May 26, 2009
In introducing El Dorado at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Andrew Sarris bemoaned Howard Hawks’ future. He peered silently at the sparse crowd, and declared that the turnout was unsurprising. The recent class he offered on Hawks at Columbia University, he told us, was the least popular of all his auteur courses. Where have all the Hawksians gone? Well, I’m right here, and BAM tried to draw them out in their recently concluded program, “The Late Film”, which screened Red Line 7000 and El Dorado on consecutive nights, a crash course in late Hawks and a lesson about what cultures decide to preserve and forget.
Buried on a double-bill with the youth-baiting Beach Ball, Hawks’ Red Line 7000 completely tanked upon its release in November of 1965. It quickly disappeared from popular culture’s memory, despite the best efforts of Hawksians like Robin Wood. Production on his follow-up, El Dorado, began in October of the same year, the fastest turnaround between projects in his career (principal shooting on Red Line ended in April of ’65). This thinly-veiled Rio Bravo remake was a box office hit upon its release in 1967, and has been a staple of cable channels and home video re-packagings ever since (the latest DVDcame out last Tuesday). Red Line 7000 has remained incredibly difficult to see, aside from the ever-present fuzzy bootleg videos.
The forgetting of Red Line 7000 was enabled by Hawks himself, who slagged the film over multiple interviews. In 1971: “I don’t like it.” In 1974: ” I didn’t like it, I thought it was awful.” In 1975: “I think it’s lousy.” His main complaint has to do with the narrative construction, which tries to weave together three different romances:
Just when you get people interested in one story, you jump to another story. Just when they’re interested in that, you jump to another. By that time they’ve forgotten the first one. They’re all mixed up and they say, “The hell with this thing!”
The nominal lead is James Caan as Max Marsh, an ace driver with deep neuroses regarding the purity of his girlfriends. He’s both attracted and repulsed by Marianna Hill as Gabrielle, an uninhibited racing fan who recently broke up with another driver, Dan McCall (James Ward). After their amicable parting, McCall pursues Holly (Gail Hire), a superstitious, mournful type who blames herself for the deaths of her three previous lovers. The third story is more tangential: that of the tomboy daughter of the crew chief (Laura Devon as Julie) in love with the strapping young driver Ned (John Robert Crawford).
Robin Wood called Red Line 7000 “the most underestimated film of the sixties”, partly because of the structure Hawks so derided:
The fact that the Ned/Julie relationship is so little integrated in the main action is not really the structural fault it at first appears. The other two relationships are parallel: in both, a strong, mature partner (Dan, Gaby) helps someone whose development has been arrested (Holly, Mike); the threads of plot continually interweave. The Ned/Julie relationship offers a contrast, and Hawks keeps it separate. Here, both partners are immature.
I believe Hawks and Wood are both right, that the film is both “lousy” and “underestimated”. The structure has interest, as Wood indicates, but it doesn’t have the performers to put life into its motions. Actors are incredibly important to Hawks, as so much of his script is improvised or written on the set with their participation. Without their engagement, his lived-in community of professionals becomes a cold line-up of earnest-sounding mannequins.
Gail Hire is the most embarrassing here, her labored rasp a caricature of Bacall’s rumbling bass in To Have and Have Not. It’s so ridiculous the audience I saw it with broke out into laughter, and I couldn’t blame them. James Ward and John Robert Crawford are just blond-haired, blue-eyed blanks, showing none of the charisma or camaraderie essential to Hawks’ work. As Todd McCarthy states in his exemplary biography, he “labored to make the story and the actors come alive. Because of his case members’ limited experience, Hawks got much less creative input from them than he normally liked, and he had to deal with burgeoning egos.”
The film only comes alive in the Caan-Hill sequences, which show the combative sparks of his greatest romances. Hill’s insouciant sexuality baffles Caan’s repressed straight-arrow, and their mutual attraction can only be consummated on the race track. In a beautiful sequence where action replaces exposition, their combustible sexuality is revealed when he lets her take a spin around the track. Through his studied direction, she flawlessly takes the turns, until she spins out joyfully at the end, laughing violently. She tells him it was like “taming a lion”. Having to control Caan’s unstable boy is her dangerous task for the rest of the film. Hidden like a pearl for eager auteurists, this scene both confirms Hawks’s directorial hand and stands as a reminder of what the majority of the film was missing.
El Dorado is something else entirely. It has the feel of a valediction, a re-telling of Rio Bravo (1959) that takes aging as it’s central theme. John Wayne returns to the Hawks fold as Cole Thornton, an old gun-for-hire who rejects a job from corrupt landowner Bart Jason (Ed Asner). Robert Mitchum plays the town’s alcoholic sherriff, J.P. Harrah (the Dean Martin role in Rio). James Caan and Arthur Hunnicut round out the group of ragtag heroes, who try to protect the MacDonalds, a local farming family, from the predations of Jason’s acquisitive clan. Mortality is brought to the fore immediately, when Cole shoots down a MacDonald kid out of self-defense. Mortally wounded, the boy kills himself to end the pain. This random act haunts the rest of the film – it leads to the bullet lodged in Cole’s back and in J.P.’s leg, persistent reminders of their physical degradation.
If it is not as perfect as Rio Bravo – one certainly misses the presence of Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson – for me it is as equally affecting, especially when viewed in the context of Hawks’ and Wayne’s career. As they slowly pirouette through the well-worn jokes one more time (Dry out the drunk, patronize the kid, prod the old coot), it is tinged with sadness – the bullet pressing closer to Cole’s spine with every move. It’s impossible to overstate the grace of John Wayne’s performance here, the hint of grief he exudes when Caan is searching for a gunman, the stoic regret he portrays after he kills the MacDonald kid, and the luxurious slowness in which he moves, whether simply sliding off a horse or leaping off a carriage, he carries the weight of his age with him. It’s a beautiful performance. There’s no grand send-off at the end, just a couple beaten old men, wobbling down the main drag and soaking up every last light of the moon.