Howard Hawks: 10 essential films + 3 underrated ones

Across film noir, action-adventure, westerns and screwball comedies, Howard Hawks made some of the most flat-out entertaining movies you could ever see. Sometimes championing 10 just isn't enough...

27 May 2016

By Matthew Thrift

Rio Bravo (1959)

It took a while for Howard Hawks to get his dues. One of the great popular filmmakers of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, it wasn’t until the critics of French journal Cahiers du cinéma got their claws into him that he began to receive the artistic recognition with which he’s revered today.

Hawks was no innovator. He worked across multiple genres, but always within their established parameters. Yet his films remain unmistakably his; little wonder he’s the poster boy for those of an auteurist persuasion. All of Hawks films feel – to a greater or lesser degree – well, Hawksian.

There’s a through-line to his thematic, narrative, moral and interpersonal concerns – all the characteristic gestures and inflections by which we understand the Hawksian style – that transcend their adventure or comedy trappings. He wasn’t afraid to repeat himself, often literally; some of his best work being variations on the previously considered. He’d rebuff intellectual readings of his films, insisting on their value as ‘mere’ entertainment. Whether or not one took him at his word, there remains an effortlessly instinctual quality to his filmmaking that makes superfluous any unnecessary attempt at distinctions between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’.

Scarface (1932)

Scarface (1932)
Lookit! They got machine-guns you can carry!

The quintessential pre-code prototype for the gangster movie: past, present and future. A rise-and-fall narrative that flips the bird at a studio-mandated title card disavowing a misread amorality. Unlike Monkey Business (1952), there’s no antidote to the primitivism here; the film’s rhythms as simpatico with Hawks’ comedies as with the rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire. Boys and their toys. Innocence lost in a hail of bullets and incestuous confusion. It’s Hawks’s first masterpiece: if he’d later riff on genre traditions, here’s where he wrote the book.

Twentieth Century (1934)

Twentieth Century (1934)
I never thought I should sink so low as to become an actor.

It may not be the most quicksilver (His Girl Friday?) or the most subversive (Monkey Business?) of Hawks’ comedies, but it might just be the funniest. Disagree? Then, “I close the iron door on you.” All the world’s a stage for hysterically manipulative egomaniacs, Oscar Jaffe and Lily Garland – theatrical impresario and muse, respectively – John Barrymore and Carole Lombard vying to outbid the other’s last melodramatic seizure. One of the great double-acts in the annals of screwball, the duo declaim their own perceived tragedies to the gods, while Hawks sets a deceptively simple stage, kicks back and keeps time.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Who’s Joe?

Death is a cloud that hangs low and heavy over the mountain outpost of Hawks’s 1939 masterpiece; an impregnable fog that chokes its peaks, its merciless claims defiantly answered with second-hand steaks and glasses raised to the strains of an old joanna. The town is Barranca – launch site of a dangerous mail-run through the skies – where troubled pasts take root in the dank air and lives come and go as fast as the liquor. It’s a far-flung breeding ground for the Hawksian value system and group dynamic, where men are only as good as the jobs they do. It’s a stoically present-tense social order with its back squarely turned to nostalgia. Lessons aren’t learned come the heart-rending denouement, just respect – mutual and individual – attained and retained; lives slowly moving forward, even as the film soars.

To Have and Have Not (1944)

To Have and Have Not (1945)
Was you ever bit by a dead bee?

“I can make a movie out of the worst thing you ever wrote,” said Hawks to Ernest Hemingway, who offered up To Have and Have Not for $10,000. It would become one of the director’s greatest films, the one on which Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall fell in love. It may be a romantic notion, but knowledge of the off-screen affair lends further sizzle to exchanges already on a rolling boil. The film’s greatest love story, though, is that between Bogart and Walter Brennan’s rummy shipmate, Eddie. It’s a relationship that harks back to Only Angels Have Wings and looks forward to Rio Bravo (1959), with a respect bereft of sentimentality. Bogart’s Harry Morgan proves Hawks’ most unflappable moral centre; Bacall’s Slim – while no feminist icon – the quintessential Hawksian woman.

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)
What is it you’re trying to find out? You know, it’s a funny thing. You’re trying to find out what your father hired me to find out and I’m trying to find out what you want to find out.

Hawks’ oft-quoted dismissal of plot as merely “an excuse for some scenes” is exemplified in the Raymond Chandler adaptation that reunited Bogart and Bacall. Its labyrinthine narrative is famously impossible to follow (even Chandler admitted to not knowing the identity of one victim’s killer), but what scenes! Sure, the golden couple’s patter may feel a little more studied this time out, but it hardly lessens the thrill. Besides, there’s always the Dorothy Malone bookshop scene if it does. That it feels more Hawksian than Chandler-esque is no bad thing – for its cynicism both can claim parentage – and if it can’t match the moral charge of To Have and Have Not, it’s only because few can.

Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)
We've got a thousand miles to go. Ten miles a day will be good, 15'll be luck. It'll be dry country, dry wells when we get to 'em. There'll be wind, rain. There's gonna be Indian territory, how bad I don't know, and when we get to Missouri there'll be border gangs. There's gonna be a fight all the way, but we'll get there.

While it’s true that Hawks was never a director much in thrall to the indulgence of visual beauty for its own sake, Red River sure is a looker. His first western proper (if we discount 1935’s out-west melodrama Barbary Coast), its story of a cattle-drive and the ensuing clash between a surrogate father (John Wayne) and his adopted son (Montgomery Clift) looks like it’s heading for a showdown straight out of Greek tragedy. While we get the showdown, Hawks shrugs off expectations with a deus-ex-machina in the form of Joanne Dru’s no-shit-takin’ Tess. The river crossing and stampede sequences are magnificent, and if the Wayne persona here is distinct from the through-line of adjustments and critiques in later collaborations, the roots of a ruthless psychological hardening that would manifest in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) can be found here.

Monkey Business (1952)

Monkey Business (1952)
In my opinion, your opinion that it's a silly song is a silly opinion.

Despite being the most anarchically farcical of Hawks’s comedies, Monkey Business also proves the most cohesively organised, each scene a logical progression of the film’s thematic concerns. An elixir of youth developed by Cary Grant’s absent-minded professor – and perfected by a lab chimp – serves as the McGuffin, its potency regressing the dosed first to teenagers, then infants, then ceiling-swinging apes for the film’s suitably madcap finale. If there’s an underlying darkness to the unmasking of the suppressed and repressed, the journey towards primitivism and wholly-unleashed id couldn’t be funnier. Grant and Ginger Rogers provide an irresistible lunacy, while a supporting turn from Marilyn Monroe proves her every bit the scene-stealer.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo (1959)
A bum-legged old man and a drunk, that's all you've got?
That's what I've got.

First there’s that opening. Five dialogue-free minutes. A joke of a sheriff eyeing up the bar, then his humiliation. Wayne’s entrance, shot from below as he looms over his deadbeat pal. The gunshot that sees Joe Burdette brought to the jail, that epicentre of the Hawksian mode. All of Hawks is here. The adventures and the comedies. The women and the group. Heroism and salvation. Professionalism and competence the scales of judgement (“Sorry don’t get it done, Dude”). Redemption found not just in action but through inner-strength, standing up first for yourself. Rio Bravo is Dude’s story, his reclamation of dignity the film’s moral and emotional centre. Hawks’ laconicism finds its peak, countless digressions serving to build character, relationship and theme; where a gesture – a passed cigarette – tells a thousand tales. It’s the director’s towering achievement; a film as rich as it is obscenely enjoyable, one to excavate and luxuriate in over and over and over…

Hatari! (1962)

Hatari! (1962)
My name is Luis Francisco Garcia Lopez, and I don't wear pajamas.

Hawks loves a musical interlude; the unifying of his groups in a single purpose. While the function of such scenes may vary – from the bittersweet means of coping with tragedy in Only Angels Have Wings to Rio Bravo’s time-killing – they’re unanimously moments infused with joy, a means of bonding within (or allowing access to) the hermetic circle; none more so than when Dallas (Elsa Martinelli) takes to the piano in Hatari! It’s Hawks’ ultimate hang-out movie, the one best indicative of his relaxed late-style. There’s no antagonist, little by way of plot (although its African savannah setting allows for a number of astounding set-pieces) and barely any stakes, but its gentle humour and touching interpersonal dynamics prove impossible to resist. It may play like a Hawks greatest hits package – with Duke’s screen persona in for its most affectionate ribbing – but when the hits are this good…

El Dorado (1966)

El Dorado (1966)
I may be drunk, I may not be able to load my own gun, but I don’t need you telling me what to do.
I just hope you’re good enough.

You could say that El Dorado is two movies, one of which is Rio Bravo. The story goes that Hawks got fed up with the script while shooting so simply decided to remake his earlier film instead. There’s no escaping its variations on a theme; the fascination lying in both its similarities and its differences. It’s the more violent of the two films, the more broadly comic, and inevitably the more schizophrenic, even while there’s charm in its languid ellipses. If the group dynamic and interpersonal relationships prove less cohesive than its superior predecessor, its motley crew of crippled and gun-shy makes for a spirited examination of co-dependence and depleted powers. There’s fun to be had in the reassignment of function to familiar roles, especially if you see – as critic Robin Wood did – James Caan’s Mississippi as the principal love interest.

…and three underrated ones:

A Song Is Born (1948)

A Song Is Born (1948)
Yes, I love him. I love those hick shirts he wears with the boiled collars and the way he always has his coat buttoned wrong. It looks like a giraffe and I love him. I love him because he’s the sort of guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk. And I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he… He doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk.

Steal from the best, they say. If you’re already the best, steal from yourself, they probably say too. A Song is Born doesn’t have a great reputation. It’s a remake of Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941), a film with perhaps a better reputation than it deserves. Hawks took a stack of money from Samuel Goldwyn to re-tool his earlier film as a musical, replacing the dictionary-compiling academics with professors of music. Less a variation on a theme in the manner of El Dorado or Rio Lobo (1970) than a straight repurposing of entire scenes, it may lack for Barbara Stanwyck (Virginia Mayo her replacement) but gets an upgrade on Gary Cooper in Danny Kaye. With Gregg Toland on lensing duties and cameos from the likes of Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, the music scenes (and their accompanying group compositions) consistently hum. Billy Wilder, who wrote Ball of Fire, wasn’t the ideal match for Hawks’s sensibilities the first time round, the decision to rejig his ending for A Song is Born as a musical extravaganza works a charm.

The Big Sky (1952)

The Big Sky (1952)
A man leaves when he ain’t got nothin’ to stay for.

Long before Werner Herzog dragged a boat over a mountain for Fitzcarraldo (1982), Hawks was out on the Missouri River capturing his cast wrestling a capsizing boat. The location photography lends The Big Sky a sense of the epic, and while it’s ultimately a minor work – at least in comparison to his other westerns – it remains indisputably his. Most of the interest lies in the relationship between Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin, which even Hawks himself went so far as to call a love story. Recalling the dynamic between Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong in the director’s great silent picture A Girl in Every Port (1928), the girl here – Elizabeth Threatt’s Teal Eye – barely gets a look in, reduced to a pawn in Martin’s pursuit of Douglas’ affection.

Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964)

Man’s Favorite Sport (1964)

In which an anxious Rock Hudson is made uncomfortable by two women who threaten to reveal his secret. Not that secret. Hudson stars as an expert fisherman who’s never been fishing, sent by his boss to enter a competition on the company dime. Hijinks etc. Just as Hatari! drew out the tempo of the adventure films for a laid-back stroll through their constituent elements, so Man’s Favorite Sport? does the same for the screwballs. It’s not as successful as its predecessor, but there’s plenty to like in its own shaggy-dog way, and how many Hawks films can you say feature a bear riding a motorbike? Few filmmakers can make what appears to be a simple going-through-the-motions feel so comforting, as familiar tropes – shades of Ball of Fire’s bookish man discovering himself through action, say – find themselves with a colourful new wardrobe.

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