Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking with the fine folks running the indispensable website Not Coming to a Theater Near You, a cinephile’s haven where discussion concerning rare, classic, and unpopular films is the status quo. They’ve been kind enough to invite me to join this fabulously talented group of writers, and I look forward to doing them justice.
My debut review of Howard Hawks’ Red Line 7000 is now online, and look for two upcoming essays in conjunction with their “31 Days of Horror” series that is now in its 7th year! I feel like this is the start of a beautiful friendship.
As a Western swan song for Howard Hawks, El Dorado wonderfully illuminates a cozy sentimentality riding under the surface in much of the director’s oeuvre. Robert Mitchum and John Wayne play aging icons (the sheriff and gun for hire respectively) who join forces to protect a family of ranchers from an aggressive cattle baron, and their relationship revolves around traditional motifs of respect and competition. Echoes of Rio Bravo obviously abound, but El Dorado turns what could be a tense narrative into a no-pressure reunion of sorts, where the characters are in little real danger except for possibly missing out on spending time together. There’s a sadness in Mitchum’s eyes as he hobbles down the street with Wayne at his side, as if finally realizing how quickly time passes by in Hollywood’s idealized world of the West. El Dorado might not be any sort of masterpiece, but like Hatari!, it’s an entertaining romp through familiar situations with legends of the genre, led down the thoroughfare by a director devoted to the importance of professional friendships and friends that are professionals.
The art of casual conversation comes into full focus during Howard Hawks’ deceptively weighty Hatari! Set on the vast African savanna, Sean Mercer (John Wayne), a gruff Irishman with a broken heart, leads a diverse band of trackers who catch wild animals for zoos around the world.
When an Italian photographer shows up and gets Mercer’s heart fluttering, Hawks begins a long series of vignettes framed by extended musings between two characters at a time. Seemingly more interested in reaction than specific actions, Hawks lets his characters hang out together, allowing them to fine tune thoughts on relationships, ethics, and the dynamic world around them.
In such an exciting world (the action sequences are riveting at times), where lives are at risk every day, these men and women take the danger with a grain of salt, longing for a connection off the battlefield. Hatari! admires its characters for their bravery, but more so for their ability to adapt to the changing tide of the seasons, both emotionally and physically. The film takes place over the course of the three month season for catching animals, and at the end these characters genuinely want it to continue, not because of the thrills, but because of the human interaction.
Hawks’ strange adventure film takes on a silly demeanor by the end, as baby elephants run through town leading Wayne to his lady love, but the entire affair, no matter how ridiculous, feels completely endearing. There are no villains, or shootouts, or betrayals in Hatari!, just various charming personalities trying to find human solace in a world where animal instincts are king.
The sheer scope of Howard Hawks’ historical epic impresses a certain gravitas on the deceptively poignant personal tragedies emerging from each catacomb and dimly lit lair. Betrayal, assassination, and slavery define an otherworldly Egyptian past of technicolor hues and dark intentions, where Hawks constructs in massive detail a society descending down a road of greed and self-destruction, spearheaded by a figure blinded by the allure of gold and power. Talk about universal.
I’m relatively unfamiliar with the late films of Hawks (El Dorado and Hatari are next up), but Land of the Pharaohs seems like a haunting progression for a director so attuned to patterns of professional existence and relationships. Hawks paints a revelatory picture of where this overt professionalism might lead if tainted by absolute power. Also, the religious devotion between servant/master becomes a problematic state of mind, where the Egyptians, supposedly the more evolved race, gladly follow their deity to the grave, while the barbaric “slaves” are free-thinking and innovative survivors.
More convincingly heroic than Sergeant York and more character driven than Air Force, Howard Hawks’ Flight Commander is a masterful look at British airmen fighting in Germany during WWI. This war film shy’s away from the battles, preferring moments of brutal decision-making by commanding officers concerning when to send men to their deaths. Hawks sets up the relationships between these aviator’s with keen attention to sacrifice, past experience, and a revolving cycle of death which inevitably and tragically promotes characters into roles of power, forcing them to better understand the pressures their predecessors felt. It’s a war film bent on genre traits, but one which doesn’t adhere to them universally, sliding in deft action scenes highlighting the characters themselves as opposed to strictly focusing on the impressive scope of the set pieces. Flight Commander, like all of Hawks’ masterpieces, puts the character into tense situations with the greatest attention to atmosphere, and Richard Barthelmess’ tortured commanding officer Courtney exemplifies this mood perfectly as he makes the ultimate sacrifice to salvage his friend’s life. But the cycle continues, as when Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s Scott takes the reigns Counrtney leaves behind, fully understanding the horrors of bureaucracy in war.
I’m at the disadvantage of having seen the remake of Ball of Fire, a mediocre and extremely odd musical/comedy entitled A Song is Born (1948), prior to this screening and without the knowledge it was even a remake. Ball of Fire, which bases it’s professor protagonists as the writers of a comprehensive encyclopedia, is substantially better than the Jazz based carbon copy, due in large part to the casting. Cooper and Stanwyk, while decidedly one note throughout, provide ample spark in their scenes together. Along with Hawks and the stars, add in Gregg Toland’s images and Wilder’s script and Ball of Fire is a who’s who of Hollywood legends. But the result is surprisingly unrewarding, both in terms of screwball genre traits (the film doesn’t go anywhere near the innuendo of Lubitsch or Sturges) and in successful comedy bits. Only the hilarious ending, which gives it’s old coot hero’s a chance to actively shine in the plot, feels edgier than it’s remake, which is disappointing considering the talent involved.
Mortally tainted by Edward G. Roboinson’s annoying and over the top performance as a blowhard fisherman working off the coast of San Diego, Tiger Shark is a structureless character study that fades fast after a brutal and stunning opening sequence. Stranded on a life boat, Robinson’s Captain Mike, his second in command Pipes, and third crew member wait aimlessly for rescue. Sharks surround their craft and desperation turns to violence, leaving the third member eaten alive but the “white bellied devils” of the ocean. It’s a great introduction to the fisherman lifestyle Hawks wants to represent, but the rest of the film never achieves this level of intensity, instead giving scene after scene of melodrama and exaggeration completely outside the realm of this world. Some of the fishing scenes are tense, mostly because Hawks mixes in archival footage, but Tiger Shark feels small (absolutely no production value) and it’s performances warrant little empathy or even attention. A major disappointment, but it’s an early Hawks film so one can chalk it up to working out the kinks for the genius to come.