The golden era of Hollywood is symbolised by a number of household names – Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille. When held against these luminaries, Howard Hawks is often denigrated as a studio stooge; productive, but lacking innovation. Versatile, but bereft of a signature voice.
US critic Leonard Maltin labelled Hawks ‘the greatest American director who is not a household name.’ Where some directors experimented to the point of distraction, their modernism compulsive, even obsessive, Hawks’ style was inhibited, overwhelmingly concerned with economy of expression. He doesn’t move the camera unless he has to, and even then it is rarely more than a simple pan. With the exception of Red River, montages are almost unheard of. He rarely strays from the basic interchange of medium shots and close-ups, always letting the basic elements of performance and dialogue determine the flow of his films. He was Hollywood’s greatest reductionist. As he famously said: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”
And yet so much of Howard Hawks’ career was remarkable. How many filmmakers can claim to have directed films for over 50 years? Hawks made eight silent films before his first talkie. El Dorado, considered one of the most iconic westerns, was released alongside Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night and Bonnie and Clyde in 1968.
And yet Hawks shouldn’t be remembered for his longevity, or his consistency. He’s defined by his range. He didn’t just command a wide variety of genres – he shaped and sculpted them with works that have never been surpassed. ‘Far from being hemmed in by genre conventions, Hawks was able to impress upon these genre films his own personal worldview,’ writes the academic David Boxwell. ‘It is essentially comic rather than tragic, existential rather than religious, and irreverent rather than earnestly sentimental.’
With 1946’s The Big Sleep, afforded a re-mastered cinema release on December 31, Howard Hawks made the definitive noir before the term even existed. With Scarface (1932) and Only Angels Have Wings (1931), he made gangster movies when gangsters still ran the cities, as well as introducing the public to actor Paul Muni – the first Irish-American to become a national figurehead. Rio Bravo and Red River began as westerns and grew to become emblems of American identity, establishing John Wayne as ‘the Duke’. Bringing Up Baby set the benchmark for the romantic comedy, pairing Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn – the most effortlessly anarchic screen duo in the history of Hollywood.
Only Stanley Kubrick – with 2001, Spartacus, Full Metal Jacket and The Shining – can perhaps claim a similar command, and indeed sway, over such distinct genres.
Part of the reason why Hawks failed to gain the recognition he deserved as a director is the power of stars in his film. Kubrick was never an actor’s director – his films were too visionary to kneel to any performer. The only performer Orson Welles allowed to detract from the expanse of his direction was Orson Welles himself.
But Hawks was more of a pragmatist than an egotist. He was naturally conciliatory where Welles and Kubrick were individualists. He worked in the studio era and he learned how to make the studios work for him. The studio system was a constellation of stars, and no one managed a star like Hawks. Grant, Hepburn, Muni and Wayne: each in their own way owes their career to him.
But Hawks closest and most complex screen relationship was with Humphrey Bogart, ranked by the American Film Institute as the greatest male star in the history of Hollywood. Bogart is primarily remembered for his ‘Play it again Sam’ turn in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942). There, he played the straight-up romantic loner, his heart thawing out at regular gradients until that wonderful, warming finale. But Bogart, an unhappily married man to a perennially jealous woman, was a notoriously reserved figure on set. Ingrid Bergman had a reputation for affairs with her leading men, but her relationship with Bogart was professional at best. “I kissed him, but I never knew him,” she later recalled.
If Bogart’s screen time in Casablanca is limited, in The Big Sleep, he dominates every frame.
The Big Sleep was an assault course to direct. For starters, Hawks had to find a way to deal with Raymond Chandler’s subject material, which, quite apart from its provocative sexuality, touched on the taboo subjects of drug abuse, homosexuality and pornography. At the time of release, Time magazine wrote of Hawks’ direction: ‘Even on the chaste screen, Hawks manages to get down a good deal of the glamorous tawdriness of big-city low life, discreetly laced with hints of dope addiction, voyeurism and fornication.’
More than that, Hawks had to find a way to handle Bogart who, this time, was emotionally invested in his co-star Lauren Bacall. They met on the set of an earlier Hawks’ adaptation of the Ernest Hemmingway novel To Have and Have Not (1944). It was Bogart’s first affair with a leading lady. Bacall, young, precocious and knowingly beautiful, tried to manipulate him – and he was happy to let her. But by the time of The Big Sleep two years later, their relationship was under strain. Bogart was still married, and her mischievousness was being replaced with resentment. He was 47; she was 21.
The Big Sleep is famed for its Rubik’s cube ambiguities; it is a film coiled in innuendo and inference in which the murderer is never quite revealed. Bogart, with his creased face, his flinty eyes and his slow drawl, seems to lean against the world at an angle. It was his finest performance, leading Raymond Chandler to comment, “Bogart can be tough without a gun. He has a sense of humour that contains that grating undertone of contempt.” Time wrote: ‘Bogart can get into a minor twitch of the mouth the force of a slug from an automatic.’
But it is the scenes with Bacall that stick. They seem eternally elusive, locked in a silent battle, familiar and yet uncomfortable with each other, crouched in a searing, almost tragic jealousy. Hawks, who was rumoured to have fallen for Bacall himself, knew exactly how to play them off each other. He said of the pair: “Bogie fell in love with the character she played, so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.”
Unwittingly, he also seemed to be talking about himself. Hawks was a myth-maker around whom stars orbited, the ultimate company man who stood aside from the mores the studios so rigidly adhered to. As David Boxwell writes: ‘He created a body of work that has been accused of ahistorical and adolescent escapism, but Hawks’ fans rejoice in his oeuvre’s remarkable avoidance of Hollywood’s religiosity, bathos, flag-waving and sentimentality.’