April 12, 2016

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Only Angels Have Wings keeps growing stranger with age. This studio-era classic is about a group of nihilist flyboys who enact their dreams of self-destruction out of an imaginary South American cabana. Howard Hawks insisted on the film’s realism, as he based it on the stories of some ragged pilots he met in Mexico, but the movie is as realistic as the Star Wars cantina. The invented port town of Barranca is pure Hawks country, an extension of the death-driven pilots he depicted in The Dawn PatrolCeiling Zero, and The Road to Glory. Revisiting Only Angels Have Wings in the new DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection (out today), one is struck by the sheer lunacy of the fliers, ready to sacrifice their lives for the chance to deliver the mail. Only Angels Have Wings pushes Hawks’ love of professionalism to the extreme – death is a natural part of the job, and beyond just accepting it, they seem to embrace it. In Only Angels Have Wings, to work is to die, and these jokey nihilists, including the the female interlopers who are integrated into this group – cheerily embrace the void.

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When film critic Robin Wood was diagnosed with a perforated intestine and was told he might not survive the subsequent surgery, “what immediately came into my mind was the work of Howard Hawks and specifically the way his heroes confront death (actually, in Only Angels Have Wings, and potentially in Rio Bravo, where only one minor sympathetic character gets killed). I felt completely calm, and like to think I was smiling (though I probably wasn’t).” Only Angels Have Wings confronts death early on, when the flirtatious pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) crashes on his return from a mail run, rushing to make a date with traveling musician Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur). Bonnie is shocked to discover that the mail crew boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and his team do not mourn but instead carouse at the bar. When Bonnie asks them how they could be so crass after Souther’s death, Geoff replies, “Who’s Joe?” His job is over so they wipe away his identity. They are not heartless, but the only way they can carry on is to proceed without a heart. They embrace nihilism in order to survive. And they usually don’t – like Kid (Thomas Mitchell), who asks Geoff to leave his deathbed since he’s never died before and doesn’t want to screw it up. It’s like going on your first solo flight, he says, and he didn’t want anyone watching that either.

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The film traces Bonnie’s curiosity with and assimilation into Geoff’s odd group, a process of sanding off her emotionality. It is an impossible job because Jean Arthur brings her irrepressible Jean Arthur-ness to the role. Hawks reportedly had trouble working with her, as she refused to do the husky, simmering sensuality thing he preferred, and proceeded to be her perky self. Rita Hayworth, who plays Geoff’s old flame who re-married to a disgraced Richard Barthelmess (whose real plastic surgery scars sell the character’s tragic past), also had a rocky relationship with Hawks, but her slinky role got her noticed by Harry Cohn and set her on the path to stardom.While Bonnie doesn’t bend to the group’s will, she is fascinated by it and tries to understand it – her empathy comes through in a performance of “The Peanut Vendor.” After the “Who’s Joe” line, she comes back, sits down at the rickety piano, and bangs out a perfect, rollicking version of the Cuban tune, joining in on the vast forgetting of Joe’s death.

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Geoff and his team were an extension of James Cagney’s character in Ceiling Zero (1936), Dizzy Davis. Davis flew missions in WWI, and has spent the years since as a stunt flier and rabble-rouser. The film begins with him getting hired on by at Newark’s Federal Airlines by his old war buddy. But the flying world has passed him by – it has become professionalized and standardized while Dizzy still flies by the seat of his pants. His free-wheeling ways eventually end in tragedy, and Dizzy chooses suicide over any kind of redemption. Geoff and his crew are a whole group of Dizzys – thrill-seekers too unreliable to get regular jobs in the States, so they ended up at a cheapjack outfit in South America flying impossible missions on ancient equipment.

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By the time of Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks had already asserted more control over his work. The film was made for Harry Cohn at Columbia, and Todd McCarthy reports in his biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, that the director had “virtual carte blanche as long as he could deliver a strong story for Cary Grant and one of his top female stars.” So where Ceiling Zero is a compact adaptation of a stage play, Only Angels Have Wings is an extended series of digressions and character moments, so Hawks can build-out this fantasy-world of Barranca. The story outline came from a seven-page synopsis by Anne Wigton entitled “Plan Number Four”, which Hawks then fleshed out with stories of “outcasts” he had met in Mexico. Hawks said that these men were “collectively  and individually the finest pilots I’ve ever seen but they had been grounded because of accidents, drinking, stunting, smuggling — each man’s existence almost a story in itself.”

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Most of these stories are focused through Geoff, played with inimitable insouciance by Cary Grant. Grant worked well with Hawks’ improvisatory style, and though he doesn’t have the look of a grizzled, disgraced adventurer, he was able to convey all of the arrogance and cynicism. It is an improbable performance, and I can never get Manny Farber out of my head when Grant is on-screen: “The thing you you remember most about Cary Grant’s sexy, short-hop Lindbergh in Only Angels Have Wings, a rather charming, maudlin Camp item, is his costume, which belongs in a Colombian Coffee TV commercial: razor-creased trousers that bulge out with as much yardage as a caliph’s bloomers and are belted just slightly under the armpits.” This is not to mention the wide-brim Panama hat that looks like something my mom would wear to the beach. Yet within the boundaries of Barranca it looks like the most natural thing in the world as the push-pull romance works its magic, with Bonnie forthright and honest in her feelings, and Geoff withholding, cruel, and devilishly handsome. The ending is of joyful sadness. Geoff expresses love through the flipping of a coin, the realization of which spreads across Bonnie’s face like a new dawn. But they will all have to go to work the following day, their jobs guaranteeing no happiness past the present, reckless moment.


December 24, 2013

Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

Physical media is aging gracefully. If it dies, it will leave a beautiful corpse. Sales continue to crater, but DVDs and Blu-Rays have never looked so ravishing. And while the vast majority of film history is still absent on video, it dwarfs the spotty selections available on streaming services to date, although that may change in the distant future. For right now, though, those round shiny discs remain essential to the education of any curious film lover. This year they’ve introduced me to hidden gems of the classical Hollywood era as well as the tragically short career of a subversive Japanese master. Below the fold I’ve listed ten discs that expanded and deepened my understanding of the movies in 2013.

A note on my arbitrary selection process: it’s impossible to view even a fraction of a given year’s releases, so it’s likely you could compose a far superior list from what I haven’t seen. Each title passes a basic level of technical competence, but are not necessarily reference quality discs. For the most part I’m grateful to have them available at all. I’ve never had much use for bonus features (I could be watching another movie instead!), so many of those listed below are bare bones releases.

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1. The Dawn Patrol (1930, Warner Archive DVD)/The Road to Glory (1936, Fox Cinema Archives DVD)

These two Howard Hawks WWI dramas depict the war machine as a circular assembly of death, its soldiers staying sane by focusing obsessively at the mission at hand. Never before available on DVD, these are Hawks’ most despairing titles, with Richard Barthelmess and Warner Baxter, respectively, carrying the weight of a world’s dead flyboys on their shoulders. Hawks lost many friends in WWI, and his brother died in a plane crash before filming began on The Dawn Patrol. These are his personal documents of mourning, before he detaches his art from the real world and enters into his communal Hawkisan fantasy lands,  like the fictional Barranca of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) made only a few years later. I went longer on these two films in Moving Image Source if you’d like to read more.


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2. The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka (Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD)

Sadao Yamanaka was a galvanizing force in Japanese cinema during the 1930s. He used his prickly sense of humor to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. He sought to dirty up distinguished drama and capture the dead-end reality of working class life. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.” He directed 22 films before being conscripted into the Japanese army, when he died of an intestinal disease at the age of 28 in Manchuria. Only three of his features survive, collected in this astonishing set from the heroic UK outfit Masters of Cinema (you must have an all region DVD player to view). Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot, Kochiyama Soshun, and Humanity and Paper Balloons raise hanging out and doing nothing into an art form. My Movie Morlocks review is here.


3. Shoah (1985, Criterion Collection, DVD and Blu-Ray)

A film that exceeds language, given the Criterion treatment. This space gives me the opportunity to quote my favorite piece of writing this year, by J. Hoberman in Film Comment: “Sure, Shoah is a great movie. It’s also a terrible fate, an absolute isolation, the stones in your passway, the abyss beneath your feet, the cop at your door, the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the sign Dante placed at the Gate of Hell, the being of nothingness, the dream you can never recall. You can see Shoah and even if you forget it you’ll never stop thinking about it because Shoah is.”


4. Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive (National Film Preservation Foundation/Image Entertainment, DVD Box Set)

A miracle. In 2010 film preservationists Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate the American nitrate film holdings in the New Zealand Film Archive. They discovered an astonishing cache of titles long thought lost. That includes the nearly intact John Ford feature Upstream (1927)and the first three reels of The White Shadow (1924) – the earliest surviving feature that Alfred Hitchcock worked on (as assistant director, scenarist, jack-of-all-trades). The Ford is a delightful backstage comedy gorgeously restored by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, overseen by 20th Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. Those two titles alone make this an essential set, but it also includes a madcap Mabel Normand slapstick short and a cache of old newsreels that contain, in my most treasured treasure, footage of an ostrich drawn carriage.


5. Tristana (1970, Cohen Media Group, Blu-Ray)

One of Luis Bunuel’s most intractable, lingering mysteries. Catherine Deneuve stars as an orphan girl raised with imperious lechery by Fernando Rey. Their power struggle shifts as Deneuve begins to harness the malleability of Rey’s desire, shaping it to her own needs. But they both remain irreducible ciphers. Rey is politcally progressive (he won’t set foot in church) and resolutely classist (he clings to his bourgeois entitlements), while Deneuve is an angelic, innocent victim who is also a cunning manipulator Bunuel creates calm, lucid surfaces under which he masks the unknowability of his inflexible characters. The film is also the subject of one of my favorite Bunuel quotes: “Catherine Deneuve is not precisely my type of woman, but when she is crippled and made-up, I find her very attractive.” Cohen Media Group made a striking debut this year with this gorgeous transfer. Their release of Intolerance on Blu-Ray was also wel received, although I have not yet viewed it.


6. Experiment in Terror (1962, Twilight Time, Blu-Ray)

You could pull any frame from this B&W Blake Edwards thriller and nab an arresting image. Edwards followed up Breakfast at Tiffany’s with this downbeat procedural, in which a bank teller is blackmailed into robbing her employer. Pigeonholed as a director of light comedy, Edwards wanted to stretch stylistically, and this contains everything baroquely expressionist interiors, where every piece of set design reflects Lee Remick’s emotional state, to the docudrama realism of the exteriors, in which cop Glenn Ford tracks down the case. For sheer visual bravura, this is my disc of the year. My Movie Morlocks review is here.


7. Sokurov: Early Masterworks (Cinema Guild, DVD and Blu-Ray)

I’ve never been able to get a good read on the work of Aleksandr Sokurov, the splenetic spiritualist who dregs up the ghosts of Russia in front of image-distorting lenses. This is why I continue to explore his work with pleasure, in the search for transcendental understanding, or at least an inkling of what the hell is going on. He’s the one director, pace Manny Farber on Godard, that makes me feel like a stupid ass on a consistent basis. This is a frustrating and beautiful set on the way towards enlightenment. For the record, I found To Save and Protect to be gratingly impenetrable, Stone productively mysterious, and Whispering Pages to edge into greatness.


8. Olive Films Noir (DVD and Blu-Ray)

The small Olive Films label has continued to release obscure and wonderful Paramount titles in bare bones editions. This past year saw them put out a passel of phenomenally downbeat and obscure films noir, with all of the following being highly recommended:  Failed-actor-turned-director Mark Stevens’ self-lacerating Cry Vengeance; Hubert Cornfield’s ode to Los Angeles freeway gridlock Plunder Road ; John H. Auer’s seedy survey of one Chicago night in City That Never Sleeps; the prison-break character actor death march of Crashout; and the red scare laffs of Shack Out on 101.


9. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, Shout! Factory, Blu-Ray)

The horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, Scream Factory, has done fine work this year in upgrading many of John Carpenter’s greatest films to Blu-Ray. None come greater, though, than Assault on Precinct 13his terse condensation of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. My Movie Morlocks review is over here.


10. The Quiet Man (1952, Olive Films, Blu-Ray)

What was once only available in smeary editions on DVD is now available closer to its Technicolor glory on Blu-Ray. For those who can’t stand John Ford’s penchant for knockabout comedy and sentimentality, this is your Waterloo. For everyone else (and me), its pure pleasure.

I wrote essays included in the Olive Films Blu-Ray of The Bells of St. Mary’s and the TCM/Sony DVD of John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection, so I did not include them in my top ten. So, full disclosure and all that, but I think both are essential releases. 

Discs I wish I had seen: Me and My Gal, The Big Parade, The Best Years of Our Lives, How Green Was My Valley, the rest of the Criterion Collection


September 17, 2013


It’s hard to conceive of Howard Hawks without sound. His films are focused on work and its downtime, and it is in spurts of chatter in which his characters define themselves. As physical as their occupations may be, it’s always their words that reveal their true selves. Which is why watching Hawks’ silent films are so disorienting. The Museum of the Moving Image is in the midst of a full retrospective of Hawks’ work, and this past weekend they screened many of his silents, including A Girl in Every Port (1928), which manages to set up many of the director’s pet themes before the arrival of sound allowed his talents to fully emerge.


After Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? minted box office gold in 1926, the Fox Film Corporation was eager to produce more macho globetrotting comedies. Walsh’s film adapted the play by Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson, which followed two army buddies, Flagg (Victor McLaglen) and Quirk (Edmond Lowe), as they battled over women in China, the Phillippines and France during the onset of WWI. Hawks wrote the original story for A Girl in Every Port in 1927, which is essentially What Price Glory? if you remove the dramatic war sections. At this early stage he’s already showing an interest in paring down genres to their basics. This reaches its apotheosis in Rio Bravo, in which the Western is reduced to a street, a jail and a hotel.  His story has two sailors, Spike (McLaglen) and Bill (Robert Armstrong), who joust over women on their worldwide jaunts, until a few brawls make them best friends. While Armstrong’s character is credited as “Salami” in the AFI Catalog, his nickname is not present in the print I saw. Maybe censors removed it for being too sexually suggestive? McLaglen is the hulking goofball, an overeager lothario whose telegraphed moves are no match for Armstrong’s low key mystery.

A number of writers were brought on to polish his scenario, but Seton Miller received the final screenplay credit. These later drafts introduced a vamp character (to be played by Louise Brooks) who seduces Spike and threatens to upend their relationship. This conventional bit of melodrama was imposed in these later drafts, over-complicating Hawks’ simple tale of friendship.


Hawks famously told Peter Bogdanovich that the film was a “love story between two men”, and his depiction of their deepening platonic bond will achieve echoes in his later work. The act of lighting cigarettes will become an erotic emblem throughout his career, seen to charged effect in To Have and Have Not. In A Girl in Every Port, this gesture seals Spike and Bill’s bond. They are both soaked after an extended throwdown with some Keystone cops and an unintended dip in a bay. Bill’s pack of cigs is all wet, so Spike proffers his – and their bond is sealed. They are shown in a simple two shot, with close-up inserts for the lighting. A classical, maximally legible setup, although Hawks does show more camera mobility that we’re used to in his later work. There is a lovely tracking shot through the city streets as the two men look for an abandoned spot to slug each other. There’s also an expressionist touch in one shot, in which Hawks uses a low angle under Louise Brooks’ high diver, her body abstracted against the night sky as she soars down towards the camera. F.W. Murnau was in residence at Fox at this time, and exerted an influence over the whole studio. Even Hawks, an exemplar of Hollywood’s “invisible” style, was inspired to deploy some  visual tricks of his own.

Louise Brooks is stuck in the role of gold digger, without the vibrant independence of later Hawks heroines. She does fill the role though, of the feminine presence that sets the professional male world on tilt, whether Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings or Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire. When he had more freedom, Hawks gave more to his female characters. In A Girl in Every Port, Brooks is a narrative device, a carnival high diver who splits Spike and Salami’s indomitable bond. But whereas Arthur and Stanwyck challenged the masculine assumptions undergirding the boys clubs they crashed, Brooks’ obvious villainy only confirms the macho worldview of A Girl in Every Port. The film ends with Spike and Salami ready to continue their love ‘em and leave ‘em life.


Hawks knew Brooks because he was friends with her husband, actor/director Eddie Sutherland. He cast her because, as he told Kevin Brownlow, “she’s very sure of herself, she’s very analytical, she’s very feminine, but she’s damn good and sure she’s going to do what she wants to do.” That could describe all of his female characters following in the wake of Brooks. While he wasn’t able to provide her with a multi-faceted character, she certainly makes a visual impression, with her razor-sharp bob and form-fitting diving gear. She exudes a fearsome modernity which scares the hell out of every man around her – the shape of Hawskian women to come. Her small but pivotal role in A Girl in Every Port attracted the attention of G.W. Pabst, who cast her as the much-desired lead in Pandora’s Box – which turned her from an actress into an immortal image.


February 19, 2013

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The aviation films of Howard Hawks are comprised of tightly knight groups of men confronting death. The bleakest entry, The Dawn Patrol (1930), also happened to be the first , a tale of a British Air Force outpost that acts as a waypoint between consciousness and the void, escorting young fliers into the blood-flecked air across the German lines. A pivotol work in the scope of Hawks’ career, it was his first sound feature, and introduces themes of professional obligation and facing up to mortality that appear throughout his career, reiterated most directly in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  It has been difficult to see The Dawn Patrol in recent years until the Warner Archive released a fine looking edition on DVD last month.


Hawks’ first sound film was supposed to have been Trent’s Last Case (1929), and the director did extensive tests with the new technology, but Fox had failed to negotiate talkie rights when licensing the 1913 mystery story by E.C. Bentley. So instead it became his final silent, made in a market so hungry for sound that Fox didn’t even bother releasing it in the U.S. According to Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, it only opened in Britain to poor notices, with Hawks regarding it as his worst film.

He wrapped filming on Trent’s Last Case in February of 1929, and was fired in May, after refusing to work on the titles Fox assigned him (Life’s a Gamble and Big Time).  Hawks and the studio sued and counter-sued over wrongful termination and failure to fulfill contracts, but all the litigation was dismissed with prejudice by the courts. He was free for the moment, and looking for a project. Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich that he got the idea for The Dawn Patrol from a story by Irvin Cobb, “about an evening with a British squadron that was being hit hard.”  Contra Hawks, Todd McCarthy found a sworn deposition from screenwriter John Monk Saunders that “he had dined with former war journalist Irvin S. Cobb…and had that night heard the story of ‘young British pilots.’” Whoever originally conceived the scenario, the script was a collaboration between the two men, both of whom were steeped in flyboy lore.


Saunders and Hawks had both entered the Army Air Corps during WW1, and became flying instructors in the states, neither of them seeing action. After hearing news of the Armistice, Saunders went “out alone onto the airfield and wept, his head resting on the wing of his plane.” Robbed of his chance to burn up in a war, Saunders lived vicariously through combat anecdote, soaking up stories from every pilot he met. He was a prolific writer in the 30s, his newspaper stories leading to the scenario for Wings and his Lost Generation novel Single Lady (1931), which he adapted for William Dieterle’s masterful Last Flight (1931, which I wrote about here). His wife Fay Wray described him as a man “who wanted to live dangerously and die young”, which he accomplished by hanging himself at the age of 44.

Hawks was a mechanically minded kid who drove race cars before entering the war, and flying became the latest of his obsessions. He did not acquire Saunders’ insecurity about missing combat action, but he was not unmarked with tragedy. The five friends he signed up for the Air Corps with were all dead by the time he started shooting The Dawn Patrol, all in plane accidents. His brother Kenneth was directing Such Men Are Dangerous when he perished in a plane crash during a failed stunt, mere weeks before The Dawn Patrol was set to film.


If Hawks wanted to get a WW1 subject filmed in 1930, having Saunders on board would guarantee studio backing. First National (A Warner subsidiary) bought the rights with Richard Barthelmess slated to star. Howard Hughes was still working on the similarly-themed Hell’s Angels, and tried to disrput Hawks’ production at every turn, buying up any extra WW1-era planes and threatening to sue for copyright infringement. Nothing came of it though, and both titles had healthy success at the box office. Having already done sound tests before Trent’s Last Case, Hawks had the technical capacity for talkies, but he already had an aesthetic plan as well. He was intent on having his actors underplay, instead of projecting to the back of the theater. The conventional wisdom held that theatrical stage forms would take over, from performance to direction. But Hawks innately knew that cinema could bring you close with a whisper as easily as a shout.  Barthelmess was already well-versed in the subtle forms Hawks was looking for, since he had worked with the similar-minded D.W. Griffith.

Barthlemess plays Dick Courtney, a veteran British combat flier leading raids into German territory. His squadron bunks at a remote outpost led by Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), all exposed nerves as the death toll rises. As each mission team returns, he counts the sound of engines to determine the number of casualties. The dead disappear as quickly as the time it takes Courtney to wipe their names off the squad chalkboard. The pilots deal with this constant metronome of death through drink and camaraderie, gathering in the makeshift bar to talk of former flings and initiating group sing-alongs to their scratchy record player. These are necessary distractions, a way in which to immerse oneself in the present rather than stare at the abyss of the past. At one point a fragile Royal Air Force member, having just lost a friend, blows up at these callous displays. It’s a scene repeated by Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, after the air service fliers do their own carousing following the loss of a pilot. All female characters were cut from The Dawn Patrol, giving it its atmosphere of sweaty locker-room claustrophobia. Although it is similarly constrained to one location, Only Angels is more open and convivial, as the group teaches Arthur about how they cope, bringing her into their self-sustaining circle. The Dawn Patrol instead presents the group as a continuously disrupted family, little more than a replaceable collection of flesh.


When the pilots do engage the reality of their fallen mates, it’s with the grim, mock-heroic acceptance of a song that Howard learned from his brother Ken:  “So stand by your glasses steady/This world is a world of lies/Here’s a health to the dead already/And hurrah for the next man who dies”. It’s hard not to read this as Hawks’ own attempt to react stoically to his brother’s passing, death as a liberation rather than a defeat. This is how the professional fliers stand it day after day, as new recruits arrive and then disappear. The only constants are Courtney and his pal Scott (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). But when Major Brand gets a promotion, Courtney becomes the squad leader, tied to a desk and unable to lose himself in flight. Now he is the one counting engine motors, made stir crazy by inaction and the crushing responsibility for so many lives. His job becomes that of a bureaucratic funeral director, and he can only free himself by disobeying orders and taking on a daredevil solo mission himself. There he can lose himself in the present, never to return.

The Warner Archive presentation has remarkably clear audio for a production of this period, and though the print they transferred is a bit worn and fuzzy, it’s likely the best this film has looked in ages. At this early stage, it’s the home video release of the year.



August 23, 2011

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Joan Blondell made herself at home in the cinema. Regardless of the plot or set decoration, Blondell would adjust her sheer stockings and plop into a seat as if she was at a cuckolded boyfriend’s pad. This Warner Brothers working class goddess buckled knees with this studied insouciance,  a glamour of gum-smacking nonchalance. Our blog-a-thon has been counting down the days until the Blondell-bonanza on August 24th, her day on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Earlier this week Jeff discussed the James Cagney-Blondell pairing Blonde Crazy (1931), and today I’ll take a look at their subsequent film together, Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars (1932).

Hawks had just completed work on Scarface (1931), his large-scale gangster film for producer Howard Hughes, and as the film was encountering censorship battles across the country, the director was busy with his next project. He took the conflict of the 1917 play, “The Barker: A Play of Carnival Life”, by Kenyon Nicholson, and adapted it to one of his hobbies, auto-racing. Nicholson’s story concerns a carnival barker who lives with a young mistress. His brother is coming to visit, and he wants to hide the affair. So he has his girlfriend sic one of her cohorts on his sibling to seduce and distract him. With a few tweaks, Hawks and his horde of screenwriters John Bright, Niven Busch, Kubec Glasmon and Seton I. Miller transplanted the tale to the race track. Production lasted from December 1931 – February 1932, and was released on April 16th 1932.

The Crowd Roars stars James Cagney as championship driver Joe Greer, a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and sometime lover of Lee Merrick (Ann Dvorak, also fresh off of Scarface), who grows impatient with his immaturity. When Joe starts mentoring his racing-hopeful brother Eddie (Eric Linden), Joe cuts Lee out of his life, not wanting to be distracted from the training. In a fit of pique, Lee encourages her friend Anne (Joan Blondell) to flash her wares to Eddie, so Joe can experience how it feels to be separated from a loved one.

When shooting was slated to begin Ann Dvorak was cast as the vampy Anne and Blondell was to portray the long-suffering Lee. However, as Todd McCarthy wrote in his fabulous biography, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood:

Once they got down to work, however, Blondell announced, “I can’t play a neurotic,” and Dvorak decided, “I can’t play an ingenue,” so, with Hawks’s agreement, they swapped roles without even telling the studios.

In retrospect this seems like an obvious switch to make, although it meant Blondell was willingly taking on a lesser role, as Anne has roughly half the screen-time as Lee. This indicates a striking self-awareness on Blondell’s behalf, knowing that she can make a bigger impact in the smaller part better suited to her talents. She was managing a persona that was already well established, having cranked out 10 films in 1931, her wide-eyed and acid tongued striver a familiar and welcome sight for Depression-scarred audiences. Blondell was given second-billing behind Cagney despite her diminished presence in the film (in the trailer below, she’s “The Peppiest Blonde Who Ever Broke a Heart”), since Dvorak was still breaking in as a lead (Scarface was her first) and Blondell had already garnered box office success with Cagney on Blonde Crazy.

The Crowd Roars is a classic Hawksian scenario of male camaraderie and competition, with self-worth won on the job. The setting here is the race track, instead of the airport of Ceiling Zero (1936) or fishing boats of Tiger Shark (1932). While the film has stunning racing photography by Sid Hickox (shot at real Indianapolis, Ventura and Ascot tracks), Eric Linden’s limp turn as Eddie leeches the central conflict of tension, and the female characters are not as fully developed as Dvorak was in Scarface, or Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century (1934) a few years later. Lee is present to be hysterically in love with Joe, and Anne ultimately ends up married and neutered to Eddie. There are hints of the past and present Hawksian women to come though, in Anne and Lee’s banter about Joe, privileging a female perspective on the male lead in a few scenes. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, in her essay on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, does note it for giving Dvorak and Blondell “enough screen time and dialogue together to establish a real friendship which only later, as the story spirals out of control, becomes overtaken be plot points.”

Watching Crowd Roars now, it’s hard to conceive Blondell as the rather shrill wilting lily Lee. Anne, as thinly sketched as she is, dominates every scene she’s in, a sexual dynamo until the third act unconvincingly turns her into a housewife. Although they share only a few scenes together, Cagney and Blondell maintain the sparks they lit on Blonde Crazy. Cagney is a marvel, as usual, swatting Joe Greer’s problems away with jittery flits of his hand, while Blondell is constantly fidgeting with her stockings and urging Dvorak to dump him. Hawks told Joseph McBride about working with Cagney:

“Cagney was so much fun to work with because you never know what Cagney was going to do. When I work with Cary Grant, I can go home and write a scene for Cary and know how he’s gonna to handle it the next day, but Cagney had these funny little attitudes, you know, the way he held his hands, and things like that.”

You first see Cagney playing with Dvorak’s hands, mocking her for wanting a wedding ring, and then throughout the film he uses a flat-palmed Queen’s wave as kiss-off, a curious, electrifying gesture of contempt. Hawks doesn’t discuss Blondell, but she’s equally resourceful in her few scenes.

She is introduced after a close-up of a telegram from Joe, informing Lee that he’ll be delaying his return in order to train Eddie. Lee crumples the note and throws it in the trash. Blondell is splayed out on a divan in the background, and sashays slowly to the foreground, implanting a hand on her hip. She grabs the note dismissively and strides right, bobbing her head to snap off her complaints like, “playing nursemaid to a kid, huh?”. She sits down on the bed, and crosses her legs, her feet resting on an ottoman, to continue her harangue. Angrily throwing back the note, she walks to the middle of the frame, bends over, and adjusts her stockings before snapping, “You can take those hard-drinking, hard-riding men and put them in a truck and shove them over a cliff, as far as I’m concerned.” It’s a play of anger and self-regard that rivals Cagney’s regal kiss-off to Lee. Blondell continues these moves later in the film, propping her gams up on a table, and pulling up her hose, in order to entrance Eddie. This time her primping is an act, although one Blondell has established that Anne is happy to perform.

Blondell’s performance is one of constant small surprises, matching Cagney’s bantam rooster routine gyration for gyration. While The Crowd Roars is a second-tier Hawks film, the director’s openness to improvisation makes it a particularly riveting one, and reveals Blondell to be a wonderfully inventive actress as well as an indelible personality.


October 27, 2009

crimson kimono


Today finds me further entrenched in The Samuel Fuller Collection, a seven-disc box set which comes out today from Sony Pictures Home Entertaintment and the Film Foundation, and for which I had a hugely entertaining interview with Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife. Before I get to her exuberant personality, a few more notes about the movies…

An auteurist’s delight, the set traces Fuller’s career from assembly-line scriptwriter to writer-producer-director tyro. The leap from the innocuously pleasant It Happened in Hollywood (1937) to the delirious noir Underworld U.S.A. (1961) is fascinating, and the drips of his personality discernible in his screenwriting work from Hollywood through Shockproof (1949) and Scandal Sheet (1952) is something of a revelation. Fuller’s blunt-edged prose is handled deftly by Phil Karlson’s hopped-up realism in the latter, while Douglas Sirk’s gleaming surfaces and detached irony are an odd, endlessly fascinating fit for Shockproof, which should be some kind of auteurist case study.

Then there is the full-on eau de Fuller with The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld U.S.A. Kimono is a nuanced take on inter-racial romance shot through with Korean war guilt and stunning location photography of L.A.’s Chinatown. Underworld U.S.A. is all clenched fists and close-ups, documenting the all consuming revenge kick that takes down Cliff Robertson and anyone near him. His tormentors are thrown up as shadows on an alley wall, his own brick-screen idols that he’ll track down one by one with bitter ferocity.

Below the fold is the interview with the delightful Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife for over thirty years and a great thinker and actress in her own right (her film debut was in Godard’s Alphaville), about her late husband’s career in newspapers, the Army, and Hollywood.

What have you learned about Fuller since you completed editing his autobiography, A Third Face?

A Harvard archivist went looking for Sam’s  papers, and he found something that Sam never told me. He was married to Buster Keaton’s wife who committed bigamy. He was 26 years old, had just sold Hats Off! [1936, Sam’s first scriptwriting gig], and she dragged him to Tijuana and married him.  After he found out she was still married to Buster, the marriage was annulled. He never told me. The archivist found the annulment papers and the newspaper announcement. Buster Keaton at the time claimed he was so drunk he didn’t remember having married her.

Sam was so disgusted he never told me. He even cut her face out of a photo. It’s just her and a woman’s sleeve, and he never told me about it. I was shocked. He told me when we met in Paris that he’d never marry or go out with actresses. He hadn’t told me why. He probably forgot about it. He was traumatized by it. So the marriage was annulled, and that’s how he was briefly related to Buster Keaton.

Was Sam’s writing style influenced by his time in the newspaper business? Power of the Press and Scandal Sheet (and later, Park Row), seem to show a strong influence from this time in his life.

Totally. Sam was broken into the newspaper business by John Huston’s mother, Rhea Gore. John and Sam worked at the New York Evening Graphic together, along with Walter Winchell. It was run by Emile Gauvreau, the crazy Irishman with eight beautiful daughters (Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht based their play and film, “The Front Page”, on him). And he was a health nut, he went barefoot from Nyack to New York every day. At the time they called the paper the “Porno” Graphic. And John Huston’s Mom, Rhea, broke Sam into crime reporting. John said he spent more time with his mother than he did. Rhea, even though she divorced Walter Huston and married into a railroad fortune, continued working as a newspaper woman. She was very ballsy, cutting through red tape, bribing cops to get the story. She’s a Sam Fuller character herself.

John didn’t get along with his mother, left the paper, ran off to Hollywood and started writing for William Wyler. He came to Hollywood before Sam. Sam started as a copyboy for Arthur Brisbane, one of the most powerful men he worked for. He was the brain behind William Randolph Hearst, and Sam was his personal copyboy when he was 14. Hearst wouldn’t make a move without him. Sam lost his father when he was 11, and Brisbane was a father figure to him. Sam had a lot of these father figures.

The newspaper office was like his living room, growing up…

Totally! Sam always wanted to run his own paper somewhere in New Hampshire and write his own editorials, and convey his own vision of the world.

What did Fuller think of some of the early adaptations of his work, like Power of the Press?

There’s some great dialogue in that. Like “Freedom’s dynamite, it to be handled with care”! It does sound like him. Scorsese said that Sam was so deeply American, the kind of America that is vanishing. When we lived in Europe together, it always struck me that Sam was innocence abroad. I think he was kind of like a Mark Twain character. Europeans have layers of perversion, and Sam was really innocent there.

What was his relationship like with the studio heads, and how did he manage to get such envelope-pushing material onto the screen, like the relationship between a Japanese-American man and a white American woman in The Crimson Kimono?

Such a beautiful film. Alain Resnais made Hiroshima Mon Amour around the same time, about a white woman with a Japanese man. The same year an article in an Oxford newspaper dubbed TheCrimson Kimono as “Los Angeles Mon Amour.” The head of the studio said to Sam, why don’t you make the white guy a little bit on the mean side, so we understand why she prefers the Japanese man. And Sam said, hell no. They have a lot of affinities, they’re both nice guys, fought in Korea together, and I’m not making the white guy on the mean side so the bible belt will buy it.

In Forty GunsSam wanted the heroine to die, and at the end he should have to shoot her, the woman he loved. Zanuck said “Barbara Stanwyck is a star, you cannot kill the star.” So Sam had to attach a happy ending. He had to compromise, they all had to. But Sam was a very moral guy. He never lied. He berated himself, undervalued himself. He didn’t want to marry me, saying “I’m 54 you’re 22, I don’t like younger women, ten years from now I’ll be an old fart, I’m a has-been.”  He talked himself out of it. He didn’t promise me anything. Because he didn’t bullshit me, I stayed with him. It’s hard to take, but it’s easier on a relationship. And that was courageous. Maybe it was the courage of a fool, but it worked.

He didn’t promise me lines in his films. I had to give up many of my own ambitions to make the marriage work. Even though Sam was a feminist and worked with women, it’s such a nerve-wracking business. I did squeeze in a master’s degree in literature and taught French for four years, and started a doctorate on Samuel Beckett. But then this White Dog thing happened, and we moved to Europe, and I never finished it. Instead I finished Sam’s autobiography.

Will you go back to the Ph.D.?

No, I’m still intrigued with Sam’s characters. I love Beckett, but there’s something so modern, so way ahead of his time in Sam’s work. I’m intrigued by he got away with it, and through so many ups and downs. Why do they call a European movie an art movie and his movies B-movies?

Howard Hawks bought the rights to Fuller’s first novel, The Dark Page, could you talk about that time in his life?

Hawks bought the novel while Sam was still in the war. I’ve got a letter Hawks wrote to Zanuck raving about Sam’s writing, and he bought the novel. This is one of the items I posted on the fan page for The Dark Page on Facebook. They republished the book last year in Scotland, the same company also re-published No Bed of his Own, by Val Lewton , the producer of Cat People. The first time he saw his book in print was in an army edition of The Dark Page, which ends up as a scene in The Big Red One.

Was Sam upset when Hawks sold the rights to his book to MPI?

Hawks was a businessman, Sam wasn’t. He bought it for 15 grand, and I think he sold it for 100, netting 85. He wanted to do it with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson before it fell through. Of course if you’re a writer and Hawks buys it, and you’re young…

The plot is similar to many of his works,  including his novel Crown of India, where an older man trains a younger man, teaches him the ropes, and then the younger man has to expose the older man, and use his lessons against him. Totally Oedipus. The son always wants to outsmart the father. I’ve seen it with all the young directors that came and almost destroyed Sam, some of them. They always wanted something. There’s no innocence when somebody comes and says, “I admire you.” Sam was a very simple person, he never wanted to become a cult figure. Truffaut said about Sam that he’s simple without being simplistic, and that’s very rare. Well said.

Curtis Hanson was one of the nicest disciples. We knew him when he was 18 years old, when Sam and I first got married, he always knocked on Sam’s window. He wound up spending hours with him. Then there was Peter Bogdanovich. Sam helped him write Targets. Peter acknowledges it, but Sam didn’t want any credit.

Sam had his own father figures, but Sam was a gentleman, a civilized man, and I could see how he handled his Oedipus complexes. He never destroyed these father figures. He had all kinds, from Arthur Brisbane, and later on when he came to Hollywood, Peter Pan – Herbert Brenon, was one of his first. The German director E.A. Dupont, who directed Piccadilly, who helped him on I Shot Jesse James, was another. John Ford was one as well.

What was Sam’s relationship with Ford?

Ford loved Sam as a writer and always wanted to work with him. Sam thought John was the greatest director in the world. He worshipped him. John was very proud of Sam, and would call him every year on D-Day and say, “Fuck the Big Red One!” That was a running gag because Ford was in the Marines. Sam just had an unlimited admiration for him – he’s pure Americana.

Another father figure was General Terry De La Mesa Allen. He made the cover of Time and Newsweek. He was so famous at the time. All the dogfaces, all the soldiers loved him. He fought alongside them. He was so famous John Ford pleaded with Sam to meet him. Sam organized a luncheon or dinner, and I have pictures of Ford with General Allen. When he made the covers of Time and Newsweek, he was so modest. “I’m no hero”, he said, “dead men made me a general.” Listen to that line. Gives me goosebumps.

That sounds like a line right out of one of Sam’s war films…

He influenced Sam the most. All these years of battle, and Sam volunteered for it. People tend to forget, that when Sam volunteered in WWII, he was a writer and an artist. The whole war scene hit him differently than other soldiers. I think that Sam’s nervous system was shaken forever. People forget that he was in every major battle in WWII, including Omaha Beach. And war hysteria never left him. Sam had a very short fuse. People are never the same after an experience like that, for the rest of their lives.

Did he ever talk to you about his battle experiences, or was it something he kept to himself?

No, he talked about it constantly! That’s why people thought he was a macho guy, but Sam was very sensitive, he cried before me when we saw a film. And I think he was covering up his sensitivity by talking like he did, about killing Nazis and such. He really suffered for the rest of his life from war hysteria.

You acted in Dead Pigeon On Beethoven street, one of his lower budgeted European productions (for German TV)…

It was Pulp Fiction twenty years before Pulp Fiction. Sam always wanted to make a comedy, and this was a private eye spoof made for German TV. Sam couldn’t make a realistic German film about German cops. What does he know? And what is realism anyway? Wim Wenders said you should strike the world realism from the dictionary. At the time they had the Profumo Affair, where two call girls brought down the English government. So Sam wrote me a part of a girl who sets up politicians and blackmails them. At the time, Fassbinder, who was so obsessed with American cinema, he showed Sam that he made a Western. And it was awful. He showed it to Sam, in Cologne.

Never released?

No. And Fassbinder wanted to play the part of Charley Umlaut in Dead Pigeon, but they had already cast the role. The English loved it, they thought it was funny, it played at the London Film Festival. But the French, they expected Sam to make a straight film noir. You always get pigeonholed. Because Sam fought in WWII, he was punished for it. He had to do straight film noir. They wouldn’t let him do comedy, and he had such a great sense of humor, and such a great sense of the absurd.

Thieves After Dark was booed at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984, when John Cassavetes got the Golden Bear for Love Streams. But John loved the film, and we wound up spending the whole night with John and Gena Rowlands eating herring and drinking beer. And he said, “I loved the picture”. And I guess the French didn’t like the idea of Sam making comments about French unemployment. I saw it again, and it’s a very good film. They have a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. I remember when I was there, and they called John Ford a fascist. I just hated it. After I met Sam I saw Shock Corridor with a friend of mine who was a movie critic, and he said “Fuller is a genius, but he’s a fascist”.  Sam was the opposite of a fascist.


October 6, 2009

The Library of America has released a wriggling mass of Manny Farber’s prose, and now the world is a (slightly) better place. Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings of  Manny Farber (edited by Robert Polito) is a maddening, insightful and frankly thrilling collection of his writing on movies (and a little on TV) from 1942 – 1977. It includes the work that made up his previous compilation, Negative Space, plus a massive trove of reviews from the The New Republic, The Nation, and lad mags like Cavalier (he requested that his capsules for Time be left out, feeling that the editors rendered them unrecognizable).

In his valuable introduction, Polito says “his writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center.” To borrow his own term, Farber approaches his subjects termite-like, gnawing at the edges of the films, ignoring plot summary and character psychology to focus on movement and composition, informed by his long career as a painter. He does not treat a film as a monolith, a hunk to be labeled as good or bad and then forgotten. He engages with every aspect of a film, emphasizing its collaborative nature. He breaks down performances, compositions, and dialogue with equal vigor with his jagged, jumpy and allusive prose. It’s often impossible to tell whether he likes a film or not, as he builds up and tears down a production from every angle.

Reading his reviews is like witnessing an archaeological dig, nosing around his celluloid sites for objects of interest, or for banalities worth exposing. And when he digs in to something, his descriptions pop off the page. In a 1943 New Republic piece, he analyzes the Bogart species:

“[he] looks as though he had been knocked around daily and had spent his week-ends drinking himself unconscious in the back rooms of saloons. His favorite grimace is a hateful pulling back of the lips from his clenched teeth, and when his lips are together he seems to be holding back a mouthful of blood.”

Or this Artforum piece on Howard Hawks from 1969 (one of my favorites):

His Girl Friday is one of the fastest of all movies, from line to line and gag to gag. Besides the dynamic, highly assertive pace, this Front Page remake with Rosalind Russell playing Pat O’Brien’s role is a tour de force of choreographed action: bravado posturings with body, lucid Cubistic composing with natty lapels and hat brims, as well as a very stylized discourse of short replies based on the idea of topping, out maneuvering the other person with wit, cynicism, and verbal bravado.

This isn’t just pungent writing, although it’s certainly that (it’s impossible to see a Bogart film now without peeking for a trickle of red down his lip), but it also prescribes a way of seeing. This emphasis on a performative detail, his “pulling back of the lips”, reveals a sensibility that is specifically cinematic. He’s concerned about movement that reveals character, facial tics or otherwise, as well as its relationship to the frame it’s traipsing about in. He offers due respect to a well-turned phrase, but he rarely pays much notice to plot, which is often described as a cliched nuisance. He praises Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt because it “is an example of what the movies might do in breaking with the idea that the story is more important than the movie.”

He’s concerned with what is buzzing beneath the strained scenario, the people who imprint their signatures on a film regardless of pedigree. Cary Grant’s grace and Jean Arthur’s Arthurness (“she is both an ordinary girl with ordinary reactions and a scatterbrain who wears birds’ nests on her head and at normal times is out of breath from running or screaming or hitting someone on the chin”) transcend their roles. They are still just people in front of the camera. In this vein, Farber also has a fascinating series of articles on WWII documentaries, and in which he prophetically states, “the difference between the documentary and the story film in the final esthetic evaluation is unimportant”. International auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami and Jia Zhangke have been pursuing this line of thought for the last decade with astonishing results.

Then there are his hugely entertaining reflections on movie-going itself. There is his famous statement in “Underground Films” (1957) that:

The hard-bitten action film finds its natural home in caves: the murky, congested theaters, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near bus terminals in big cities. These theaters roll action films in what, at first, seems like a nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, sound tracks infected with hiccups. The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged from a giant sponge.

But he was a brave sociologist since 1943, when he complained: “Who builds movie theaters? If you seek the men’s room you vanish practically away from this world, always in a downward direction.” His roving eye was always searching for the errant telling detail, even when it was off the screen and down the stairs.

In a fascinating panel discussion upon the release of the book last week, Polito was joined by Greil Marcus, Kent Jones, and Geoffrey O’ Brien to discuss Farber’s life and work, which informed a lot of this piece. There are a few other stray items from their talk I wanted to bring out. First,  that Farber’s interests were circumscribed by the distribution patterns of the ’40s and ’50s. He discussed mostly Hollywood product because that’s all he could see at the time. Once foreign and experimental film became more readily available in the U.S., Farber expanded his taste likewise, becoming an articulate interpreter of Michael Snow, Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others. Kent Jones also discussed Farber’s teaching notes, which he was able to look at for a book he’s helping to publish with Farber’s wife and collaborator Patricia Patterson. Farber lectured on cinema at UCSD until the late 80s, after retiring from film criticism to focus on his painting. Jones divulged little as to their contents, only that they were “amazing” and further represented the constant re-evaluations Farber engaged in with the works he was intrigued by.

I’ll close by paraphrasing Kent Jones again: The publication of Farber on Film is not just a landmark for American film criticism, but for American literature as a whole.

For further info on Farber and the book, well, buy the book, but also read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article at the Moving Image Source, and Paul Schrader’s remembrances at the same site. For insight into his painting, the exhibition book About Face is a great introduction.


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.