Search hard enough and you can find instances of fancy camerawork and editing among the scores of films that made up Howard Hawk’s five-decade career. But search for them you must, because this most direct of directors generally shunned film technique that called attention to itself.
When it came to making use of the extravagant filmic means at a director’s beck and call, Hawks — who was born 117 years ago this week — was no Welles or Hitchcock, Kubrick or Scorsese; yet he was their equal, and in many instances, their better.
From the silent era to the Sixties, Hawks prided himself a no-nonsense storyteller and, above all, a professional moviemaker on whom any studio could trust to deliver. The genre was of little importance: be it a Western, a crime story, a war tale, a musical, a historical epic, a screwball comedy or what have you, Hawks was there to get the job done. And nine times out of ten, he did it with consummate grace and panache, albeit with a consciously unadorned style.
A cursory account of his classic work reveals Hawk’s unmatched ability to find a comfort zone in a staggering range of genres. Films like Scarface (gangster); Only Angels Have Wings (action-drama); Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday (screwball comedies); The Big Sleep (film noir); To Have and Have Not (adventure-romance); Red River and Rio Bravo (Westerns) all bear his imprint: crafted with artless skill and embedded with a definable artistic personality .
Listen to how his actors speak, tumbling over each other’s lines; how they elegantly yet decisively maneuver within the frame; how the plainspoken technique works perfectly to propel the story. Watch a mere handful of these films and Hawk’s inimitable attitude toward men and women, love and death, responsibility and relaxation unmistakably reveals itself.
Hawks practiced a sly art. Loathing flash he nonetheless made sure his films packed a punch. The excerpts below amply demonstrate his deceptively simple yet commanding craft. Directors of tomorrow take note.
Bringing Up Baby
To Have and Have Not