He was born in 1898 and died of a heart attack in 1985 and he directed his first films in the early 1930s, cheap Westerns based on novels by Zane Grey. Before that he worked as an assistant to the likes of Victor Fleming and Josef von Sternberg, and for one of the very few female directors of the time, Lois Weber, whom Hathaway rated highly. He had his major breakthrough, both commercially and artistically, in 1935 when he made The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (a character study about British colonial officers in India) and Peter Ibbetson (a strange, eerie love story which was much praised by André Breton and the French surrealists) and he had two major phases in his career: the post-war semi-documentary thrillers, beginning with The House on 92nd Street (1945), and the late Westerns in the 1960s including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), the amusingly strange 5 Card Stud (1968) and the first version of True Grit (1969). On the whole he did almost 70 films.
Hathaway was a wealthy man, perhaps you could say he was financially independent, but unlike most major Hollywood filmmakers he didn't become his own man, neither did he start his own company nor did he produce his own films. He was a company man, first at Paramount and then, most famously, at Fox (or 20th Century Fox). But this seemed to suit him just fine. Being a company director meant that you in most cases were given a script by the studio and asked to film it, and you had to make the best of it. However, after you had been given the assignment, you would have considerable freedom to go about it as you saw fit, at least if you were somebody like Hathaway. At Fox he worked for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, a committed cinephile (yes, cinephiles were not invented by the French New Waveers), and according to Hathaway, Zanuck: "had a half dozen directors that he trusted, Joe Mankiewicz had a completely free hand, I had a free hand, Henry King had a free hand. Zanuck never bothered people that he had faith in."
The fact that he didn't chose his own material or wrote his own script might be a reason why people have had problems finding thematic consistencies in his films (maybe there aren't any). I'm not yet in a position to say something final about this, that takes more time than I've yet spent with his films. However two things are worth pointing out and that is a recurring theme of revenge, and, especially, an interest in deep and unusual friendships (both these themes comes together in True Grit, to name one example). It can be friendship between an American news photographer and a Burmese orphan, as in China Girl (1943), a friendship between a naive country girl and a wise old man from the city, as in The Shepherd on the Hills (1940, which also has the revenge theme), a friendship between a lost young man and a dangerous hoodlum, as in Johnny Apollo (1940). What is also noteworthy are the strong passions involved. When Hathaway made The Lives of a Bengal Lancer he wanted it to be a love story between two men (played by Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone), but this passion can be between men and women as well as between men. These interests in friendship and love is I would argue a major reason why so many of his films that are, on the surface, action films become more like intimate character studies. It should also be said that he worked a lot on the scripts he was given, changing and tweaking them, and felt his way through, to make the best of the material. To this should be added that he had a very good feeling for tempo and pacing. (Pacing is something that I feel is a neglected area of discussion, but for me it is a key aspect of a film and can be the difference between a film being great or just good, or even bad.)
But Hathaway was primarily a visual artist. When he is interviewed he speaks more about the images, and when he mentions influences it is Vermeer, Rembrandt and Brueghul (not sure which one) that comes up, not writers. He also said at one point that one of the first things he did when preparing a film was to "choose a cameraman to go with the style I want to set for the film". And he was very particular about what he wanted. He would sometimes wait, and hold up the production for days, until the light was exactly right for a particular shot, dismissing angry calls from the producers. He worked with a few trusted cinematographers, at Paramount with the great Charles Lang Jr. and at Fox several times with the equally great Joseph MacDonald. He also did several films with Lucien Ballard, so it is clear that he only worked with the best. He also worked his crew hard. One technician said that "Hathaway seems to be everywhere at once, and does not recognize that the impossible exists, or that there are 120 degrees of sunshine. He drives on, possessed with a fury of direction." And Hathaway himself said that "I'd say my greatest directional strength is my stubbornness: I know what I want and I go after it."
His style is very dynamic, I'm almost tempted to say organic, and his style has been rather consistent from the 1930s and onwards. (But he isn't immune to his surroundings. His films before the second world war has a different texture than those after the war, which is partly explained by the fact that he left Paramount and Charles Lang Jr. and went to Fox.) He works with a lot of depth of field, little camera movements, and very rich, dense images. Often the camera will be at a low angle, capturing the whole of the room, including the ceiling. There is always something in the foreground that gives the shot a 3D-like effect, and he loves shadows and frames within the frame. He preferred location shooting to the studio, and he was always interested in documentaries. That he should be a central part of Louis de Rochemont's efforts of making films directly from the news headlines and from the files of FBI and other government agencies is not surprising. And they're very good, especially 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and Call Northside 777, but arguably the best is Diplomatic Courier (1952), mostly set in Trieste, Italy, and with Patricia Neal in a great role. (For that one Hathaway himself did not go to Trieste, the locations were shot by a second unit and then skilfully integrated with the rest, which is ironic since Hathaway usual shot his own second unit stuff...) And his interest in locations and documentary also means that the scenes are taking place in this world, where passers-by, bystanders and ordinary persons can be seen going about their own business behind, besides or even in front of the main characters. If a set has a window you can always see what goes on outside that window. Bazin suggested that film is like a window, but sometimes the window also has a window, and this is one example of how Hathaway works with frames within the frame.
This style of his is so good that it makes a minor film like Rawhide (1951) almost a masterpiece, just because of the precision of each shot. It is set in a little stagecoach station in the middle of nowhere, and it had a good chance of being stale and theatrical but it is nothing of the sort. The staging, compositions and framing make the picture come alive, and it is yet another example of effective use of frames within the frame. There are three mirrors on one wall and these mirrors are used on several occasions to make the shots more interesting and exciting. So Hathaway's greatest strength lies in the indoor compositions, but he is very good with the exteriors as well. His chosen technique is to create a "room", even if it is in the middle of the prairie, and make an outdoor shot as dynamic and forceful as indoors. (Allegedly Orson Welles complained that Hathaway was more interested in creating striking images than telling a story.)
Rawhide does also work as an example of another consistency in Hathaway's work and that is violence and terror. There's a lot of that in his films, and you can never be sure that characters will survive. In fact after having seen a few of his films you always expect the worst. It is a tense world that is being portrayed, often populated with duplicitous and/or sadistic people, like Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), kicking an old lady in a wheelchair down a staircase, in Kiss of Death. (Spoilers ahead) It is telling that when Hathaway made Fourteen Hours (1951), a film about a guy who threatens to commit suicide by jumping from a tall building, Hathaway wanted to end the film with the guy killing himself. But the head of the studio said no because his daughter had just committed suicide that way.
When Hathaway made True Grit, a film that was important to him, he wanted to give it a fairytale flavour, in style, diction and acting, and despite his fondness for realism and documentaries, Hathaway also had an otherworldly side to him. Peter Ibbetson is the obvious example, but there are many films which have elements of this, often by the use of colour like in Niagara (1953). That fantastic film is shot in a dreamy haze and sometimes with an abstraction as if it was an avant-garde film. It might prove Welles right, that Hathaway was more interested in images than story, or perhaps that when given material that was below par he tried to ignore it, instead experimenting with lights and colour and angles, letting his visuals become the story in a sense.
I haven't spend much time discussing individual films, but there's enough to say about them for a whole book, so I'll leave that to another day. I just want to highlight one particular sequence, which is from The Shepherd on the Hills, one of Hathaway's best and most unusual films. It is a rural drama (I suppose the genre would be "western" but that is not very helpful) and in it an old man comes to a tense village, to return to his old home he left many years ago. After he has got the keys he walks to the house, through the forest and over a field, and then he enters it. He walks around, he looks in drawers and boxes, he plays a little tune on the piano, re-entering his past in a way. The sequence has no dialogue, just a little music and it is very long, and it is very beautiful. Hathaway is mostly discussed as an action director, and he did magnificent action sequences, but this sequence is actually more typical of him. Despite his reputation for being a mean and angry man, he made films that were tender and sincerely felt, and this, together with his mastery of compositions, makes him a great filmmaker and what I call an "external auteur". I'm elaborating this concept in my thesis but if you don't care to wait until it is published I'll just say that I make a distinction between external auteurs and internal auteurs. An external auteur is somebody who makes films with quality and consistency but has no personal presence in the film, while an internal auteur is almost always within the film, as a voice, as an actor, as a character, or as an autobiographical ghost. Bergman, Ekman, Welles, Fassbinder and Eastwood are among my examples of internal ones.
There have been some appreciations of Hathaway's work. Here for example is the British writer, critic and filmmaker Basil Wright, who wrote like this about Hathaway in the late 1930s: "Note first the verisimilitude of the settings, second, the modest but unerring rightness of all his camera angles, and third, the sense of ebb and flow of passion between two tough but inarticulate humans." Wright was only talking about the film Spawn of the North (1938) which I haven't seen, but that quote is true about most of Hathaway's films. And he did appreciate his own worth. He himself once said: "There's no reason except me for The Sons of Katie Elder to be as good a picture it was."
So where would I place Hathaway among American filmmakers? He is not exceptional like, say, Anthony Mann or Vincente Minnelli, but for me he compares favourably to directors like Frank Capra, John Huston, George Stevens or Elia Kazan. It would be interesting to do a detailed comparison between Hathaway and another Fox company man, Henry King. For now I'd suggest that King is more nostalgic and more ambitious than Hathaway, for good and bad. Hathaway has himself said that he was influenced by Marshall Neilan and Victor Fleming, and the combination of von Sternberg and Fleming (and script writer Jules Furthman) in Hathaway's early days means that he was moving in the same circles as Howard Hawks, but they're much different. Hawks is a more distinct and obviously idiosyncratic filmmaker, and more interested in characters and dialogue than Hathaway. Hathaway and John Ford also makes for an interesting compare and contrast. It could reasonably be argued that when Hathaway is at his best he resembles Ford, but is not at all as good. With Ford you get a whole world, with Hathaway you only get great films.
Since I wrote the piece above my appreciation for Hathaway has only increased, and now I have seen all of his films except four of his first B-westerns. I have also written several more articles about him, linked to below.
There are several quotes from Hathaway above, and they are from the interview book I mentioned above, Henry Hathaway(2001), edited by Rudy Behler, and from another book of interviews, Just Making Movies (2005).
The review by Basil Wright is from The Spectator.
All articles about Hathaway I wrote after the one above:
If ever there was a visual expression of injustice it is this haunting image from Call Northside 777 of a tiny immigrant woman scrubbing a massive floor, and speaking with a combination of pride, anger and sadness: