Howard hawks: The Gray Fox

Howard Hawks embraced a similar code of professionalism and moral conduct in his films, but Hawks was unique in the 1930s and 1940s because he refused to be tied down to one studio and worked in nearly every genre imaginable, from westerns to musicals, always with remarkable success. As producer of most of the films he directed, he kept a tight rein on the shooting process to ensure that everything was completed on time and under budget. Known as “the Gray Fox” because of his prematurely gray hair, as well as his skills as producer and director, Hawks often said that the key to a good film was simply “three good scenes, and no bad ones.” After a brief apprenticeship in the silent cinema, he broke out in 1930 with The Dawn Patrol, one of the great wartime aviation dramas. In 1930, working for independent producer Howard Hughes from a screenplay by former newspaperman Ben Hecht, Hawks directed Scarface (though it was not released until 1932), one of the most brutal gangster films

of the early 1930s, loosely based on the life of Al Capone.

After directing one of the great World War II dramas, Air Force, in 1943, Hawks, with the help of his wife, “discovered” Lauren Bacall and cast her opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944). The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall was electric and carried over into real life; by 1946’s The Big Sleep, perhaps the finest hard-boiled detective film ever made, Bogart and Bacall were in the midst of a serious romance, much to Hawks’s displeasure (Bogart was married at the time, and Hawks, who had given Bacall the same nickname he used for his own wife, “Slim,” also had designs on the young actress). The intricate twists and double crosses in The Big Sleep, based on Raymond Chandler’s famous Philip Marlowe novel, were so complex that the screenwriters (novelist William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett) sent a telegram to Chandler, asking for clarification on a particular murder in the film. Chandler replied that he had “no idea” who Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe (right) gets had committed the crime, and the resulting

film is the drop on a stick-up man while Lauren Bacall, as a bewildering cross-hatch of murders, swindles, Vivian Sternwood, looks on with admiration in con games, and doubletalk that both mystifies and ste (1 946) enthralls the viewer.

As the war ended, Hawks embarked upon one of his most ambitious projects, Red River (1948), an epic western starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. The movie raised the western to a new level of sophistication, and Wayne’s brutal portrayal of a psychotic trail boss who will do anything to get his cattle to market surprised even John Ford, who saw the film and then told Hawks, “I didn’t know the s. o. b. could act”.’ Hawks’s films are all shot through with a sense of grace under pressure, a certain fatalism in human interactions, and the idea that “a man has to know his limitations.” In addition, Hawks pioneered the pre-feminist concept of the “Hawksian Woman,” a strong female protagonist who refuses to buckle under to men, is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, and operates smoothly in what Hawks clearly views as a man’s world.

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Howard hawks: The Gray Fox