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He is approaching 75, but Howard Hawks still fits the old Ben Hecht description of him as “a drawling fashion plate, apurr with melodrama”.
On the stage of the Carnegie Theater for the Chicago Film Festival last November, a month before the premiere of his Rio Lobo, he was the image of the consummate professional. He was wearing rimless dark glasses, and kept them on even when the audience, through an electrician’s error, was left in darkness. As he sat there in the spotlight, asking for light, it seemed oddly appropriate – recalling Robin Wood’s words about ‘the eternal darkness… against which the Hawksian stoicism shines.’
The lights came on again, and Hawks stoically endured a long eulogy by Charles Flynn, editor of Focus! magazine. Flynn closed with, ‘Unless Mr. Hawks wants to say something at the end … ’ Hawks, visibly grimacing, replied, ‘I think you’ve said more than enough,’ and from that point on the audience was his.
Hawks kept the talk going by quietly nodding at each new questioner, quickly asking for repetition if a question confused him, and beguiling the audience with a flow of anecdotes. Some were familiar, but he embellished them with new twists and flourishes, just as his heroes repeat the same tasks in an endless but volatile routine until they achieve an almost effortless mastery. When a particularly obtuse question came up – such as one which criticised his direction of Henry Hathaway’s The Sons of Katie Elder, or another which asked where to obtain a ‘Red River D Belt buckle’ – he would field it gracefully, with a barely perceptible irritation. What follows is an edited transcript of his remarks, rearranged by topic.
Well, when we came to a certain place in Rio Bravo, we had a choice between going in this direction and going in that direction. But we made notes to remember because we said, ‘That is so good we can use it again.’ So when we started on El Dorado, I said to the writer, the same one who worked on Rio Bravo [Leigh Brackett], ‘Now, look, we had a very good boy gunman in Rio Bravo, let’s make it a boy who can’t shoot at all.’ That wasn’t the same, was it? I said, ‘John Wayne was the sheriff in Rio Bravo, so let’s have Bob Mitchum the sheriff in El Dorado.’
You’re right, there is a similarity, but it comes from style, it comes from writing, it comes from the fact that it’s made in the same part of the country, because the costumes are very much the same… Rio Lobo is quite different because it starts in the war between the North and the South, so you don’t quite think it’s going to be a western, then it changes to the western. You can probably say that western is a lot like the other two. Sure. You’ve got fellows with guns, and one of them’s a sheriff… You know, there isn’t much you can do.
If people start a picture and they have a lot of funny things, it’s as much as to say, ‘We expect you to laugh.’ I think that’s committing suicide.
What kind of working relationship do you have with John Wayne?
The last picture we made, I called him up and said, ‘Duke, I’ve got a story.’ He said, ‘I can’t make it for a year, I’m all tied up.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s all right, it’ll take me a year to get it finished.’ He said, ‘Good, I’ll be all ready.’ And he came down on location and he said, ‘What’s this about?’ And I told him the story. He never even read it, he didn’t know anything about it.
Didn’t it sound familiar to him, though?
Yes, he said, ‘Do I get to play the drunk this time?’
El Dorado seems to start out in a very sombre vein and then loosen up toward the middle.
That’s a particular theory of mine, that if people start a picture and they have a funny main title, a lot of funny things, it’s as much as to say, ‘We expect you to laugh.’ I think that’s committing suicide. So I start out and try to get their attention with a good dramatic sequence, and then find a place to start getting some laughs. We did that with Rio Bravo, we did that with El Dorado, and we did it very much with the new picture. It starts off being very serious and then before the audience realises it, you’re starting in having some fun.
Could you explain how Rio Bravo was made as a reaction against High Noon?
I saw High Noon at about the same time I saw another western picture, and we were talking about western pictures and they asked me if I liked it and I said, ‘Not particularly.’ I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help. I said that a good sheriff would turn around and say, ‘How good are you? Are you good enough to take the best man they’ve got?’ And the fellow would probably say ‘No’ and he’d say, ‘Well, then I’d just have to take care of you.’ And that scene was in Rio Bravo.
Then I saw another picture where the sheriff caught a prisoner and the prisoner taunted him and made him perspire and worry and everything by saying, ‘Wait till my friends catch up with you.’ And I said, ‘That’s a lot of nonsense, the sheriff would say, “You better hope your friends don’t catch up with you, ’cause you’ll be the first man to die.”’
While we were doing all this, they said, ‘Why don’t you make a picture the other way ?’ And I said ‘O.K.’, and we made Rio Bravo the exact opposite from High Noon and this other picture – think it was called 3:10 to Yuma.
What sort of stories would you like to do in the future?
Cary Grant and I were talking the other day, we’d always wanted to do Don Quixote and have Cantinflas do Sancho Panza. Before Cary gets too old or I get too old, we hope to do it.
Outside of that, any story that I think’s fun to do, I expect to do. Things are changing so rapidly now that I like to know what they’re beginning to think. I talked to an exhibitor the other day and he said booking a picture today is like playing Russian roulette.
How would you attempt to do such a complex philosophical work as Don Quixote?
I think we could have a lot of fun with it. To me, Don Quixote is a great comedy. I think that Don Quixote is the basis really for the Chaplin character. I think we all found that funny, and I don’t see why we can’t make Don Quixote very funny.
Is there any chance of Scarface being redistributed?
We’re working on it. We think we’ll probably re-release it and send it out for television. I’m trying to get it ready and modernise it a little bit. The picture holds up very well, but some of the music and some of the stuff that the censors made us put in at that time I’d rather not leave in, so we’re taking that out of it.
I have a very hard time convincing people that Red Line 7000 is a great film. How do you feel about it?
I don’t like it. I was trying to do something, I tried an experiment. I had three good stories about the race track – I used to race, I know it pretty well – but none of them would make a picture, so I thought maybe I can put them together. And just when I got people interested in two people, I cut over and started to work with two more, and when the audience got interested in them, I went over to two others, and pretty soon the audience got disgusted and I got disgusted too.
To be serious, I think there were some pretty good things in it, but as a piece of entertainment I don’t think I did a good job. I think there were some individual scenes that were pretty good, and there were a lot of great race scenes. But I’m not proud of the picture as a whole.
On a movie such as Hatari!, it’s obvious that you can’t control much of what’s going to happen. Could you explain how you prepared for the hunting scenes?
We had some marvellous camera cars – six months’ building, could do about 80 miles an hour over no roads – and a pretty well-trained crew. And we had airplanes spotting up above that had radio connection with the cars. We had around fifty jeeps of various kinds: little jeeps, station wagons, everything.
I could talk to the airplanes, and I could talk to the cars. An airplane would say, ‘Car 33 is headed for a good bunch of rhinos.’ So I’d say, ‘Where’s car 33?’ They put up a flag, and we’d find out where 33 was, and we’d all head for 33. And then we’d hear a voice say, ‘Be careful when you swing round that bunch of trees, they’re right behind there and they look kinda mean.’ And then you’d hear, ‘Look out there!’ and a big crash, and the boys in the airplane would say, ‘I told you they were mean.’
Then we’d make a scene – we only had three or four minutes to make a whole scene. We had to catch them and get ’em into a cage. Three or four minutes was a long time, because they weren’t fun. I think we chased nine rhinos and caught four to get the scenes in this part of the picture.
How much control do you have over the editing of your films?
Oh, practically complete control. I’ve had a little trouble on a couple of pictures that they thought were too long. I made the mistake of making them too long and they made the mistake of trying to shorten them.
Is there one of your films that stands out as being particularly satisfying to you?
I don’t think you can answer that question. You make a comedy – you take it out, if the people laugh, you’re immediately pleased, you get an immediate reaction and the pleasure that you’ve done a good job. If you make a drama, it takes a little bit longer. You have to have people come up to you and say, ‘I enjoyed that’, because they can give you no visible expression in a theatre. Oh, if they don’t walk out, that’s pretty good.
I think probably the last picture that worked out well is your favourite for a while, and then you start thinking about it and you go back a little further.
Not that you’re trying to make every scene a great scene, but you try not to annoy the audience. If I can make about five good scenes and not annoy the audience, it’s an awfully good picture. I told John Wayne when we started to work together, ‘Duke, if you can make two good scenes and not annoy the audience for the rest of the film, you’ll be a star.’ So he always comes up to me and says, ‘Is this one of those not-annoy-the-audience…?’ And I say, ‘You better believe it.’ Or he says, ‘Is this one of our good ones?’ And I say, ‘Well, this is almost that…’ We work that way, and now he preaches that as though it’s gospel, and he does a great job of not annoying the audience.
Would you say something about your use of colour?
When we were making Red River, we discussed whether to use colour or not. At that time colour wasn’t very good. It had a kind of garish look to it. I didn’t like it, and we were trying to get a feeling of the period, so we made Red River in black-and-white. Some things I think go well in black-and-white; they give you a feeling of being older.
Now colour is better, and it’d be pretty hard for me to make a picture without colour. I think I enjoy it now. We’ve learned how to handle it, to control it, to print it. The colour is faster, so we can use it just as if we were using black-and-white; it doesn’t jump at us. We can use all the fall colours, ambers and muted colours, and come out with a very good-looking picture.
On El Dorado, I noticed that the Remington paintings always had a great slash of light across the street coming out of the saloon door. So I said to the cameraman, ‘How do we get that?’ He said, ‘Use yellow light, but don’t walk your people through it – they’ll look like they had yellow jaundice or something.’ He used back light on them and it was a very mellow, pleasant look. We used it in the last picture.
What kind of relationship do you like to have with your cameraman?
There’s a lot of cooperation with a good cameraman, and I’ve been fortunate in having good ones. Some of them get very tired of working in normal stuff, they relax and then you pep them up and get them to take chances. I tell them, ‘If you make two good scenes for me, you can make two mediocre ones and one bad one.’ All I’m interested in is the good one. So they go ahead and take chances, and their work shows it. Because you people pass up the bad scenes, but you really appreciate the good one.
I’m interested first in the action and next in the words they speak. If I can’t make the action good, I don’t try to use the words.
Could you say something about the way you improvise with actors, how many liberties you’re willing to take with a scene?
A lot of that has been overemphasised. We have a scene that we’re going to do: I’m interested first in the action and next in the words they speak. If I can’t make the action good, I don’t try to use the words. If I want something to happen in a hurry, I can’t have a man stop and read a line. I let him run on through yelling something. I must change to fit the action because, after all, it’s a motion picture. I don’t change it so much – we end up with the same scene, except we just do it in a little different style.
When we started that picture, it was written as a very dour, sour man. At the end of the first day I said to Eddie Robinson, ‘This is going to be the dullest picture that’s ever been made.’ And he said, ‘What can we do?’ I said, ‘Well, if you’re willing to try it with me, why, let’s make him a happy-go-lucky, talkative… you’re going to have to keep talking all through the picture.’ He said, ‘Fine, let’s do it.’ So every day I give him a sheet of yellow paper and say, ‘Here’s your lines.’
He’s a fine actor, and I thought he did a great job. But I hate to think of what the picture would have been if we’d done the dour, sour man instead of this rather gay. futile man, because the whole tenor of the picture changed.
Could you tell us something about the off-camera lives of people like Bogart and Cagney?
I had enough trouble with them on the set to worry about.
How do you handle difficult actors?
Look, if they’re good, they’re no trouble to handle. The only people that are hard to handle are bad actors. I had trouble the first day with Bogart. I think I grabbed him by the lapels and pushed his head up against the wall and said, ‘Look, Bogie, I tell you how to get tough, but don’t get tough with me.’ He said, ‘I won’t.’ Everything was fine from that time on.
Do you pick the scripts you work on?
I get complete opportunity to pick the script. There are only a few times that I’ve done a favour for somebody and made a picture, and usually it hasn’t been good because I know the kind of a story I can tell and that I enjoy telling. Then it’s fun.
Could you explain how the day-to-day writing goes on a script?
Well, when Hecht and MacArthur and I used to work on a script, we’d sit in a room and work for two hours and then we’d play backgammon for an hour. Then we’d start again and one of us would be one character and one would be another character. We’d read our lines of dialogue and the whole idea was to try to stump the other people, to see if they could think of something crazier than you could. And that is the kind of dialogue we used, and the kind that was fun. We could usually remember what we said, and put it right down and go on working.
And sometimes you’re so far in a picture, and you get an idea that you’re going to change a character, so you just go back and change the lines that you’ve written for that character and start all over again.
One of the best known lines in American films is, ‘If you want anything, just whistle’ in To Have and Have Not. Who was responsible – Faulkner, Furthman, Hawks, or was it improvised?
I was making a test of Bacall, so I wrote the scene just for the test and it went over so well we had an awful time trying to put it into the picture. Faulkner was the one who found a place to put it. He said, ‘If we put these people in a hotel corridor where nobody else is around, then I think we can make that scene work.’ So we did it.
I wrote the line, but he wrote the stuff that led up to it. Bill and I were very good friends. We hunted and fished a lot. I bought the first story that he sold; he was working as a clerk in Macy’s basement in New York. He worked with me on, oh, half a dozen pictures. I could call on him any time and ask him for a scene, and he always gave it to me.
Could you tell us something about Land of the Pharaohs?
We had a lot of fun, and we had a pretty good premise of a story. For writers we had Bill Faulkner and Harry Kurnitz, a very fine playwright. We started to work on it, and Faulkner said, ‘I don’t know how a pharaoh talks.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, I never talked to one.’ And he said, ‘Is it all right if I write him like a Kentucky colonel ?’ And Kurnitz said, ‘I can’t do it like a Kentucky colonel, but I’m a student of Shakespeare – I think I could do it as though it were King Lear.’ So I said, ‘Well, you fellows go ahead and I’ll rewrite your stuff.’ They did it, and I messed it up, and… we didn’t know what a pharaoh did.
The dialogue in your films is very sophisticated. Have you ever found the Production Code restrictive?
Oh, no. We made one picture, [The] Big Sleep, and they read the script and they didn’t care for the end Chandler wrote. I said, ‘Why don’t you suggest a better one?’ And they did. It was a lot more violent, it was everything I wanted, and I made it and was very happy about it. I said, ‘I’ll hire you fellows as writers.’
What things do you think you have in common with John Ford?
A great deal. He was a good director when I started, and I copied him every time I could. I don’t think I’ve done nearly as good a job as Ford on some things. I think he’s got the greatest vision for a tableau, a long shot, of any man. One of my favourite pictures of all time is The Quiet Man, which I think was just a beautiful picture.
Every time I run into a scene that I think Ford does very well, I stop and think, ‘What would he have done there?’ And then I go ahead and do it.
Ford, oh, he has done some things that are just fabulous. And he was the first man to do them. Every time I run into a scene that I think Ford does very well, I stop and think, ‘What would he have done there?’ And then I go ahead and do it, because he gets more use out of a bad sky… he goes right on shooting whether the weather’s bad or good, and he gets fabulous effects.
I was making a picture with Wayne, Red River. We had a burial scene, and the cameraman said, ‘We’d better hurry, there’s a cloud coming across that mountain right behind.’ So I said to Wayne, ‘Now, look, you go out there – if you forget your lines, just say anything, keep talking until I tell you to come on in. We’ll make the sound afterwards.’ And I waited until the cloud got near, thought of Ford, and started the scene. Then we started the burial service, and the cloud passed right over the whole scene. I told Ford. I said, ‘Hey, I’ve made one almost as good as you can do. You better go and see it.’
Could you comment on your earliest films?
A very astute and wise man gave me a chance to direct, and I made a picture [The Road to Glory, 1926] that I don’t think anybody enjoyed except a few critics. And he said, ‘Look, you’ve shown you can make a picture, but for God’s sake go out and make entertainment.’ So I went home and wrote a story about Adam and Eve waking up in the Garden of Eden and called it Fig Leaves. It got its cost back in one theatre. And that taught me a very good lesson; from that time on, I’ve been following his advice about trying to make entertainment.
You’re famous for taking a scene that has elements of pain and humiliation, such as the finger amputation in The Big Sky or the steak scene in Only Angels Have Wings, and either playing it lightly or for outright slapstick…
You’re looking for something new to be funny. I told John Wayne (on Red River), ‘Look, I’ve got an idea for a funny scene. You get your finger caught between a saddle horn and a rope, and it’s mangled, and they say, ‘Well, that finger isn’t going to be much use to you.’ And they get you drunk and they heat up an iron in the fire and sharpen a knife and cut off your finger.’ He said, ‘What kind of a scene is that?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘It’s supposed to be funny.’ He said, ‘That isn’t funny.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘if you’re not good enough, then we won’t do it. I’ll do it with somebody else who’s a better actor.’ So I did it with Kirk Douglas, and I told John, ‘You better go see that picture.’ And he came back and said, ‘If you say a funeral is funny, I’ll do a funeral.’ Because I think that was a funny scene.
I think that humour comes very close to being tragedy. In Rio Bravo, Wayne hit a fellow across the face the most horrible way. Dean Martin said, ‘Hey, take it easy.’ And Wayne said, ‘I’m not gonna hurt him.’ The audience thought it was funny.
In Rio Lobo, we set a man on fire. He’s burning and somebody goes to pick up a blanket to put the thing out, and Wayne says, ‘Let him burn.’ And the other fellow says, ‘Don’t let him burn so much he can’t sign the papers we want him to sign.’ And, I don’t know, to me it was funny.
Pauline Kael attacked your films because she said they are examples of male chauvinism.
God, I don’t know what that means.
That the role of women is seen to be subservient and auxiliary to the heroics of the men.
Well, I’ve seen so many pictures where the hero gets in the moonlight and says silly things to a girl. I’d reverse it and let the girl do the chasing around, you know, and it works out pretty well. Anyway, I know that a little better than I do that other stuff.
You say you are an entertainer, and the French critics in the last few years have been treating you as an entertainer and a philosopher…
Oh, I listen to them, and I get open-mouthed and wonder where they find some of the stuff that they say about me. All I’m doing is telling a story. I’m very glad that they like it, and I’m very glad that a lot of them are copying what I do, but they find things… I work on the fact that if I like somebody and think they’re attractive, I can make them attractive. If I think a thing’s funny, then people laugh at it. They give me credit for an awful lot of things that I don’t pay any attention to.
Your films always have a solid structure. But in today’s films it almost seems unfashionable to have one…
If they let those fellows that are making them today go on with no structure, when they make the second or third picture I think they’ll begin to learn that they better have a little structure.
I think a director’s a story-teller, and if he tells a story that people can’t understand, then he shouldn’t be a director.
We made a picture that worked pretty well called [The] Big Sleep, and I never figured out what was going on, but I thought that the basic thing had great scenes in it and it was good entertainment. After that got by, I said, ‘I’m never going to worry about being logical again.’
But I think that in some of today’s pictures you don’t know where you are, who’s talking, or anything, and that’s why they have got motion pictures lying around over in Hollywood that they can’t make head or tail out of.
I think a director’s a story-teller, and if he tells a story that people can’t understand, then he shouldn’t be a director. You take the western. Every time a man I know is a first-rate director goes after a western, you come out with a pretty good picture, because a western’s good entertainment, it’s dramatic… But you get somebody who’s going to make a western about a psycho or a left-handed gun or something like that, then it’s no good, it doesn’t live up to what people want in a western.
What did you think of The Wild Bunch?
Somebody asked me about it, and I said, ‘Well, he doesn’t know how to direct. I can kill four men and bury ’em before he gets through using slow motion to make one die.’ All I saw was a lot of red paint and blood running.
You’re quite an inspiration for a lot of young European directors…
A number of them have a great deal of talent, but they’re telling pictures that are good for only France, Italy and Germany. When I go over there I talk to them about it. I say, ‘Why don’t you fellows widen out, make a picture that is good for the world? You aren’t going to get enough money to work with unless you get it out of universal entertainment.’ And I think they’re beginning to work on that.
A couple of the Frenchmen do beautiful jobs, and I admire their work. Peter Bogdanovich, who made Targets, I think is eventually going to turn out some very fine work. Of the older directors, I admire Carol Reed’s work very much. I like Hitchcock’s work, and Billy Wilder’s. When I think I can learn something, I go to see any of their pictures, but if I think I can’t learn, I don’t go.
Howard Hawks: 10 essential films + three underrated ones
By Matthew Thrift
From the S&S archives: Notes on The Big Sleep, 30 years afterFrom the S&S archives: Notes on The Big Sleep, 30 years after
Sight and Sound, Summer 2022
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