RSS

Category Archives: Howard Hawks

The Big Sleep

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. (Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, 1950)

That quote from Chandler is a distillation of what he felt were the characteristics of the fictional private eye, and it’s a view that continues to endure. The reason for the popularity of this particular representation is understandable enough: not only does it portray the detective as the classical hero, it also allows the audience to identify with him, to see in him the kind of man they’d probably like to be themselves. Chandler’s knight errant Philip Marlowe has appeared on screen a number of times with varying degrees of success, but the incarnation that I, and I guess a lot of other people too, have the highest regard for is Humphrey Bogart’s take in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946).

Some aspects of the plotting of The Big Sleep are notoriously complicated – the story goes that screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, along with director Hawks, were so confused about who committed one of the murders that they contacted Chandler for clarification. Apparently, the author found himself similarly stumped. The thing is that the murders, motives and twists of the plot pile up so relentlessly that it does take a fair bit of concentration on the part of the viewer to keep up with it all. However, that’s not really the point of the movie and the basic thrust of the narrative is easy enough to follow in itself. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is the private detective engaged by the ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to take care of a blackmailer who is putting the squeeze on Carmen (Martha Vickers), the younger and wilder of his two daughters. In the course of his investigation, which rapidly descends into a murder case, Marlowe finds that the elder sister, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), appears to be tangled up in things too. Vivian’s a cooler, more composed customer than her sister, yet her involvement with a shady gambler, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), indicates that she too is keeping dangerous company. I’m not going to go into the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot here, firstly to avoid spoilers, and secondly because it will likely serve to do nothing more than confuse readers. Suffice to say the stories of General Sternwood’s two girls eventually dovetail and all the various plot strands are drawn together satisfactorily. Yet, as I said before, you don’t watch The Big Sleep just to find out who did what to whom, when and for what reason. This is truly one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination. As we follow Marlowe around a moody and threatening Los Angeles, we go on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the city. Even though the time is spent in the company of high rollers and the glamorous set, it’s all merely a glittering veneer for a world of pornography, drugs, deviance, betrayal and violence.

Vivian: I don’t like your manners.

Marlowe: And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

One of the great pleasures of The Big Sleep is the dialogue. Most of the memorable lines and passages, such as the little sample above, are lifted almost directly from the pages of Chandler’s novel. However, Brackett, Faulkner and Jules Furthman did have to make some alterations to turn in a workable script, both for storytelling reasons and to ensure the finished product was going to get past the Hays Office. Therefore, the more overt references to the unsavory nature of the blackmailer’s racket had to be toned down for example. The infamous production code is often criticized, and with good reason, for imposing draconian and logic-defying restrictions on what could be shown on the screen. The thing is though, a good deal could be implied if not directly stated, and clever writers could exploit this loophole. In a sort of perverse way, the very restrictiveness of the code meant that filmmakers were forced to be more creative in their efforts to circumvent it; I think The Big Sleep stands as an excellent example of this apparent paradox. The two houses in which much of the tale plays out are the Sternwood mansion and the home of Geiger, the blackmailer. Hawks and his crew succeed in bathing both locations in such an atmosphere of decadence and iniquity that it needs little imagination to appreciate the depravity lurking beneath the surface. Perhaps Hawks’ greatest triumph in the picture is the way he manages to ensure that style rises above substance throughout and he creates a crime story where the crimes and their resolution become secondary to our enjoyment of the ride through Chandler’s twilight world.

While The Big Sleep benefits enormously from a snappy script, strong source material and a first class director, what helps elevate it to true classic status is the casting. The second collaboration of Bogart and Bacall builds beautifully on the foundations already laid in To Have and Have Not. The movie took their on and off-screen courtship to new and more sophisticated levels, and the air fairly crackles whenever they share a scene. I think Bogart was born to play Marlowe, he perfectly encapsulates the weary nobility of Chandler’s creation like no other actor before or since. The part can be seen as an extension or refinement of Hammett’s Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, but there’s a greater sense of honour and less aggressive smugness this time. I already mentioned this in an earlier post, but Bogart’s delivery of his lines is perfect, so much so that it’s very hard to read the novel and not hear him saying the words. On the receiving end of much of Bogart’s wise-cracking, and pitching back every bit as good as she got, was Bacall. Watching her performance today, it’s hard to believe that Bacall wasn’t much past twenty years old when the movie was shot. There’s an air of assurance and worldliness about her that belies her years, the hard-boiled dialogue flowing smoothly as though from a woman who’d been around a long time and had seen all there was to see. In truth, the whole cast does excellent work, but the women in particular stand out. Martha Vickers is all coy treachery, and there are fine and memorable bit parts for Dorothy Malone and Sonia Darrin. Of the men, I feel Elisha Cook Jr deserves a mention for another of his characteristic turns as an unfortunate fall guy. I guess the only real weakness was John Ridgely, it’s not that he gives a poor performance but he never fully convinces as a dangerous mobster – having said that, he does get one fantastic send off.

The US R1 DVD of The Big Sleep contains two versions of the movie (as far as I know the R2 doesn’t offer this choice) – the preview version and the theatrical cut. I mention this mainly because there are some notable differences in the two cuts. I’m not going to laboriously list all the changes here, that information is readily available elsewhere online, but I will say that they change the feel of the movie significantly. In short, the preview cut is an altogether blander affair, although it helps to make the plot more comprehensible. The theatrical version is much more stylish, placing more emphasis on the Bogart/Bacall dynamic while sacrificing some of the narrative coherence. Personally, I far prefer the theatrical cut, and not just because it’s the more familiar of the two. While the preview version does offer more exposition, it throws the pacing off balance and fails to fully capitalize on the chemistry of the star pairing. It’s nice to have it available for comparison purposes but that’s about it for me. The transfer is reasonable enough, maybe not up there with the best that Warner Brothers have done in the past but it’s certainly not poor. The disc also offers a short feature on the differences between the versions of the movie, and is useful in giving an overview if you don’t feel inclined to watch both cuts all the way through. This movie and The Maltese Falcon helped cement Bogart’s image as the archetypical private eye. Others have played the part of Marlowe, and others have taken on the role of various private detectives, but Bogart nailed it. The film as a whole, can be viewed as a film noir (although of the lighter variety), a crime/detective story, or simply as an outstandingly well-crafted piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. It comes most highly recommended.

 
22 Comments

Posted by on January 9, 2013 in 1940s, Film Noir, Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart

 

Tags: , ,

El Dorado

Poster

A while back I mentioned directors remaking their own movies, citing Hitchcock and Walsh at the time. However, they’re not the only ones; Howard Hawks reworked the same material that he originally used for Rio Bravo no less than three times. In this case, I think the law of gradually diminishing returns applies – although I’m aware that there are those who might disagree. Hawks’ second trip to the well resulted in El Dorado (1966), a film that improved on its predecessor in one or two ways but ultimately remains a less satisfying work. Ok, it’s not a straight remake of Rio Bravo since it opens the story up a little more in terms of people and locations but it does use the same core situation and characters. There’s the tough professional, the drunk, the old coot and the green kid all holed up in a dingy jailhouse and under siege.

Cole Thornton (John Wayne) is a professional gunman who hires his skills out to the highest bidder. After accepting an invitation from one of the parties involved in a range war he discovers that the job would mean facing off against an old friend. Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) is the lawman caught between the feuding factions, and it’s his presence that dissuades Thornton from signing any contract. However, before Thornton can take his leave an accidental shooting leads to an ambush that results in his getting a bullet lodged perilously close to his spine. When he returns some months later he finds that Harrah has taken to the bottle in the wake of an ill-judged love affair. To make matters worse, the nearly incapacitated sheriff is in no position to cope with the ongoing range war that’s about to come to a head. Therefore, it’s left to Thornton to take charge of a rapidly deteriorating situation provoked by an attempted murder and the subsequent arrest of one of the feud’s main players. Up to this point the plot has its own reasonably unique slant. However, once Thornton, Harrah et al find themselves barricaded in the jail it’s Rio Bravo all over again. Where the original had a gentle humour, a gradually built sense of camaraderie and a frisson of sexual tension (thanks to Angie Dickinson), El Dorado rushes things a bit and lays the humour on too thick. Actually, it’s the comedic elements that do the most damage in my opinion. Much of this is based around the character of Mississippi (James Caan) – in particular, his incompetence around firearms and his questionable taste in hats. What’s worse, though, is a cartoonish fight between Thornton and a drunken Harrah that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Three Stooges short. The climax is also disappointing, the pyrotechnics of Rio Bravo being replaced with a contrived showdown that’s not much more than a damp squib.

Even legends need a little support sometimes - John Wayne & Robert Mitchum in El Dorado

In a sense, if you’ve seen one Howard Hawks picture you’ve seen them all. The same themes crop up again and again, namely professionalism and loyalty to one’s comrades. El Dorado is no exception in this respect, we have the tight knit group defying the odds and getting moral support from no-nonsense women. However, there’s a certain flatness to El Dorado, both in the visuals and the reworking of a tried and tested story. The areas where it does score over Rio Bravo are a few of the performances. I can’t honestly fault Dean Martin’s Dude, but Mitchum does bring more weight to his take on the broken down drunk if only because he’s Robert Mitchum. The biggest improvement is the casting of James Caan as the young man taking his first steps in the presence of the big boys. Although the forced jokiness of his character does tend to grate a little after a while he is certainly an actor, something that couldn’t be said for Ricky Nelson. Wayne, of course, is Wayne and it matters not a jot whether he’s playing the sheriff or the hired hand, his star quality ensures that he dominates proceedings. It is interesting to note though that the plot device concerning the bullet in his back was a convenient way to make allowances for the effects of the passage of time and the major health problems he had endured. As for the others, let’s just say that Arthur Hunnicutt, Charlene Holt and Ed Asner were no match for Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson and Claude Akins. While I’m drawing comparisons, I might just add that Nelson Riddle’s score isn’t a patch on Tiomkin’s – although the title song played over Olaf Wieghorst’s paintings is very memorable.

El Dorado got a 2-disc release not long ago in the US as part of Paramount’s Centennial Collection. I never bothered to pick that one up so I can’t comment on the picture quality, but I do know it offered a variety of extras. The old UK R2 that I have presents the film 1.78:1 anamorphic and it’s not a bad transfer. The image could, I suppose, be a little sharper but there’s really not much to complain about. Image quality aside, the big difference between the old and new releases relates to bonus features, with the earlier disc boasting nothing but a theatrical trailer. Reading back through this, I might seem a little hard on El Dorado. The truth is it’s not at all a bad western and makes for entertaining viewing – the problem is that it’s damned near impossible not to compare it to Rio Bravo, and that’s where it comes up short.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1960s, Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Westerns

 

Rio Bravo

Poster

“A game-legged old man and a drunk. Is that all you got?”

“That’s what I’ve got.”

When Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne) hands that laconic reply to the question from his friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), it more or less sums up what the whole film is trying to say. Anybody who has ever seen a few Howard Hawks movies will know just how much store he set by the idea of professionalism. The small group of self-contained professionals is a recurrent theme in his work, and Rio Bravo may be the best example of this.

I won’t go into the plot in great detail here since it is, frankly, a little thin for a film with a running time creeping up towards two and a half hours. Chance arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder and must hold him in the town jail until the Marshal arrives. All the time, the town is under a virtual state of siege from the hired gunmen of Joe’s brother, Nathan (John Russell). Throw in a typically Hawksian romance between Chance and a poker playing drifter called Feathers (Angie Dickinson), and that’s it. However, this is really a character driven movie, and the plot functions mainly to provide the necessary circumstances to allow the characters to interact. It is this interaction that elevates Rio Bravo to the status of one of the great westerns. I’d challenge anyone to sit through this and not feel for these people by the end; more than that, you actually get the sense of coming to know them. Think about Chance’s coolly competent lawman who’s reduced almost to an awkward schoolboy when confronted with a sassy, attractive woman; Dude’s (Dean Martin) drunken deputy who must face down his personal demons if he’s ever to retrieve his self-respect from the whiskey bottle where he left it; and let’s not forget Stumpy (Walter Brennan), the trigger-happy cripple whose cackling and complaining adds so much warmth and humour to it all.

Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne).

John Wayne gives one of his most relaxed performances in this film and while this has been criticised by some, I think it fits the pace of the piece. The acting is understated and just plain likable from a man whose talents many are quick to criticise and slow to acknowledge. It’s hard to imagine any other actor playing this part with the natural confidence displayed by Wayne. Dean Martin’s Dude remains convincing as the character gradually transforms himself from a pitiful rummy fishing for drink money in spittoons into a man proud enough to enter by the front door once again. When the doubts and temptations assail him and threaten to haul him back into oblivion, you can’t help rooting for him. The great Walter Brennan has a high time with his role as Stumpy and manages to steal nearly every scene he appears in. The only weak performances come from Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson. But if you remember that Dickinson was meant to provide eye candy, Nelson was there to draw in contemporary youth, and that the real focus was on Chance, Dude and Stumpy then it doesn’t seem so important. 

While most western directors liked to get out into the wide open spaces, Hawks opted to shoot the entire film within the confines of the town. This has the effect of creating both a claustrophobic tension and a comfortable coziness. In keeping with the theme of professional lawmen, the film itself exudes a slick professional feel. The maturity of Hawks direction can be seen in the first five minutes of the movie, when the status of the main characters and the basis of the plot are presented clearly and explicitly without one word of dialogue being spoken. The script by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett may develop at a leisurely pace, but it’s always logical and it’s packed full of memorable lines. Mention should also be made of the score by Dimitri Tiomkin; it complements the action perfectly and the use of the Deguello is yet another of the joys the film has to offer. 

Didn't spill a drop. Dude (Dean Martin) fights off the temptation.

I can’t finish this piece without referring to the fact that Rio Bravo was Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon. Hawks took exception to the idea of a lawman running around town desperately seeking help from a scared and apathetic citizenry. This was anathema to a man who worshipped at the altar of the professional ethic. To Hawks, a man ought to play the cards dealt to him regardless of the odds stacked against him. Now I have no interest in discussing the politics, either implicit or explicit, of these two films but I do find myself drawn more often to Rio Bravo. While I like and admire High Noon, it concentrates on the selfish fears of men where Rio Bravo celebrates the camaraderie and warmth of humanity – I know which I find more appealing. 

For a long time Rio Bravo was only available on DVD on a bare-bones edition. Last year saw the release of a 2-disc SE with a commentary and lots of special features. Initial reports were that the transfer was significantly darker than the old version and I was wary of the upgrade. However, I eventually decided to take a chance and was pleasantly surprised. The new transfer is darker but then the old one was too washed out and faded anyway. It’s not perfect but I do feel it’s an improvement on the original and I have no regrets whatsoever about purchasing it. Maybe Rio Bravo isn’t the best western ever made but, if not, it’s only a few paces behind. Over the years, I’ve probably viewed this film more than any other and I continue to enjoy it – that’s as good a recommendation as I can offer.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on March 24, 2008 in 1950s, Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Westerns

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 403 other followers