For Reel


El Dorado (1967)
August 13, 2017, 1:09 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Howard Hawks
3.5 Stars
El DoradoThe second in a loose trilogy of late Howard Hawks films pitting a crusty sheriff against outlaws, El Dorado is a bizarrely languid western—according to TCM, when Robert Mitchum asked Hawks what the story would be, Hawks replied that the story is simply that he and John Wayne are cowboys. Indeed, that’s largely what the film amounts to, however the cast of characters is engaging enough that their interactions are consistently appealing. As is typical of Hawks, the film is about the professionalism and efficiency of its men, with James Caan’s shortcomings as a marksman being overcome with a sawed-off shotgun so as to not interfere with his heroism. Wayne’s dealings with Mitchum’s drunken behavior similarly rests on a sense of duty—the hangover concoction given to Mitchum is not so much a tool to ease his vice, but rather one to allow him to perform. The comedy is often too broad, including a shamefully outdated scene of Caan doing an impression of a Chinese man, but nonetheless the film reveals Hawks’ continued mastery of the “male bonding” genre.

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O. Henry’s Full House (1952)

Director(s): Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Henry King & Henry Koster
2 Stars
O Henry's Full HouseWhile living in New York, William Sydney Porter (pen name O. Henry) published over 300 short stories, many of those being churned out once a week for New York World Sunday Magazine. If many critics of the time regarded his writing as too-reliant on a gimmicky late plot twist (audiences, on the other hand, ate it up), his reputation has been rehabbed significantly in the last decades, with his sense of dramatic irony recognized as involving a dry, witty cynicism regarding life on the streets. 20th Century Fox would adapt five of O. Henry’s most famed stories for this portmanteau film in 1952, capping off the quintet with the classic “The Gift of the Magi.” Despite the talented cast and directors attached to the production, no one involved seems to arrive at what makes the author interesting—stories like “The Last Leaf” and “The Gift of the Magi” become overtly-sentimental and cute, translating none of the ache of the words on the paper. Ironically, only Howard Hawks’ “The Ransom of Red Chief” arrives at a tone befitting of O. Henry’s work—the sequence was so derided that it was cut from the theatrical release. Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, as a pair of deadpan kidnappers who hold an especially dangerous child for ransom, perform the comedic shadings of a sense of existential dread that O. Henry was particular good at. If it might be a stretch to refer to O. Henry as an author of dark comedies, the ground-level realism is of paramount importance in his writing, something that this adaptation of “The Gift of the Magi”, in particular, is missing entirely.



Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
January 31, 2016, 4:35 pm
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Director: Howard Hawks
5 Stars
Gentlemen Prefer BlondesWhen Andrew Sarris wrote of Hawksian masculinity, he described that men in Howard Hawks films are often measured by their work, with their method of seducing women almost irrelevant to how one conceives of their manhood. The women in Hawks films, then, are typically mysterious and distant–in fact, they often infantilize the men by acting as remarkably adept heterosexual males, most famously Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, then, is a remarkable detour for Hawks on the level of gender politics, foregrounding two impeccably strong women even before the opening credits have rolled. Not only are Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell framed side-by-side facing the camera–devouring every inch of the frame with their sequined gowns and seductive glances–but Tommy Noonan, as an audience member, is shown in brief moments to be a limp fish, his reaction shots comical in his utter powerlessness. This opening sequence marks Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as one of the essential feminist texts of the 1950s, a complete subversion of the sexual politics laid out by Laura Mulvey. As Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca analyzed, “By becoming active themselves, they make it impossible for men to act upon them.” The way that Hawks accomplishes the power of this sexual spectacle makes Lorelei Lee perhaps the defining character of Marilyn Monroe’s career in that it wisely exposed and subverted Monroe’s screen image. Lee, as Monroe was in many of her films, is fully in control of the fantasy she represents–she is not one to be fawned over, but one who creates the conditions in which she is desired.



The Big Sleep (1946)
June 25, 2015, 1:14 pm
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Director: Howard Hawks
4 Stars
The Big SleepAt about the halfway point of The Big Sleep, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is paid off by his employer and told to back off the case that he’s been following. He simply can’t. When asked why he keeps prolonging his involvement, he sighs, “Too many people told me to stop.” And so he presses on, even as gun-wielding mugs continue to emerge from the shadows, the newest pieces in a neverending web. The audience has an especially rough shake because, in addition to keeping track of an ever-growing cast of characters (including some who are spoken of but never seen), Marlowe keeps his distance. Predicting his next move is impossible. The film’s labyrinthine narrative is indeed one of its joys, but The Big Sleep makes a pretty convincing case that the plot simply doesn’t matter. In fact, there’s a murder that not even director Howard Hawks or Raymond Chandler (the author of the novel on which the film is based) can explain. It’s a film of moments and atmosphere, filled with irresistible one-liners and seductive glimpses of a salacious underworld. Bogart has the expected chemistry with Lauren Bacall, but some of the most enjoyable moments of the picture involve his dalliances with the other women who find themselves equally unable to resist his charms, including the naughty daughter of his employer (Martha Vickers, stealing the film only five minutes in) and the lusty proprietress of a bookstore (a young Dorothy Malone).



Red River (1948)
June 12, 2015, 1:29 pm
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Director: Howard Hawks
4.5 Stars
Red RiverEarly in Red River, Tom Dunson (John Wayne) claims a piece of land with a blatant disregard for its previous owner, suggesting that the man probably stole it from a Native American and therefore he has an equal right to take it for himself. He seems stubborn and foolish, but ultimately very “John Wayne” in the traditional sense–heroic and unbent in his will to keep pushing forward. Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn in the earliest scenes) stands by his surrogate father, only then fourteen years pass and Garth (now Montgomery Clift) has fought in the Civil War and the southern economy is spoiled by carpetbaggers from the north. In just over a decade, Dunson’s strong-armed form of self-governing seems like a relic from the past, only further amplified by his childish attacks at anyone who questions his authority. Red River is one of the great classic Hollywood films about the passing of the torch between generations, the surety of one’s offspring ultimately eclipsing them. It’s also, as James Agee pointed out, a terrifically “physical” movie–that is, one that so thoroughly creates the realism of a way of life and the efforts that were undertaken to make the cattle migration happen. Howard Hawks does this both through his obsession with showing the sheer physical force of the herd traversing land and water, as well as with some expertly conceived camera tricks that triple the number of cattle that were actually on hand.