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Howard Hawks

How It Is

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Only Angels Have Wings is one of Hawks’s “male adventurer” films, but it is also one of his comedies—and is perhaps best understood as such. It’s comedy in the sense that it has its share of wisecracks and a hint of slapstick—but also, and more importantly, in that it gives humor a place as a value and subtly undercuts “masculine” toughness in a way that parallels the rug-pulling comedy in Bringing Up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride, and other more obviously comic Hawks films.

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People Who Need People – ‘To Have and Have Not’

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

She brought the bottle to his room and then he took the bottle to her room and now she has brought it back to his room without anyone having had a drink so far. He cocks an eye at their mutual pretext and remarks, “This is getting to be a problem.”

The line gets a laugh. And as you laugh at it, you can’t quite say why you’re laughing, but you know you’re laughing at a number of things at the same time. It’s more than two people getting set to play a love scene. It’s two people laughing at themselves for going through all this ritual to get at the scene, and it’s also two people digging the ritual and digging themselves for having set it up. It’s two canny actors, who are also people, enjoying and capitalizing on the happy fact that they are playing about the same scene they’d be playing anyway if there weren’t a camera crew standing around. It’s also Howard Hawks and his redoubtable extra-dialogue man William Faulkner and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—only recently Betty Perske, unknown fashion model—laughing at the way they’ve just said “Screw it” to the whole bothersome notion of following a scenario.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

For it must have been after the shooting of the second stage of the bottle’s progress that Bacall said—as James Agee recorded for Time and posterity—”God, I’m dumb.” Hawks asked why and she said, “Well, if I had any sense I’d go back in after that guy.” Hawks had to agree and that’s the way they went.

To Have and Have Not, then, is firstly and most durably a movie about the making of this particular movie. In his enormously suggestive book Movie Man, David Thomson has remarked that, with Hawks as with Jean Renoir, one so often has a feeling that the director and some friends of his have got together and, simply because they happen to be phenomenally talented people in the same line of work, made a movie. While there are moments implying breezy, spontaneous improvisation in virtually all Hawks pictures, no other has such an all-pervasive sense of a floating party where a couple of particular people keep bumping into the fact that there’s something lovely about each of them and something cosmically joyous about the two of them together.

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Red River

Much in life makes for the anonymity of the individual human being and, not surprisingly, most people drift mindlessly with the current carrying them towards the final oblivion of death. But some men hate the very thought of drowning in the flux and flow of impermanence, of simply living and dying without indelibly marking their environment with some unmistakable signature. Whatever form it may take, that signature always translates: “I was here and it mattered.” Such men resist at any cost the drift towards oblivion by defining and delineating a sense of personal identity which can stand firm against all that would blur and obliterate its lineaments. American writers from Melville to Faulkner have been especially preoccupied with the theme of an individual at odds with whatever seeks to ignore or abrogate his assertion of selfhood: the adversaries may be nature itself with its massive indifference to human life, or other men bent on violating the self-defined perimeters of one’s identity, or even socioeconomic systems which, like nature, mostly manifest a profound disinterest in individual human existence.

John Wayne plays Dunson opposite Montgomery Clift's Matthew Garth

A man may also war with his own limitations which prevent him from measuring up to the standards he has set for himself. My guess is that the very configuration of the land in which the early settlers of America found themselves was partially responsible for the appearance of this insistent theme, with all its subsequent permutations, in American literature—and later, in American cinema. This immense sea of land, empty of the communal comfort of town or city, threaded only occasionally by Indian paths, its forests, rivers, and mountains contained both threat and promise for those early settlers. Such a country could swallow a man up without a trace that he had ever lived. Or a man might take possession of some part of that vast untouched expanse and make it subject to the shape and bent of his own mind and will. Howard Hawks’ Red River is the saga of such a man.

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“You’re Goddam Right I Remember” – Howard Hawks Interviewed

by Kathleen Murphy and Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Howard Winchester Hawks was home the afternoon of July 12, 1976. For some time there, it looked as if it wouldn’t happen. Kathleen Murphy had finally taken the leap and declared Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition as her dissertation subject. Then she decided she’d better talk with the man himself. Phone calls were made, and friendly sounds, but Hawks could never plan “that far ahead” because he was “working on a story.” When “that far ahead” got cut to a little over a day and a half, it was on, and there was a frantic scramble for a borrowed tape recorder (courtesy of Ron Green), plane reservations, and an L.A. homebase (provided by Rick and Leslie Thompson). That was Saturday; Sunday, we flew; Monday morning, we were driving in a rental car to get to Palm Springs by noon.

When we walked in out of the 98° air about five minutes late, three dogs checked us over while our host continued strongly to advise the person on the other end of his phone line that the air conditioning equipment he’d installed wasn’t working, and that he, Hawks, had come to the conclusion “you’re a goddam crook.” Serious doubts about the enterprise set in when I took an indicated seat on the edge of a Relaxacisor chair and inadvertently tripped the activator switch, precipitating a non-Hemingwayesque movement of the earth beneath me; and when I failed to locate the switch by conscious means, I became the object of an icy blue stare that made me feel distinctly like the “Fancy Vest” who’d been dumb enough to sidle toward his rifle under the assumption that Cole Thornton wouldn’t notice. An attempt to start recording with side two of the first cassette almost came as an anticlimax after that.

Howard Hawks on the set of "Rio Bravo" with Angie Dickinson

Still, we were there—and we stayed there. We had brought along about 30 hours worth of tape; we could have filled nearly twice that, despite several gestures of willingness to depart if we were being too much of a bother. Mr. Hawks, who had turned 80 just over a month before, had driven 350 miles the previous day, taking his son to and from a motorcycle meet in the desert; and he frequently kneaded a stiffening hand he’d once broken on Ernest Hemingway’s jaw. He talked. We talked. Whenever he left the room to find a sketch or article that had come up in the conversation, we prowled around looking at the original Red River D belt buckle on the wall, the title painting from El Dorado, the mugs painted HOWARD, FROM DUKE. The dogs clicked in and out of the immediate vicinity on the cool flagstone floor, occasionally crowding up to Hawks for special attention; he put on his sternest manner to dismiss them, but when, about the third time it happened, we managed to remark out loud that he wasn’t being very convincing, he broke into a richly pleased smile, and from then on there was a lot of laughing.

We didn’t go to Palm Springs to interview Howard Hawks for Movietone News, but in listening and relistening to the tapes and seeing the more-than-pleasure they brought to other people, we finally decided what the hell. The following represents but a portion of what we recorded. The Hemingway material, while valuable and provocative, has been left out here. We heard some of the anecdotes that previous Hawks interviews have included, and some of them are reproduced here yet again—partly because they will be new to some readers, partly because they’re wrapped around other material, partly because even many months later they still seem different to us because we heard them from Howard Hawks himself and watched him while he told them. There are scads of questions we wish we’d asked. Some we did ask didn’t go anywhere (like what happened to Malcolm Atterbury and Harry Carey Jr., listed in the credits of Rio Bravo but not on view in the film itself). Sometimes the ways Hawks misconstrued, or chose to misconstrue, the questions were almost as interesting and suggestive as more direct answers might have been; but mostly these have been edited out.

As days go, it will be hard to top. Just about the time the cassette went into the machine right, Mr. Hawks was looking at a copy of MTN 26, containing the John Ford memorial, and remarking that he’d “seen it before—about 50 times.” He meant the Monument Valley butte on the cover. We’ll let July 12 take it from there.


John Ford, John Wayne, acting like an old man, etc.

Well, Ford and I guess I were the only people that worked with Wayne that he didn’t want to know what the story was or he didn’t want to see the script—he just said, “When do we start?” … And of course he adored Ford. As a matter of fact, Ford came down here to die. And I used to stop in at his house and have a drink on the way to playing golf. One day I went in and he was laughing like hell, and I said, “What are ya laughing about?” and he said, “I was just remembering all of the things I’ve stolen from you.” I said, “I’ll make ya any kind of a bet that I’ve stolen more. Hell, you’d be dead before you’d even find out.” And one day—he was really laughing—he said, “I just thought of the best thing I ever stole from you. I had just a fair-to-middling picture up for an Academy Award [How Green Was My Valley] and you had a real good one [Sergeant York] and I beat ya out of it!” And when I went over to see him and he said goodbye to me about six times, I knew that something was happening and I phoned Wayne and I said, “You better get down here and see Pappy. If I were you I’d fly down.” He came down and he saw him just two or three hours before he died.
My opinion was that he was the best director in the picture business. It was very strange because we were both very pleased that the other one would steal from him. We didn’t have any feeling of jealousy or anything like that. When I made Red River with Wayne, Ford saw it and said, “I didn’t think the big son-of-a-bitch could act!” And he put him in two really good pictures immediately after, and within a year and a half Wayne was one of the biggest stars in the picture business.
Every time I made a picture with Wayne, Ford used to come down and stay with us on location, watching. And I’d say, “Can’t you wait to see it to steal something from it?”

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Of Babies, Bones and Butterflies

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977. This essay on Bringing Up Baby is a chapter of the author’s University of Washington doctoral dissertation Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition.]

Bringing Up Baby‘s narrative and thematic directions have much in common with those of Shakespearean comedy. Positing the green world of the forest against the restrictive refuges of civilization, Hawks moves from a rigid and sterile old order into an arboreal milieu of enchantment and mistaken identity, and thence to a new order which synthesizes the best of both worlds. David Huxley is caught up in a midsummer night’s dream (or nightmare) in which identity, time, direction, and traditional modes of communication are lost or changed utterly. Hawks, like some cinematic Prospero, invokes the power of music and nature to effect the existential regeneration of comic hero and heroine.


David Huxley (Cary Grant) is introduced in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker,” perched on a scaffold overlooking a brontosaurus skeleton that requires just one crucial bone to be complete. As a paleontologist, his “business” is a variation on taxidermy, the construction of bones into the shape of an extinct animal. He works in a museum where legacies of the past—nature’s and civilization’s—are displayed. As Hemingway said, “Chasing yesterdays is a bum show”: David is physically and intellectually immobilized by the weight of time into a sterile imitation of life. Momentarily stirred to joy by the promised arrival of the last brontosaurus bone, an intercostal clavicle, he spontaneously attempts to embrace his primly-coiffed and -suited fiancée, Miss Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). Repressed and repressing, she rebuffs him with “There’s a time and a place for everything.” Not only does she see “time and place” as inviolably absolute categories; it is also clear that those categories will always preclude sexual spontaneity. David’s work will leave “no time for a honeymoon” and Alice proudly gestures toward the brontosaurus skeleton, announcing “This will be our child!” Sexuality and procreation, ordinarily signs of life in motion in the here and now, are frozen into images of “no time” and an unfleshed casualty of past time.

David Huxley's baby

Rather than resenting and attempting’ to defy temporal realities, as do most Hawks and Hemingway code heroes, David Huxley is forced to worship time’s power to deaden and terminate life. Miss Swallow, a walking stopwatch, reminds David that “it’s time to play golf with Mr. Peabody,” whom he is to persuade to donate a million dollars to the museum. Almost in unconscious rebellion against her maternal discipline, he boyishly exclaims “I’ll show him! I’ll wow him! I’ll knock him for a loop!” His fiancée predictably objects to the slang—language in playful motion—and cautions, “Remember who and what you are. And let Mr. Peabody win!” Who and what you are, for Miss Swallow, are further static classifications in contrast to the potential for professional and personal development, particularly in competitive play, that is always present in Hawks’ dramatic films, For David’s fiancée, nothing must be left to chance. As David departs, he absentmindedly confuses Alice with an elderly, male colleague, almost giving him a parting kiss; for as a result of her killing categorizing, Alice has managed to confound David’s ability to recognize or respond to her as a woman. He is as unmanned in his existential refrigerator as are Francis Macomber and Robert Cohn, Hemingway men trained and enervated by women.

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Scarface (1932)

[This was a program note written to accompany the October 10, 1972, showing of Scarface in “The Cinema of Howard Hawks,” an Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series at the University of Washington. At that time Scarface was a very rara avis; indeed, the print shown was the property of a private collector. It still bore the censor-imposed subtitle “The Shame of a Nation,” which was mercifully dropped when the Howard Hughes estate licensed the film for distribution by Universal a few years later. Unfortunately, the preachy foreword and extraneous lecture by an unnamed newspaper publisher played by Purnell Pratt were not removed.]

NOTE:  The subtitle “The Shame of a Nation” has very little to do with Scarface as conceived and realized by Howard Hawks.  The picture was about to be released at a time when forces for The Public Decency were becoming concerned over the glorification of gangsters in American life, most especially in movies.  Against the director’s wishes, a conscience-stirring prologue (“What are you going to do about it?”—gangsterism, that is) and a couple of ludicrously preachy scenes were added to the film.  Hawks has clearly declared his intention to remove this “stuff the censors made me put in” before reissuing the movie, as he hopes to do soon.

* * * * * * * * *

A recent interview with Howard Hawks quoted him as naming Scarface his favorite among his forty or so films.  The preference is a trifle surprising, for in some respects Scarface is uncharacteristic of him.  Then again, Hitchcock cherishes the comparatively neorealistic (in circumstances of shooting and some particulars of casting) Shadow of a Doubt among his own largely soundstage-circumscribed work, and Ford persists in believing in the tacky peasant romanticism of The Fugitive, which most of his admirers find embarrassing.  Not that Scarface is, like the Ford, a failure or in any way even a misjudged film.  It simply evidences some features, whether the results of emulation or ambitions peculiar to this picture, which are not to be found in other Hawks movies.

Most particularly, Scarface bears the influence of Josef von Sternberg.  Although Hawks has subsequently declared that he told Lee Garmes how he wanted the shots to look and Garmes made them happen that way, Sternberg’s most distinguished cameraman brought to the film a lushness of light and shade and a voluptuous fluidity of camera movement uncharacteristic of Hawks’s customary unostentatious methods.  There is a Germanically lit and angled shot of Poppy (Karen Morley) descending a drab stairway and imposing her brashly self-possessed femininity on the title character, who is suddenly, touchingly outclassed at this moment; the male response prefigures far more stumbling instances of abashed masculine bravado to come in Hawks’s career, but the awed camera angle would be more at home in a cinema consecrated to Dietrichian idolatry than Hawks’s normal eye-level mise-en-scène that translates the two-shot into a sexual sparring-ground.  Then there is the matter of screenwriter Ben Hecht, who would work often with Hawks after this but had worked previously for Sternberg, most particularly winning an Oscar for his screen story of the 1927 Underworld.  Underworld opens with an exercise in abstract metropolitanism very like Hawks’s vehemently Expressionistic manipulation of a streetlight observed at a disorienting angle against a background of tilted/painted skyline, from which he pans to an apparently midget milkman thrown in to further dislocate the viewer; and the Cook’sTours sign, THE WORLD IS YOURS, that punctuated Tony Camonte’s rise and fall is a direct lift from the earlier picture (where the sign in question reads: THE CITY IS YOURS).*

Still, Hawks manages to make that opening streetlight and movement and the closing sign very much his own.  The initial symbolism is ambiguous.  A streetlight goes out: there is a suggestion of the city’s power being cut off, the urban environment left somehow vulnerable; yet the light is going out because morning is arriving and natural light is displacing the artificial.  And yet again, the light is about to go out for one of the film’s characters, whose entire screen life is to be lived in the single, continuous take that begins with that streetlight winking out, travels through walls and around corners, niggles a killer into the scene, then terminates casually after a custodian notices a newly dead body among the refuse of an all-night party and circumspectly flees—after pausing to put on his hat and coat.  The ambiguity inheres in the killer, Tony Camonte.  For while he is a merciless assassin capable of killing in hot blood or cold, he is also definitely “natural,” pre-civilized, almost pre-evolutionary—much is made of his simian build and features (though police and gangsters alike are called “monkeys” throughout the film).  And he is attractive, sympathetic, as all film creatures of a compelling dynamism are attractive and sympathetic.  The audience, like Poppy, can observe him, judge him, chuckle at him on occasion, but must respond to his forceful presence.  In that first take, Camonte is a vaguely perceived presence at a back door just before the camera pans away from it, then a shadow moving on the wall, then a silhouette for an instant, then a shadow once more as the camera makes its serpentine adjustments in space and direction.  Barely seen himself, he is virtually identified with the very camera movement that insinuates its self-aware way through this remarkable opening sequence.  But at the end of the film Camonte himself “can’t see,” and his story terminates on another light against the urban night:  a neon globe pulsing and glowing after it has ceased to be—if it ever was—Tony Camonte’s world.

Light is, of course, inevitably a key value to any practitioner of the cinematic art, and for Hawks it has always possessed an elemental meaning.  Light and warmth both are generated by the matches obsessively demanded by the less-than-self-sufficient leader in Only Angels Have Wings, a light and warmth immediately and lucidly translatable into the more ineffable but not less real comforts of human contact.  Human contact tends in nearly every case to be lethal in Scarface.  Indeed, for Hawks, Tony Camonte’s essential hubris lies in his insistence on his own singularity, his failure to realize until too late that he is “no good alone.”  But far more expressive is the director’s treatment of light as a conceptual pun on enlightenment, illumination.  And we might as well get it straight right now: With the insistent exceptions of Hitchcock and Godard, no other filmmaker has more—no other filmmaker approaches having as much—awareness of and interest in the process of discovering and toying with punlike arcs of implicit analogy that leap from level to level, from dialogue to specific action to structure and back again.  (It is worth noting, too, that Hawks and Hitchcock indulge their intellectual curiosity and stylistic playfulness with absolutely none of the pedantry that characterizes Godard, even at his best).  Every good Hawks film achieves an essential definition of terms on both the verbal and the practical levels.  Here a newspaper editor has to explain to his headline-writer the meaning of “gang war,” and the movie proceeds to take up the challenge of his reiterated phrase and effect such a definition for us.  (Similarly, Hawks’s “contribution to the war effort,” the 1943 Air Force, is about air force before it is about the capitalized branch of the Armed Services, as one of the characters makes explicitly clear in the climactic battle by saying to an observer only partially assimilated into the Hawks group, “Now we’ll show you what air force can do!”)

Here Hawks’s penchant for analyzing and appreciating the semantics of human existence neatly coincides with one of his most direct examinations of intellect itself, of knowledge and ignorance and the capacity for sophistication, of lack of self-awareness and self-irony that comes ironically home.  Hawks’s characters need to know—not to know in the sense of being certain, because there is very little in Hawks’s fluid universe about which one can enjoy the luxury of being certain; but rather, to know what they can get away with and what they can’t, what chances they ought to take and what chances they shouldn’t, where their power leaves off and the big black void begins.  His characters are held in an existential pressure-cooker.  Time is short: people keep talking about making up for lost time, and that incredibly suggestive opening sequence is, in its single-shot realization, a profound comment on (to take a Hoagy Carmichael lyric from To Have and Have Not) “how little we understand, how little we know”:  Big Louie Costillo is telling a couple cronies:  “A man always gotta know what he’s-a gotta know….  Well, she was a pooty good party….  Everybody she’s-a say, ‘Ah, Big Louie, he’s-a sittin’ on top of the world, eh?’  Good-a-bye, boys, I see you some more.”  But Louie almost immediately ceases to “see” anymore; so far from knowing what he has to know, he is murdered by his own bodyguard.  And, in time, the exact same pattern of gunfire that terminates Costillo’s existence recurs at the demise of his successor, the man who paid Camonte to betray Costillo, the man of whom Camonte had said, “Lovo—who’s Lovo?  Just some guy who’s a little smarter than Big Louie.”  And briefly Tony Camonte, who had “ideas,” will sit on top of the world, in his medievally dressed upstairs fortress with steel shutters designed to keep out contradicting reality, the fortress to which he will return at the end mumbling, “I didn’t know.  I didn’t know.”  There is much that Tony doesn’t know, concepts he can’t even recognize.  To him, a writ of habeas corpus is truly magical, “hocus pocus,” but the same materialistic sense that persuades him to invest in steel shutters, increasingly gaudy clothes, and a real mattress with inside springs implies the natural assumption that such writs can be bought up in advance (“I’m gonna need lotsa those!”).  Dutifully attending the performance of a play (with a wonderful parody of Hawksian group dynamics: Tony goes out for a smoke and a half-dozen tuxedoed goons move into each aisle of the theater to cover him), he is first moved to comment appreciatively on the literalness of Maugham’s “rain”: “Comes from a pipe!”  His interpretive remarks are just as literal, earnest studies of smart chat:  “This Sadie Thompson she’s got whaddayacall a problem … she’s whaddayacall ‘disillusioned’…”  In Hawks dialogue those “whaddayacallits” function as more than incidental reminders that we are listening to a first-generation American mutilate the English language.  Tony is groping for epistemological orientation; he’ll insist on Sadie Thompson’s “disillusionment” in the hope that that phrase means something, the same agreeable good faith that leads him to accept Poppy’s observation that a man’s wearing jewelry is “kinda effeminate.”

During intermission at the play, Tony works to convince himself he’s enthusiastic:  “That’s a fine show.  ‘Serious.’”  Angelo, the more comical of his two sidekicks, protests:  “It ain’t got no jokes.  I like a show with jokes.”  The director thoroughly agrees, and doesn’t hesitate to express himself through a character who’s freely acknowledged to be a “dope.”  Indeed, Angelo is not only one of the most likable characters but also a very meaningful one.  He is the one person Tony can intellectually dominate, correcting his pronunciation and insisting on the necessity of “edge-you-kayshun” if Angelo is to be a successful “secretary.”  Angelo, talking into the wrong end of a phone, prefigures the delightful syntactical and referential confusion Hawks will perpetrate in later duels between the sexes.  Told to have the unknown caller “state his business,” he sets his jaw in the certainty that he has just been provided the ultimate in smart-talking putdowns and snarls, “Go state-a you’ business!”—and hangs up!  He is absolutely committed to whatever task he’s assigned, seizing a secretarial pencil when ordered, even though he can’t write, and offering to shoot the telephone in lieu of the party who won’t let him complete his job satisfactorily.  Throughout the film Angelo fails to “get a name” when somebody calls.  But Hawks’s comic tactics unexpectedly escalate into a touching appreciation of the little man who, after Tony’s self-shattering slaughter of Guino, gives the orders his speechless boss cannot convey and dutifully locks the door against the cops, even though he’s received a mortal wound.  Tony’s ascension of the stairs is grotesquely shadowed in the dark, crumpling form of Angelo (cf. the opening scene where Tony was both shadow and silhouette):  Angelo is one of several “other halves” of Camonte in the film.  The telephone rings a last time; Angelo crawls to answer it and, dying, bleats his triumph:  “It’s Poppy, boss.  Boss! I got a name!”  Again, the language is not casual for Hawks: in completing his job, Angelo has indeed found himself, made his own name.

The job is all-important, even if you happen to be in the gangster business.  The criticism Tony levels at Johnny Lovo will be flung later at the villains of Rio Bravo and El Dorado: when Lovo protests, “I never hurt anybody!” Tony replies, “Yeah, you got somebody else to do it for ya!”  Whether Tony immediately betrays his own dictum in the next moment is open to discussion; even though he once told Little Boy that the secret of success is to “Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doin’ it,” he walks out and leaves the killing of Lovo to Little Boy.  But Little Boy is not a hired man, he is Tony’s best friend, and the film is rife with gestures of their solidarity.  That it should be Little Boy who “betrays” Tony with his sister is only one of several poetic means of suggesting Tony divided against and destroyed by himself.

Of course the most conspicuous secret sharer of Tony’s identity is his sister, Cesca, who is explicitly likened to him in the dialogue time and again.  Hawks’s treatment of their belatedly comprehended incestuous love is deservedly famous: the discreet yet doubly suggestive cut away from the two of them at one point so that we just miss seeing her kiss him; the two vivid confrontations in near-darkness—the one stormy and violent, the other fatalistic about their inevitable mutual eradication.  They are linked in the films most striking imagistic motif, the recurrence of X’s or crosses at key instances of real or threatened mortality.**  Again, this sort of blatant stylization is uncharacteristic of the director, yet once one sees past the gimmickiness (Hawks was offering five bucks a throw for anybody who could think up a new way of getting an X into the appropriate scenes), the image stands revealed as the most resonant in cinema up to and maybe including Rosebud.  The crucial sign, as it were, is gouged out of Tony Camonte’s cheek and lends the film its name.  (Yes yes, Tony Camonte is also “Scarface” Al Capone.)  It recurs not only at murder sites but also in significant encounters between Cesca and Guino:  when she tosses him a coin from the fire escape (one of many exchanges in the film), the railing grid forms an X; she wears a gown with crossed straps in back when tempting Guino to dance, and the wall lines behind them as they converse in Tony’s absence form a cross (a pattern not noticeable in other scenes set in the office).  It’s as if this especially bizarre mortality were waiting to explode in tragically destructive splendor once the upward mobility of the gangster success story exhausts itself.  Cesca is struck by a bullet meant for Tony, a bullet he accidentally causes to ricochet.  Their love, their death, is consummated in a welter of real and shadowy crosses.

There is scarcely any comparison between Scarface and the other historical classics of the great gangster-film era.  No other gangster movie approaches its density or poetic force, its unforced dynamism and muscular rhythm, its sheer modernity.  For here, a mere two years after his first talkie, Hawks has already achieved mastery of that realistically stylized dialogue that insures his films of sounding contemporary — rather, of not sounding anachronistic—whenever and wherever they are seen and heard, as long as the American language survives.  In its command of flow and feeling for inhabited spaces, too, the film is utterly fine.  Watch, as just one example, the scene at the Athletic Club when the new president and his enforcer “change the name on the door” and tell how it’s gonna be (“So you’re it!”  “yeah, it!”—go make dialogue out of the word ‘it’!).  There’s not a dull face in the room, not a hat brim that doesn’t lead the eye or arrest the eye, depending on the needs of the shot and the moment.  Corners are filled, blocked up, black: one reaches up to touch one’s face and make sure he isn’t wearing 3-D glasses, so deep and textured are the compositions.  There was almost nothing else like it in 1932.  There is almost nothing else like it in 1972.

* The heritage was charmingly taken one step further in the classic Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob when, atop the Eiffel Tower, Stanley Holloway turns to Alec Guinness and says, “Dutch, the world is ours!”
** A partial list:  Tony Camonte’s shadow lines up on the crossed leading of a window as he shoots Louie Costillo.  A streetsign, shot from above, casts a black X over the corpse of a man machine-gunned on the sidewalk.  The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is commemorated in seven crossbeams in the rafters of the Clark Street garage, and a luminous X is somehow projected on one of the corpses as the police examine the site.  Most outrageously, Gaffney (Boris Karloff) scores a strike just before he’s cut down in a bowling alley.  Most subtly, an out-of-focus fan glows faintly silver over Camonte’s shoulder as he menaces Johnny Lovo about two-fifteen in the morning of his last day of life.

SCARFACE. Howard Hughes, 1932.  Directed by Howard Hawks.  Screenplay: Ben Hecht, after a novel by Armitage Trail; adaptation and dialogue by Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, and W.R. Burnett.  Cinematography: Lee Garmes, L.W. O’Connell.  Co-director: Richard Rosson.  A United Artists Release.
The Players:

Tony Camonte: Paul MuniGuino Rinaldo, “Little Boy”: George RaftJohnny Lovo: Osgood PerkinsPoppy: Karen MorleyCesca: Ann DvorakAngelo: Vince BarnettGuarino: C. Henry GordonPolice Chief: Edwin MaxwellGaffney: Boris KarloffPietro: Henry Armetta;  Mrs. Camonte: Inez PalangeBig Louie Costillo: Harry J. VejarA managing editor: Tully Marshall;  MacArthur of the Journal: John Lee Mahin.

Copyright © 1972 by Richard T. Jameson

Talking and Doing in “Rio Bravo”

[Written for a November 14, 1972 showing of the film in a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series on Howard Hawks. Reprinted in an all-Westerns issue of the film journal The Velvet Light Trap.]

John Wayne as Chance, Angie Dickinson as Feathers

I can remember my reaction to Rio Bravo upon its initial release in 1959.  I liked it, I guess, but I was rather distressed by several factors: everything happened in this Southwestern town, John Wayne spent entirely too much time coming out on the wrong end of conversations with Angie Dickinson, and everybody talked all the time.  Somewhere along the line I had been given to understand that Westerns ought to be full of chases and display a great deal of scenery, that love interest was usually imposed obligatorily on action scenarios, and that any movie in which the actors gabbed all the time was not a movie but a photographed play.  Besides, these people all talked so oddly; and because they sounded odd, I decided they were technically inept performers.  And oh yes, Ricky Nelson — Dean Martin didn’t bother me, but it was simply axiomatic that anyone associated with so many insipid televideo memories as Nelson could only pull a movie down, as for instance in obliging this Howard Hawks fellow to throw in a song interlude just to get his money’s worth and to please “the fans.” (Who were “the fans” who imposed all these strictures anyway? — no one I knew, but they were always Platonically ideal to have lurking in the background as an excuse for one’s peeves.)

Actually I wasn’t guilty of quite all the foregoing stupidities, but I harbored enough of them to make me (or my teenage alter ego) bear the additional symbolic burden of those other exclusionist theories I’ve run across subsequently.  I’m for Rio Bravo today, to put it mild­ly, and if I had to select just one film to demonstrate what Howard Hawks is all about, it would vie at the top of the list with Only Angels Have Wings.  Both pictures embody the essen­tial Hawksian rhythms of danger and security; clearly exemplify the strong bonds of respect and reliance that sustain the small society of professionals contained within the larger and scarcely seen society of undistinguished, uncommitted workaday types; suggest why love is as dangerous and as necessary to personal wholeness as flying or gunfighting; file lucid and affectionate briefs for good, personal, ritualistic humor and the healthier forms of craziness; and relate language, speech, and reason to action more definitively than any other films in the canon.  If Only Angels Have Wings is the foremost masterwork of the director’s early peri­od, Rio Bravo is that of the later, even more genial years.

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Hawks, Chandler and The Big Sleep

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance; that to be very poor and very beautiful is most probably a moral failure much more than an artistic success. Shakespeare would have done well in any generation because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over; he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. Instead of saying “This medium is not good,he wouldn’t have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it is always a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything. —Raymond Chandler (1949)

Raymond Chandler was given to talking things up in a way that Howard Hawks never has been, but part of what is remarkable about the above statement is its aptness as an aesthetics for Hawks’ films as well as for Chandler’s fiction. Even in readily likeable potboilers like Tiger Shark and The Crowd Roars, the hard-edged integrity that distinguished later and more accomplished Hawks films was already making itself felt. Indeed, in Chandler’s fiction as in movies like Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and Rio Bravo, the mixture of highly commercial genre and sharply individualized intelligence exerts an enduring fascination. Thus, that Hawks should end up filming a Chandler novel seems more than merely appropriate. Keep Reading