This critical reflection of Howard Hawks's late movies is re-posted in conjunction with a complete Hawks retrospective at Museum of the Moving Image, from September 7-November 10, 2013.
Late Hawks, Anthology Film Archives, June 4-15, 2008
The concept of the "late period" of filmmakers is strongly associated with auteurism, and was a particular point of contention when auteurism traveled to the US in the '60s. Film critics, then and now, tend to favor the paradigm of filmmakers hitting their artistic peak in early or mid-career, and thereafter laboring in vain to capture the flair of their youth. It's a natural attitude for the reviewer on the beat, deluged with mediocre contemporary product and doomed to wistful fantasy about golden ages. Implicit in the myth of decline is a vision of movies as mechanisms: uncanny objects that somehow "work" or not because of the confluence of ineffable forces. And the late films of many directors seemed often not to "work."
Auteur critics set out to substitute for the mechanism model an artist-oriented aesthetic that was borrowed from older art forms that had clearer claims to being the expression of individuals. Instead of working or not working, movies partook of the creative personality of their directors, and a valuable personality almost inevitably imparted value to individual works. Part of the auteurist agenda was to find a new mythology for the late periods of directors: where most critics saw the pitiable flailings of age, auteurists often saw the mature work of artists who had become too serene and wise for their public to keep up with. The paradigm of the early peak is still pervasive, and if auteurists courted ridicule by playing the "late period" card too freely, they often enough succeeded in installing late works in the canon.
Few filmmakers gave us such an archetypal late period as Howard Hawks, whose mature work is being celebrated at Anthology Film Archives in June. One of the trio of commercial American directors who were deified by the auteurist movement, Hawks had neither the closeted artistic ambitions of John Ford nor the performance-art modernism of Alfred Hitchcock. He used the time-tested entertainment templates that Hollywood studio heads preferred but he used them his own way, and managed to maintain an astonishing level of control through sheer force of personality while inhabiting the dead center of the industry. When the rhythms of old age took over Hawks's sensibility, he already had 35 years of experience in convincing studios that he and audiences saw eye to eye, and a fair amount of justification for that claim.
Anthology reckons Hawks's late period as starting in 1953 with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (They've also programmed Red River from 1948: certainly no late film, but Anthology confesses that they just wanted an excuse to show it. Red River fills the hole left in this program by the unavailablility of the 1965 Red Line 7000, which is, along with 1962's Hatari!, the canonical text for study of late-period Hawks.)
There's always room for debate about the transitional points in artistic careers, but Hawks is one of the rare filmmakers whose late period seems to commence almost officially. Some filmmakers experience a success—on whatever terms they define success—that ratifies their approach in their own eyes, gives them permission to be more fully themselves. After such a success, the filmmakers proceed to projects that are, on the surface, very like the previous successful projects—but, beneath the superficial resemblances, the new films are more self-enclosed, more self-consciously stamped with the filmmakers' personalities, less of a compromise between movie-movies and personal quirk. Antonioni had such a success with L'Avventura, and his next film, La Notte, treats similar thematic material but does not devote the same energy to preparing or seducing the audience, as if a contract with the Antonioni viewer had been established. Alan Rudolph pivoted similarly on the success of Choose Me, segueing to the more abstract authorial voice of Trouble in Mind.
For Hawks, that pivot point was Rio Bravo. After a tricky interlude in the 50s where he felt the challenge of working with new genres and playing to a changing, television-transformed audience, Hawks beat a retreat to the primal genre, the western, stripped it to the bare minimum of plot and decor needed to suggest a fully funded project, and produced his greatest work. Rio Bravo is exemplary in nearly every aspect: as a model of script construction, a textbook of less-is-more action, an exercise in integrating divergent tones. But Hawks seemed to learn from it one lesson above all: that he needed, as he told Peter Bodganovich "very little in the way of plot—more characterization and the fun of just telling a story."
His next film, Hatari!, shows the new working model in action. It has a setting more than a story: a hunting enterprise in Africa, capturing animals live for shipment to circuses. A collection of characters is assembled: John Wayne, a woman for him to spar with, a few young bucks, a girl for them to compete over, a comic sidekick. There would be hunting sequences, which would be a pleasant challenge for the production crew. After the hunts, the compound would serve as a glorified bar, where the team would sit together, relax, mull over the day's work, advance their slow-burning romantic interests, and enjoy various forms of communal recreation. And that's about it—for 157 minutes.
If none of the other post-Rio Bravo films attains quite this level of lofty indifference to genre momentum, all of them partake of the Hatari! spirit. Man's Favorite Sport?, from 1964, is ostensibly a screwball comedy, and virtually a remake of Hawks's own 1938 classic Bringing Up Baby; Red Line 7000 is a racing film that contains three separate personal stories, an unusual structure for Hawks. But both films sort themselves out in memory as loosely organized alternations between event and rumination. After low-key comic fishing sequences (in Favorite Sport) or higher-energy race-track interludes (in Red Line), the characters retire to bars, hotel rooms, and more bars, enjoying in moderation the alcohol and the sexual banter that are the warrior's rest in Hawks's world. The enjoyable stasis of the downtime scenes envelops the movies like a cloud of smoke: contextualized in this fashion, the action scenes gather little dramatic force, and come across almost as reflexive moments, mild stimulants offered directly to the audience.
Returning to the western for his final two films, Hawks had moved too far away from classicism to remake Rio Bravo, no matter how hard he tried. El Dorado, from 1967, saw Hawks changing horses in mid-rio. The impressive first section is darker and more immersed in the spell of fiction than Hawks had ever been accustomed to, and he chose to back away from the tragic mode and detour into Rio Bravo territory. But in the eight years between the westerns, Hawks had become less interested in disguising his set as anything but a set, and his actors as anything but friends. The broken back of the story isn't so troubling in this context; and what El Dorado loses in classical resonance, it almost makes up in wild comedy and good nature. The final desert gathering, 1970's Rio Lobo, is more internally coherent but less functional on Hawks's own distinctive terms. Too many elements of Hawks's formula are starting to become problematic: romance was less of an option for Wayne, and Hawks' tastes were perhaps leading him to choose ineffectively from among a new generation of young actors. (The Rio cycle saw Dean Martin's role go first to Robert Mitchum and finally land upon Jorge Rivero; likewise, Angie Dickinson transformed into Charlene Holt, then into Jennifer O'Neill.)
Of the eight films in the series, four were made before the late-period cutoff point that I'm insisting on: Red River, Rio Bravo, 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and 1955's Land of the Pharoahs. You have to watch Hawks's earlier work in order to appreciate the artistic risk he took in his late period. Hawks had depended more heavily on genre than any other great director. His strategy had always been to create a background of artifice and genre expectations, using signifiers such as decor, lighting, and stock supporting roles; and then to execute scenes faster, smaller, more intimately than we were set up to expect. The difference in levels of realism between background convention and foreground behavior was like a capacitor that Hawks would discharge to release energy. When he decided after Rio Bravo that "audiences were getting tired of plots" and that the pleasures of behavior would suffice, he was discarding, or at least marginalizing, an approach that had served him long and well. Classic Hawks is about the pleasures of fiction: in David Thomson's words, the films tell "the gentle lie—such as operates in Mozart—that art is simple ease." Late period Hawks wants to move beyond fiction and present us with the rhythms of life well lived.
The consensus picks among the films Anthology is screening would be Red River and Rio Bravo from Hawks's classic period, and Hatari! and El Dorado from the late period. Personally, I might downgrade Red River a notch or two (I sense a strange conflict between the agendas of Hawks and screenwriter Borden Chase) and recommend in its place the audacious Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which looks bolder and richer with each passing decade. And, in the late period, I might make a case for the loungey but lovable Man's Favorite Sport? over Hatari!, possibly because I crave that smidgen of genre structure that Hatari! so confidently dispenses with. But a course of all eight films would be one of the least punishing marathons that a film buff could undertake.