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Frozen Eyes

ISSUE:  Spring 1998
The Big Sleep. By David Thomson. British Film Institute. 89. 95 paperback; Howard Hawks: American Artist. Edited by Jim Hillier and Peter Wollen. British Film Institute. $45.00, $19.95 paperback; Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood By Todd McCarthy. Grove Press. S35.00.

Born in Goshen, Indiana, in 1896, the son of a wealthy paper manufacturer, Howard Hawks went to Exeter and graduated from Cornell in 1917 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He was a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps in World War One (the history of film and aviation ran parallel), and after the war built airplanes and a racing car that won the Indianapolis 500 in 1936. Physically impressive, Hawks was six-feet-three, broad shouldered, slim-hipped, soft-spoken, confident in manner, conservative in dress, and utterly distinguished overall.

The screenwriter Howard Koch wrote that “his manner was relaxed, restrained, unhurried. I never heard him raise his voice. When he wanted to convey or correct an interpretation of some role, he would draw an actor aside to make his suggestion in private. He gave me the impression of a cultured gentleman.” But Niven Busch, another scriptwriter, found Hawks formidably distant and frigid, with a “reptilian glare, ice-cold blue eyes and the coldest of manners. He was like that with everyone—women, men, whatever. He was remote; he came from outer space. He spoke slowly in a deep voice. He looked at you with those frozen eyes.” Though his second of three wives, Todd McCarthy writes, “made it evident that Hawks actually had a beating heart somewhere beneath his hard, impenetrable shell,” the unfaithful husband and indifferent father “didn’t care about anybody except himself.”

Hawks’ best films, both with Bogart and Bacall, are To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep—whose title alludes to death. David Thomson’s short study of the latter is clever, eccentric, meandering, and self-indulgent—more on the background than on the picture. Thomson, an Englishman, begins with a wrong-footed comparison of Bogart and the quaintly spelled “Jo” DiMaggio (better known to Thomson as the husband of Marilyn Monroe), whom he imagines “running left [rather than center] field.” He writes, more accurately, of Hawks’ indulgence in the “faintly sinister connoisseurship of the meat market. . .in the standard Hollywood sport of the powerful— fucking around, all in the search for a new girl who clicked on the screen.” By my count Hawks slept with, as droit de seigneur, Joan Crawford, Ann Dvorak, Jean Harlow, Ann Sheridan, Ella Raines, Dolores Moran (of To Have and Have Not), Martha Vickers (of The Big Sleep), and several other starlets and harlots. His mistresses, who recognized good parts when they turned up, “rated Hawks “a gentleman” in the sack as in the rest of his life, not someone who went wild once the doors were closed.” Thomson sums him up as “a devious man, a liar, cruel at times, restricted in his savage intelligence, yet cocksure about it.”

Hawks’ no-nonsense style emphasized continuity and had “no flashbacks, no screwed-up camera angles, no unnecessary camera movements, no unnecessary close-ups.” He shaped the malleable personality of the young Bacall, who annoyed him by sleeping instead with Bogart, into an aggressive woman and coaxed his dream into film. With her and other actors, he stressed spontaneity and improvisation, rehearsed very little, and shot off the cuff. Using a rough script to try out the scenes, he kept rewriting them on the set and handing out new pages to the actors as the film was shot. Along the way Hawks dropped a ponderous scene in The Big Sleep in which Marlowe explains to the cops what had happened—insouciently leaving the audience as baffled as the constabulary.(The details of the murderous plot can, however, be worked out after an attentive second viewing.) Thomson finds the abandonment of the story a radical triumph that turns the movie into a work about “movie-ness.” Though these were Bacall’s best films—she never had much of a career afterward—Bruce Kawin, in the Hillier volume, inexplicably calls The Big Sleep “her least effective performance.”

The Hillier volume reprints 30 essays, including those by James Agee (who characterizes Bogart as “Nietzsche in dungarees”), the lively, off-beat Manny Farber, Peter Bogdanovich (who tolerantly records Hawks’ self-aggrandizing lies), Robert Sklar (who discusses the meaning of Red River) and Richard Jewell (who makes a case for the studio system). The influential but misguided Robin Wood calls High Noon “a bad film” that “reeks of connivance” and astonishingly asserts: “If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be . . . Hawks’ masterpiece . . . Rio Bravo.”

This Western is a perfect test case for Hawks’ talent and reputation. But Wood is too partisan on Hawks’ behalf. The director had agreed with his star John Wayne that High Noon was not authentic and that a real sheriff would never have to ask for help. He exclaimed: “It’s phony. The fellow’s supposed to be good. He’s supposed to be good with a gun. He runs around like a wet chicken trying to get people to help him. Eventually his Quaker wife saves his guts. That’s ridiculous. The man wasn’t a professional.” Hawks also asked, in the most simple-minded way: “What did he have to have help for? Why didn’t he just go out and shoot?”

Rio Bravo, in fact, is a derivative and grossly inferior version of High Noon. Angie Dickinson, in the equivalent of Grace Kelly’s role, provides the love interest; Walter Brennan, talkative and with the same high cackle as in To Have and Have Not, brings comic relief: and there’s even, like Katy Jurado, a Mexican hotel keeper. An antagonist tells Wayne, “You talk awful big for a man who’s all alone,” and Wayne’s biographers dutifully comment: “Every inch a Hawks hero, Chance [Wayne] does not descry his fate or scour his town in search of help. He simply does his job, stoically and without fuss. In the process his friends respond. Without asking for it, he receives help in every crisis, and during the course of the film he is saved by a drunken friend, a crippled old man, a young gunslinger, a dance-hall girl, and a Mexican hotel operator.” Wayne, all bluster and bombast, rejects offers from the frightened citizens, telling them: “This is no job for amateurs.” But Cooper is alone in High Noon while Wayne has three deputies in Rio Bravo. Cooper asks for help but doesn’t need it; Wayne doesn’t ask for help but gets and needs it. Cooper’s anguished soul-searching, as opposed to Wayne’s mindless machismo, is precisely what makes High Noon infinitely superior to Hawks’ film.

Influenced by Wood and by Andrew Sarris, who themselves were influenced by the Cahiers du Cinéma critics of the 1950’s, most essays in the Hillier volume adopt the auteur theory and believe that the director, who did not write the film, “is its author, that he gives it any distinctive quality it has and that his personal themes and style can be traced throughout his career, so that the corpus of his work can be discussed as a whole.” Conversely, the French critics, with characteristic perversity, claim that the one who actually writes the words of a book is not really the author in the traditional sense of the word and does not determine the meaning of his own work, which is variously interpreted by different readers. As Foucault proclaimed: “the author is the dead man in the game of writing.”

Both theories defy all reason and logic. The Cahiers critics never worked in Hollywood and never understood how Hollywood worked. They merely assumed that American movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, like those made in Europe, were created by great directors. Gore Vidal, violently objecting to this theory, called the director, “that hustler-plagiarist who has dominated and exploited an art form still in search of its true authors.” And I.A.L. Diamond, who wrote many brilliant screenplays with Billy Wilder, exclaimed: “More crap is being written about films today than was ever written about Abstract Expressionism . . . . To say that the director is the “author” of a film is semantic nonsense. Unless he writes his own script [and Hawks did not], he’s an interpreter . . . . You never saw an ad for a concert that said, “Bernstein’s Ninth, written by Beethoven.”“

Though McCarthy naturally favors the auteur theory, there’s abundant evidence in his biography to refute it. Hawks used his WASP background and college education to intimidate studio executives and frequently disregarded the schedule and budget. With De Mille, Hitchcock, and Wyler, he had more control than most directors. But under the studio system the producer always had final control of the film and Hawks was “familiar firsthand with the sort of strangling effect Goldwyn had on directors.” Hawks didn’t even finish some of his movies (he left Sergeant York to go to the Kentucky Derby), did not edit his own films, and did not follow his work all the way through postproduction. He meekly submitted when MGM shoved Joan Crawford into Today We Live after Faulkner had completed his all-male script, and McCarthy concedes that “one would he hard-pressed to single out things that identify Barbary Coast as Hawks’ work.” Hawks himself would have “gaped in disbelief” at all the pretentious statements, like the one quoted by McCarthy, about his lightweight entertainments: “Hawks is more starkly modern than Bergman (or for that matter, Wallace Stevens)— and . . .he can only be compared thematically among the major modern figures, with Samuel Beckett.” Hawks injected a note of sanity by saying: “I just aim the camera at the actors and they make up all these things about me.”

McCarthy, in the first and far too long (721 pages plus index) biography of Hawks, cannot resist throwing in almost everything he’s found in the course of his exhaustive research. The book would have been much better if he’d cut the long passages about genealogy, the minor silent pictures, and the censorship of Scarface. He includes much more about the films than the life, though there’s not much analysis of the meaning of the movies, and the repetitive structure of each chapter (conception, actors, shooting, problems, reviews, earnings) becomes tedious. The source notes are general rather than specific; and there are weird errors like “Square [instead of Place] Trocadero” in Paris and Lady Naney Keith instead of Lady Keith.

The style is undistinguished and sometimes inaccurate (accommodations are “uncommonly outstanding,” a Left-wing actor “could not fathom working with John Wayne”), the descriptions of the films arc often banal (“graced with lovely shots and very impressive production values”) and there are many paragraphs of staggeringly dull facts: “Hawks told Russ Harlan that he could perform as an additional second-unit director along with Helmick before principal photography began, whereupon Harlan would join Hawks on the first unit and Joseph Brun would work with Helmick.” McCarthy calls Moses “the wise Hebraic leader” and Robert Graves “the august historical poet.” His comparison of Dietrich in Morocco and Lena in Conrad’s Victory is absurd. There certainly is political meaning in To Have and Have Not when Bogart commits himself to the Free French cause. And Sergeant York, contra McCarthy, is intolerably “soft, schmaltzy and cloying.”

McCarthy could also have strengthened his biography by paying more attention to Hawks’ paradoxical character: the auteur who didn’t finish his films, the supposed anti-Semite who counted among his in-laws and close friends Irving Thalberg, Groucho Marx, Ben Hecht, Robert Capra and Charlie Feldman; the gentleman who didn’t pay his debts; the control freak who was an obsessive gambler (McCarthy never explains how Hawks held his gangster-creditors at bay). The gambling mania also needs more discussion. Was it a compulsive neurosis, displacement of sexual libido, masochistic self-punishment, or concession of an icy logician to the irrational element in human existence? The definitive biography of the paradoxical Hawks remains to be written.


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