilted, with a distinct LACK of Hawksian overlapping dialogue — it’s underlapping, if anything — one scene has two characters commenting on an offscreen argument, which they can apparently hear. But we don’t get to hear anything, imparting a surreal, mediumistic tinge to their conversation.

Ernest Haller’s oily smudge photography is wonderful, all soft focus and blurred shadows. The sets look cheap up close (painted brickwork fails to trompe l’oeil) but terrific in wide shot. And in places, the dipso camaraderie, heartless yet earnest professionalism, and underplaying (especially Barthelmess, decades ahead of his co-stars) suggest the Hawks of a few years later.

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The cast also sports Frank McHugh and, in an almost unique dramatic role, James Finlayson. The frequent Laurel & Hardy antagonist is fascinating to watch, dialling down his comedy schtick and turning it to (sort-of) dramatic purposes. This includes a very mild exclamation of “D’oh!” early on, and towards the end an actual double-take, as he witnesses the wrong man getting into a plane for a suicide mission. Probably you shouldn’t cast the Finn in a tragedy, but that’s just the kind of thing Hawks WOULD do.

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Below should really have been the film’s last shot, every story point having been settled by this scenic moment, but the filmmakers can’t resist a spectacular bomber raid sequence, one of several dazzling and no doubt dangerous action climaxes. This one combines high-quality miniatures, dodgy rear-projection, and gobsmacking real aerial and demolition footage, including two shots pointing straight down at the target as a bomb dwindles into invisibility and then sends half the landscape erupting upwards straight into the lens. Real stuff!

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“Going west.”

Bad End

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by dcairns

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Ahah! The Forgotten is postponed to next week, it seems, due to the extensive Berlin coverage at The Notebook. Meanwhile…

Finally watched EL DORADO, which a lot of people portray as being a thoroughly inferior copy of Howard Hawks’ earlier Wayne western, RIO BRAVO (they share a writer, Leigh Brackett, but she kept warning Hawks that he was repeating himself — he didn’t care). I found it very enjoyable. Wayne is Wayne, a little older (visibly struggling to mount his horse, but bizarrely elegant crossing a room and kicking an opponent); Mitchum is Mitchum, which ought to make him a worthy substitute for Dean Martin, but the role is less well-crafted; James Caan is a huge improvement on Ricky Nelson. Arthur Hunnicutt subs for Walter Brennan, as he often did, most skillfully. Angie Dickinson is replaced by a couple of women characters who don’t get much to do — westerns didn’t seem to allow Hawks to push his heroines as far into one-of-the-boys territory as he could manage in other genres, although I bet h could have had fun with a JOHNNY GUITAR scenario if anyone had encouraged him. A LOT of fun.

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“How will you get down?” Wayne is asked, when the injured gunfighter proposes riding into battle against impossible odds on a cart. “That’s easy, I’ll fall down.”

We also get strong support from Ed Asner, R.G. Armstrong and Christopher George, who could have had a very good career if confined to bad guys. He’s really not appealing as a hero, though it probably doesn’t help that the two leading man roles I’ve seen him in are THE DELTA FACTOR, a horrible Mickey Spillane thing that nearly did for director Tay Garnett, and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. Here, he’s an amoral professional, not viciously evil but willing to do anything for a buck: Wayne’s character treats him with wary respect (which is to say he kills him as soon as he gets a chance).

The very end is somewhat muffed, though, with the expected romance shoved offscreen and the laid-back conversational coda between Wayne and Mitchum ineffectually stretched across two scenes. They’re both nice scenes, but they’re kind of the same. Makes me wonder if Hawks were ever good at endings? He didn’t care about PLOT, famously. I slightly cringe at HIS GIRL FRIDAY’s fade-out (don’t want it to end on Rosalind Russell crying) though I love the rest of it as much as you’re supposed to, maybe more; RED RIVER, by the very nature of its story, has to cop out at the end to avoid becoming a tragedy; I can’t actually remember the ending of THE BIG SLEEP, though I expect it’s a clinch or at least a sly look between the leads — as Manny Farber points out, that movie creates so much goodwill in its first four sequences that it can coast along for the rest of its runtime without worrying about producing anything specially memorable.

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So, a question for everyone: what are the classic movies you love which don’t quite work right at the end? And not for reasons of studio interference, but because the writers/directors got it wrong. I’ll kick things off with this one and MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. When it played on TV, its screenwriter, Sidney Buchman, would switch it off before the failed suicide bid Capra added for extra weep value. I think he’d have been far better having Jimmy Stewart wake up and learn he’s won — we may be able to figure out for ourselves that would happen, but wouldn’t it be more emotional to SEE it? Still find it extraordinary that the film ends with the hero unconscious.

Let’s hear from you!

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