Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, June 05, 2015

International Hawksblocker: HATARI!, RED LINE 7000

Howard Hawks fans like myself expect motif repetitions: if something works in one Hawks film, you can be damn sure he's going to use it again, and why not? His riffs and motifs strike deep archetypal tones that generate invigorating mythic resonance, especially when they concern men facing death in the service of some grand quest. Whether flying mail over the Andes, blazing the Chisholm Trail, helping save a bunch of ranches from a slimy war profiteer, or just defending the North Pole against some kind of super-carrot, Hawks' men in a group are the men you want to be with, their charisma and overlapping witty banter is intoxicating. But there can't always be wars, or Dutchmen with open bars, or endangered ladies, or scoundrels in jail with rich brothers trying to get them out, or pilots trying to land in ceiling zero fog, or mighty herds to be driven through a war-torn wilderness rife with border gangs. What do these brave death defiers do then, if not for 'rightness' or 'progress,' for kicks and cash? That's what it boils down to --- the stuff that makes a hero in one situation makes just a death-wish-ridden adrenalin junkies in another. Suddenly, Hawks' men-in-a-group have to risk death purely for the adrenaline rush, which is far less exciting... especially for us in the audience, at any rate. There's no nobility of purpose in wanting to go super fast around a track, or to capture and cage wild animals for those uniquely 'human/e' environments known as zoos. To my mind, these careers show us that the heart of the Hawks' masculine camaraderie--which fans like myself so deeply thirst for-- may be less honorable than we thought.

 Hawks flew with Faulkner in WWI, and he hunted and fished with Hemingway and raced with Gary Cooper, so he clearly falls into his own category of 'rugged' outdoors thrill seeker. Maybe he doesn't see it the same way as me. Maybe due to some repetition compulsion disorder, some existential PTSD from the Signal Corp and its "hurrah for the next who dies" approach to impending mortality in the sky before pilots got parachutes, the Hawks male is still back, so to speak, at the Russian roulette table in Hanoi. 

Hawks made very few bad films in his long career, far fewer than John Ford, yet he receives far less lionization at the hands of the popular press, who tend to think of his best work more in terms of the stars that were in it (there's no 'Hawks box' - but there are dozens of Ford's), thus BIG SLEEP and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT are in the Bogie box; ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and HIS GIRL FRIDAY are in the Grant box, etc. Part of this might be that Hawks' personal stamp is harder to discern, so comfortable is he across a spectrum of genres, sometimes within a single film, and his iconoclasm kept him independent, signing with studios for three picture deals or getting financing from this or that outfit, making each studio less likely to claim him than any other. (no 'Hawks at Fox" box - which is too bad). Still, when a lot of classic film critics, myself included, list our top all-time favorite films, Hawks takes up at least half the top twenty.

But by the  mid-1960s, critics realized we had come a long long way from Hawks' prime. He was old --perhaps less clear-eyed about what true courage was by then. Nonetheless, even these last last few films in his oeuvre reward study, if only to further discern his master class iconoclasm. I've already analyzed the comedy MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT? (see: Fear of Fishing), and now....

1962 -  **1/2

This the one with John Wayne lassoing --and having his jeep butted by--charging rhinos, fleeing giraffes and snorting wildebeests, out on the fertile African plains. One thinks, ah - how can it fail? But - as with his very last film, Rio Lobo, a truly international B-lister/newcomer cast can't always capture the finer points of group camaraderie or erudite cocktail hour wit. Diminutive German actor Hardy Krüger wears a little pair of khaki shorts shorts so we can see his bandy little legs; there's also Valentin de Vargas (he played the leather jacket-wearing ball-having "Pancho" Grande in Touch of Evil), and--the type of cigar-chewing role usually reserved for Ward Bond or George Kennedy--Bruce "Kong-block'" Cabot is "the Indian." French newcomer, Gérard Blain, who fights his way into the gang, decides it's easier to share women with the similarly diminutive Krüger rather than compete, which is good since there are only two girls to go around and neither worth fighting too hard for: French actress Michèle Girardon is a bit too mother-earthy as ranch owner Brandy, and Italian model Elsa Martinelli (as a visiting photographer who hooks up with Wayne) shows all the emaciated signs of either fever or an eating disorder.

Now, I have nothing against international casts, but if English is not your first language it can be hard to sound breezy and conversational while delivering a mouthful of brilliant Leigh Brackett dialogue. I mean this as no reflection on the actors themselves, only that the international vibe might be what Hawks or the distributors wanted but--we who love Hawks' unique ability to bring witty overlapping dialogue to a group brave and skilled men (and a few women) in an isolated, dangerous situation, don't. They can't deliver the lines fast enough or with enough zip - it's like asking Bela Lugosi to play Oscar Jaffe or Walter Burns.

There are perks: the memorable Henry Mancini score ("Baby Elephant Walk" comes true) and Wayne and company had the guts to do all their own animal-wrangling; there's no rear screen projection, no stunt doubles, no stock footage of any kind ("of any kind, David") and it makes a huge difference. Compare it something like MGM's Tarzan series (which relied on all three), these scenes of the groups' complex hunting strategy really sparkle in the African dust, revealing the film's clear influence on, amongst other things, Spielberg's Jurassic Park: The Lost World

I like some other things at play here too: the leisurely cycle of the film follows, say, Hemingway's first person accounts of safaris, like Green Hills of Africa, where the book is divided into hunting on the plains by day and drinking/conversing at night; the cycle of animals and drinks, hunts and conversations, as natural and easy as the progression of drinking life itself. But this time--rare for Hawks--it's the night part, the drinking, that fails. 

Breeziness and camaraderie are a hard thing to force.

I could forgive that forced aspect. I can even forgive the feeling Wayne forcing these wild and free animals into a lifetime of captivity is the anathema of heroism.  What keeps this film away from my collection is something beyond odious, something so vile and unspeakable there's no forgiv

And that thing is a hirsute little ham named Red Buttons.

Red Buttons, the original red-headed stepchild... I love his convulsive dance marathon heart attack in They Shoot Horses Don't They? But in Hatari! there's no need to ask who we'd like to shoot.

Sure he's got a kind of Rooney-like Arthur Murray tenement grace to his burly hobbit movements, but his hammy cowardice and shameless cockblocking drag the joie de vivre down like a steel mesh net. Endlessly showboating, whining, blowing up one of the Serengeti's few scarce acacia trees in order to abduct a whole tribe of monkeys (but looking away as his rocket-driven net flies over and engulfs the tree) and then getting drunk that night and asking about it over and over, refusing to let anyone else talk about anything but how he didn't look for his big moment of triumph... oh my God but he's unbearable, as un-Hawksian as it's possible to get. Imagine if you parachuted Jerry Lewis down into Casablanca. Or what about that sketch in SNL with Fred Armisen as the weathervane removed from Wizard of Oz? Well, he's worse.

Not only is he a cockblocker, an unpardonable crime in my book, but he steals all the ice normally used for cocktail hour for his poor widow ass after falling into the pig trough. Adding insult to injury, he winds up with Brandy (the earth mother) instead of the Frog or the Hitlerjugend who've been dueling for her hand all through the first half of the film. It's not Hawksian to be so needy, so constantly demanding of praise, so ramped up with that short guy attention grabbing. It's not, perhaps, Buttons fault if he's the pisher left standing after the needle is lifted in Hawksian archetype musical chairs. He's the one 'new' kind of character here, completely outside the normal Hawks oeuvre, at least he hasn't been seen since Bringing Up Baby's Major Horace Applegate (Charlie Ruggles) or the US Army as a collective whole in I was a Male War Bride. Imagine if Walter Brennan wound up with Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo? It was bad enough he got Frances Farmer in Come and Get It. Nothing against Brennan, who's aces with me, but.... was you ever bit by a dead bee, indeed. Buttons ain't even got no stinger either.

Perhaps we can understand late period Hawks well by contrasting his two tame leopard-in-a-bathroom scenes, the one in Bringing up Baby and the one in Hatari!. In Baby, Susan Vance pretends she's being attacked by the leopard in order to get David (Cary Grant) to charge over to her apartment and 'save' her (he doesn't yet know it's a tame leopard); in Hatari! it's the girl in the bath who doesn't know the leopard is tame, and Red Buttons takes advantage of her fear to act like a hero, charging in with chair (top). But while Grant's over-acting was--and he knew you knew--a front, a grown man play-acting in a Cavellian comedy of remarriage, here Red overacts and gesticulates as if Mickey Rooney crash landed in the middle of Rio Bravo and tried to turn the whole thing into an Andy Hardy picture before Hawks came back from the bathroom.

Anyway, the real problem is sex. The way Buttons cockblocks Wayne constantly, interrupting his woo at the worst times, is forgivable the first time but the second is downright obnoxious, and the third, fourth, fifth... etc. completely toxic. Perhaps it's because Hawks could no longer get it up himself by this point, what with Viagra still decades off, so he lost all interest in sex's non-farcical aspects. But it's ridiculous and annoying that we're not supposed to wish he'd wind up gored by a bull. Wayne has to marry the girl (offscreen) at the end just so they can get a hotel room together in town, but then their bed is literally crashed by her three baby elephants, and Red of course, opening the door for them. Haw Haw.

Sorry to vent, but I've always hated cockblockers. I HATE THEM! Sex is hard enough to arrange on its own, especially in an uptight country like America. We don't need any more interruptions than we already have. I'm from the school of thought where when you see a buddy hooking up you don't interrupt, you just quietly give him some room, fend off the other suitors, dive on any grenades if needed, or otherwise just give him some room and leave him to it. I always thought Hawks felt the same, and I'm sure he mostly used to. Still, imagine if Bacall's attempted seductions of Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944) were continually undone by Brennan's drunk character randomly barging into the room without knocking, lighting her cigarette before she can ask for a match, asking for change or talking about the dead bees, over and over and over... for three hours.

Wayne has enough problems without Red as it is. Smoking cigarettes and getting older with every drag, the red sand radiation from The Conqueror mutating his cells, he seems always at risk of stretching his cowboy actor legs once too often in taming of wild animals, like he could wind up like Clark Gable in real life after that mustang in The Misfits (1961) and break something in himself that his body's too old to repair. Hawks and Wayne would be better off back in Hollywood, or on location someplace with an ocean breeze, instead of the animal dung and tsetse fly-ridden dust of Kenya before the rainy season. At this stage Hawks should be like John Ford, presiding over pointless Irish brawls in paradise instead of racing around after rampaging rhinos and wildebeests or giving a coiled Irish ham like Red Buttons an inch of improv leeway.

To get back to the girls in Hatari!, all two of them: now, pop culture has taught us a bit about eating disorders since 1962, I've had anorexic friends in AA point out all the telltale signs, like teeth that look like they're trying to crawl out of your mouth before they dissolve. So it's easy to see that, unless she was suffering from yellow fever while on location, Italian model-turned-actress Elsa Martinelli had an eating disorder (of course what model doesn't, at least at some point?). I could overlook that if not for other sins against Hawksian nature she commits, like when she declines a drink after her first long bumpy, dusty hard safari animal-wrangling jeep ride. Bitch, when you're all sore as hell from being bounced around, you don't refuse a first-rate analgesic like alcohol! It's like saying your head hurts too much to take an aspirin! I can abide anything but that kind of idiocy. bet that Agnes of yours wouldn't say no to a drink. This is frickin' Hawks country you're in, Elsa, not frickin' Texas Female Baptist College on a Blake's bus tour! These people are men!

And I wish to god I was with 'em.

Unless they were in goddamned Africa.

Center: the normal-height human who won Ann Darrow

1965 - **1/2

This saga of interwoven young racers and the women who chase them is one of Hawks' harder-to-find and hardest to like later films. Shot in a full frame (1:85) ratio (at least that's the only version available), which is odd for a 1965 racing movie, it's on Amazon streaming finally and the stock car races are thrilling in a dusty STP sign and authentic stock car race kind of way, with great fiery spinouts and crashes so seamlessly interwoven into the storyline you'll swear the real actors are in the wrecks. Was Hawks' camera just hanging around waiting for crashes or were these stunt men? Or did he take stock footage of crashes and then reverse engineer them (paint a car to look like one that had already crashed, and then put one of his stars in a mock-up, etc.)? Knowing Hawks, all three and then some. A lifelong race car driver, he was one of the stunt drivers for the film (at age 69!) and unlike 90% of racing movies there's never a doubt which character is in which car.  The sound is so solid you can feel the engine throbbing in its exhaust RPM through your couch, even without a subwoofer.

It's been called a loose remake of Hawks' earlier racing pic, The Crowd Roars (1932 - see my review here), which is also distinctly 'lesser Hawks.' But Red Line is really part of the 'interwoven young lovers revolving around a cinematically-intriguing profession' genre, with its roots in trashy beach reads reaching as far back as Cinemascope jet trash like How to Marry a Millionaire (1957) The Interns (1962), The Carpetbaggers (1964), and still going strong by the late 70s. There was also a then in-vogue thing for stock car racing, traceable in drive-in product of the era, like The Young Racers (1963), Viva Las Vegas (1964), Spin-Out (1966), Fireball 500 (1966), Jack Hill's Pit-Stop (1968) and bigger budget stuff like Grand Prix (1966) and Le Mans (1971). And of course this genre peeled out into the 70s in a lot of directions: the Easy Rider / Wild Angels biker genre; the Convoy / Smokey and the Bandit trucker genre; and the Monte Hellman Two-Lane Blacktop existential pink slip genre. So in a way, films like Red Line 7000 are the connecting thread between How to Marry a Millionaire and Mad Max. There, I said it.

Red Line is still Hawks down to its rims, but it lacks an axle - there's nothing there to hold the wheels on. None of the women are exactly Hawksian (Charlene Holt aside), they're far too masochistic and self-abasing, and the men are all unattractively stunted, at least on some level. It's the first movie, for example, in Hawks' canon where a 'good guy' hits a woman. Worse, it's James Caan! He gets jealous over his new girlfriend (Hill) while shouting "Slut!" at her because she slept with his on-track rival, albeit before meeting him. Usually that's enough right there to warrant a man getting killed, or at least pistol-whipped into releasing Walter Brennan. Here the girl seems to be more concerned with the condition of her man's knuckles than her black eye.  These women soak up abuse, and go running to clean up their own blood so their man won't slip on his way to another woman's boudoir. It's sickening, and worse--un-Hawksian.

That, in the end, is what's left over from The Crowd Roars, this antagonistic relationship to the groupies of the racing circuit, their slavish devotion arousing the self-hating drivers' contempt. As one who's known and loved rock groupies as a youth, I sneer at the misogynistic sneering of these Hawks racers!

Still, I like Red Line gallons more than Hatari! For one thing, most people are on the same page, i.e. American and able to tap the Hawksian esprit d'corp. The one foreign accent here belongs to Mariana Hill--as a yeh-yeh vivant French racing groupie--but it works because she's actually American, a member of the Actor's Studio, and a classic example of what I meant earlier about American actors doing foreign accents being better than foreigners speaking English as far as overlapping dialogue. Another, there are more girls. A lot more girls than in Hatari, and way better looking. But mainly it's because the boys aren't terrorizing any animals. They're not exactly doing anything heroic, just racing around in circles, but they're hurting only themselves, their tires, and eventually the ozone layer.

Like Hatari, the film operates in a day-night cycle, with nights at the motel and its nearby restaurant / tavern owned by Lindy (Holt). These bar scenes could have been a heart and soul to the film, but Hawks dulls them with some terrible royalty-free country-tinged electric rock, and way too-man weird-looking (presumably) real-life racing figures. Lindy talks about knocking down a wall in her place, to make room for a band and dancing, now that Holly (Gail Hire)--a recent 'racing widow' dating Caan before swapping with Gabbi for Dan (Skip Ward)--has become a partner. Got all that? What the film really needs though, more than a rock band or a knocked-down wall, or a new cast, is a rewrite. There's no Leigh Brackett or Charles MacArthur or Jules Furthman or Ben Hecht to add the right sense of wit. Asking a guy you're having a one-night stand with to: "tell me about the other girls" is an example of the kind of numb-nuts dialogue any of the four would have tweaked to be witty and wild and sharp and alert, cutting through the layers of crap instead heaping them on. Even Hawks might have changed it to "Who was the girl, Steve?" instead of "tell me about the other girls" --i.e. acidly curious about why he's such a shit, vs. a blank Westworld automaton eager to take notes of all the geisha-like submissive states that please her prospective new beau. As I wrote awhile back about The Crowd Roars, one came away realizing that Anne Dvorak and Joan Blondell were teaching not only Cagney about women, but Hawks as well. But in this film one gets the impression he forgot all over again, but no girl present was up to the challenge.

And as always with Hawks, music is more than just a lull in the action, it's as essential to the bonding of the group as cigarettes (though there are but few of those this time), pouring drinks (again less emphasis than usual with Hawks), and sitting down to dinner at restaurant tables where you know everyone in the place on a first name basis, including the owner/waitress. But then there's the fake band playing fake 'rock' (ripping sax solo and no sax player, drummer barely even hitting his skins, etc--no relation whatever to the music) and the dancing all starts to resemble some terrible AIP beach party freak-out. 

Far better use is made of motel patio pool and a Pepsi machine, the strip of rooms and lights on the pool all paint a very vivid and familiar portrait to anyone who's ever been drunk at a motel and been out trying to find the ice machine while seeing double and getting picked up by a girl you hope is not a prostitute or a shakedown honeytrap. Gabbi comes onto Caan out there while he's getting a Pepsi and it's a groovy scene. Gabbi's supposed to be Dan's girl, so why is she pouring it on? 

It doesn't make sense but what does? And Holly thinks she's unlucky, a kind of black widow of the race track, so wants to avoid Dan's love so she doesn't jinx him. The team owner's tomboy daughter (Laura Devon) champions the towheaded oaf played by John Robert Crawford (he seems way too big and heavy for a racer, like a 200 pound jockey), who throws her over as soon as he wins a single race. But don't worry, though they went on one date and he blew her off after winning his first big race, she goes running to his hospital bed after he's back on the bottom. It's sickening, the kind of thing Hawks never stooped to before.

Hawks' films at their best offer a utopian ideal of professional competence and stalwart support that is tested against terrible danger. But in the comedies that stalwart support gives way in the wake of a wild woman and the existential terror of sex, with death revealed below like a trapdoor opening to Hades. The same mythic problems of his comedy muddles his latter adventures, like Red Line 7000; the casting, usually so spot-on with Hawks, seems here culled wholesale from a Where the Boys Are post-spring break yard sale. There's a feeling Hawks didn't rehearse them too much; that they didn't know each other that well before being thrown into a scene. And Hire is a real liability. The great Ed Howard sums up Hire's performance eloquently, getting at the fundamental problem of later Hawks, implying he was losing his Svengali ability to turn normal girls into 'Hawksian women' with deep, sexy voices, which for Hire failed though Hawks didn't seem to notice:  "Hire's attempt at Bacall's distinctive, sexy low voice is simply embarrassing and awkward, and any scene with her is unintentionally hilarious just because of how stilted and awful her performance is. How could Hawks, always justly acclaimed for the quality of the performances he could coax out of nearly anyone, have thought this was acceptable?" 

Personally, her awful performance doesn't bother me that much (I just fast forward past her song), and more than Bacall she seems to be imitating Paula Prentiss in Man's Favorite Sport? who does a kind of playful take-off on the Hawksian woman. That was fine because it was true to Prentiss' own persona, and done with real affection. With Hire and the other kids though, they either need more rehearsal time, a decent script, decent sets, or all of the above. James Caan's whole thing of how he only wants to sleep with virgins and not any 'second hand' stuff seems like a problem made up by a man who was pushing 70 in the age before Viagra, angry at his libido for giving out right before the arrival of "the pill." Caan's obsessive Victorian era jealousy leads to a fight with Skip Ward (Hank in Night of the Iguana, where he was perfectly cast since he was supposed to be a sincere dimwit), the only guy who's not an ass, and as a result Hire goes to see him and his new girlfriend, a sexy French racing enthusiast who first shagged the repulsive cornfed oaf. That's life, man, but just seeing Hire there sends Caan into a fury. And we're somehow supposed to care? Robert Mitchum he isn't. 

I mention Mitchum of course because the presence of Charlene Holt (right) made me think of El Dorado, again with Caan, made (hard to believe) the following year. There the the star wattage of both Wayne and Robert Mitchum boosted her own charm level considerably; as their "shared" girl (she says she's more than enough for both of them --we believe her) she plays off their grounded energy marvelously, never trying to steal a scene or do more than her natural-if-limited talent allows. Here there's not a watt to be found for Holt to light up with, and the problem is Hawks doesn't know it. He's forgotten what's important as far as where to point the camera when it's not on the race track and when to recognize a scene is dead and either rewrite it, recast it, or cut it altogether. Wayne could have reminded him, Leigh Bracket would know too and only they probably had the clout to at that moment.

Luckily, there's the racing to save it: unlike so many racing movies, thanks to distinct color coding you can always tell which car is whose and what they're doing to each other, especially as the furious Caan tries to run Skip Ward into the wall. But the thing is, the shots between drinks or drinks between shots are undone since there's no male group camaraderie (only competition) though there's some scenes with the girls bonding by themselves (they're never catty or competitive, even when dating each other's 'second hand' cast-offs), there's not nearly enough drinking or smoking.

Maybe that's the key to good Hawks morale - take away the booze and the tobacco and the coolness dissipates to nothing. Maybe that's why Hawks returned to the western for his last two films, thus doubling his western output. Hard to believe he'd only made two up to that point, and that they were two of the genre's best -- RED RIVER and RIO BRAVO. 

Why they're the best has something to do with loyalty and a code of honor deeper than Fordian military school blarney and sentimental fascism, but when that current of loyalty is undercut or misused in a Hawks film, the whole enterprise begins to drift loose. It's a problem we men in general have, this weird thing where as soon as a girl comes into our lives we try to make her into our mother and then feel suffocated by what we've projected, desperately looking for a way out of a cage we're too numb to realize we built around ourselves and doesn't really exist, and so we cage ourselves twice over by trying to escape her all over again.

But Howard, most of us left this cage, long ago... the marshall came and took Joe Burdett, and we moved out of the jail back to the comfort of the hotel. We don't even pass out cigars anymore. We don't, because there's no 'where' to go once you're everywhere at once. Now the only aspect of our lives we can't duplicate with an image, a keyboard and a mouse is that feminine vice clamp flytrap magnet that pulls us ever inwards towards our projector eye self. To not blaze away from its gravity with as much horsepower as we can cram under that mortal hood takes raw courage; every second we don't press that pedal down is a victory. As Tom Waits sang- "If you get far enough away / you'll be on your way back home." Racing around in an endless oval, these maniacs avoid that risk, kind of - they don't go home, but never get far enough away from it, either, or even see a single sight. If only there was a reason for winning  that boiled down to something more than a junky's fear of withdrawal, a fear strong enough to conquer even his fear of death... or intimacy.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic read! Real men running away from something


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