Friday 29 June 2018

A summer break

Admittedly there is a lot to write about, from apparatus theory to the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, but I think I deserve a break so this is all you are going to get today. It is summer after all. But in two weeks there will be more. Well, two weeks and a day.

Friday 15 June 2018

Summing up Hathaway

It was watching Diplomatic Courier (1952) that started my Henry Hathaway project. I saw it in 2011 and I thought it was so good that I immediately watched another Hathaway, and then another, and then my first post about Hathaway was published here that same year. Now I have come to the end of the project.

When I wrote the first post I had only watched about half of Hathaway's oeuvre but I wanted to watch everything he had ever directed because those I had seen were almost all good (even though Prince Valiant (1954) was disappointing) and it seemed plausible that the rest would also be good. If you discount aborted projects and those films he directed only parts of, like Airport (George Seaton 1970), he made 62 films. The first ten are short B-films (around 55 minutes long) and usually Westerns made from novels by Zane Grey. Of those ten I have now managed to see five, including his very first film, Heritage of the Desert (1932), and they are all surprisingly accomplished and confident, and prove that Hathaway was a natural. He did not have to grow in to being a good director, he was one from scratch. But the dialogue can be corny and the acting rather wooden at times, but Randolph Scott, who acted in most of them, is fine. Below he is with Sally Blane in Heritage of the Desert, and she is also good. (Judging by the film it seems Hathaway was quite smitten with her.)

From Now and Forever (1934) he only made full-length features and mostly with stars and big budgets. I have seen all of them now except his last, the blaxploitation film Hangup aka Super Dude (1974) which seems impossible to find. The last I got hold of was The Last Safari (1967), which seems to never have been released on DVD but of which I managed to get a version transferred from (I think) a VHS tape to a disc. I was correct in thinking that the rest of the films would be good too, they really are. A few were disappointing, like the aforementioned Prince Valiant or The Black Rose (1950) or Woman Obsessed (1960), but even those have redeeming factors and none is a complete failure.

He is an interesting guy, Hathaway. A traveller, adventurer and artist, a self-taught historian and art collector. In 1930 he travelled through India and apparently met everyone, including Gandhi, and this had a profound effect on his life. He was hardworking and a temperamental, mean sonofabitch on set, and he made films about friendship, honour and revenge, often quests in harsh environments. The films and his characters were almost always like him: tough, rough and straightforward. Having spent so much time with him, through the films and interviews and books about him or books in which he appears, I feel like I know him now. Obviously I do not, but it does something to you, spending so much time with an artist. It becomes difficult not to watch the films without a sense of personal connection, and a sense of belonging. When watching the films of Hathaway, even the poor ones, you do feel his presence. In the framing, in the sentiments, in the dialogue (which improved after the first years), in the overall decoupage, in the issues being discussed, in the general scope and trajectory of the stories.

A key concern in many of his films is ethics. One fine scene in You're in the Navy Now (1951) shows how a high-ranking officer is visiting a navy ship and as he is angry with the ship's performance he starts criticising a sailor on board. When the ship's captain hears what is going on he confronts the higher-ranking officer and says that if he is to shout at anybody it should be at him, the captain. The men on the boat are not responsible for its performance, it is he alone who has the responsibility, so attacking a sailor is wrong. Even if the sailor did something wrong it is still the responsibility of the captain. This is a powerful lesson in the ethics of leadership, an enactment of Harry Truman's "the buck stops here" if you will, on taking on the burden of responsibility. It is easy to read this as Hathaway's own belief.

Sometimes the ethical contests are between a human and another animal. Two fine examples:

In From Hell to Texas the main character reluctantly kills a man in self-defence. When he is about to leave he notices that the dead man's horse is looking at him. He returns the look, and they stand like that for a while, facing each other. Then the man unsaddles his own horse and puts his saddle on the dead man's horse and mounts it, as if trying to atone for having killed its owner by taking the dead man's place himself. (I have discussed this at greater length in my separate article about From Hell to Texas.)

The other example is The Last Safari, which is about a "great white hunter" who is searching for the elephant who killed his friend. He wants to kill the elephant in return. (Hathaway saw it as a version of Moby-Dick.) But in the end of the film, when the hunter finds the elephant, the two just stand there, face to face, looking at each other. Finally the man fires his gun in the air, the spell is broken and man and elephant go their separate ways.

In both films the other animal has the moral authority, and is staring down the human, forcing him to do right. I find this very moving.

Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith

I have come across many stories about Hathaway, some of him being so hard on set that people ran away in tears or promised never to work with him again. But also of his generosity, work ethic and compassion. One story I particularly like is from the making of Nevada Smith (1966). It stars Steve McQueen, and he looked up to Hathaway as a father-figure. Hathaway was usually on set before anybody else but McQueen made it his mission to be there before him, as a sign of respect, and when Hathaway showed up McQueen would already be there, saying "Where have you been, sir?" I find this, too, very moving.


It often happens that two filmmakers are put together, to compare and contrast. The one filmmaker to which it feels natural to compare Hathaway is John Huston, and not just for both of them being cigar-smoking, temperamental adventurers. They have things in common too as filmmakers, such as subject matters and the kind of people that interested them (like gangsters, adventurers and gamblers), and they did not make comedies and very rarely domestic dramas. Historically speaking, Huston is held in much greater regard yet personally I prefer Hathaway. Judging from film to film I think Hathaway is the stronger one. This might be difficult to explain but it feels like Huston has more of an analytic interest in his characters whereas Hathaway has a personal interest in them, as if he is one with them and not just observing them. I also think that Hathaway has a more coherent visual concept whereas Huston often seems to be trying things out just to try them out. One is not better than the other here, neither with regards to character or visual style, I just mention it as two ways in which they are different. But another difference is, I believe, a flaw in Huston. Hathaway is less explicit about the themes and messages of the individual film. A character in a film by Huston is much more likely to quite literally explain to the audience what the film is about than anybody in a film by Hathaway. The latter seems to either be more relaxed in his art or more trusting of the audience. If so, that trust is, or should be, reciprocated.

Rod Steiger and Joan Collins in Seven Thieves (1960)

Here are 15 films that I think are Hathaway's best (at least as of writing):

Souls at Sea (1937)
The Real Glory (1939)
Johnny Apollo (1940)
The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)
Home in Indiana (1944)
The Dark Corner (1946)
Call Northside 777 (1948)
Down to the Sea in Ships (1949)
Rawhide (1951)
Fourteen Hours (1951)
Diplomatic Courier (1952)
Niagara (1953)
From Hell to Texas (1958)
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
Nevada Smith (1966)

That is a good spread, year-wise, and narrowing it down to 15 means many good ones are left out. But it is a place to start for those who have seen nothing yet.

Links to all my other articles about Hathaway:

The story about McQueen, Hathaway and Nevada Smith has been told in several biographies, and the "Where have you been, sir"-quote is from My Husband, My Friend: A Memoir written by Neile McQueen Toffel.

Friday 1 June 2018

Hawks and Foucault

This Wednesday, May 30, was the birthday of Howard Hawks (1896), who I regard as the greatest of all filmmakers. That is as good a reason as any to post this, something I wrote several years ago as part of a longer academic essay for a Hawks-project. Nothing came of it but now you get to read this part at least.

 Utopia and Heterotopia 

In Howard Hawks’s films there is usually very little sense of the larger world. There are exceptions. Contemporary politics is a part of His Girl Friday (1940) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949) has an element of social critic, or at least satire. In Rio Bravo (1959) the main character is the sheriff in the town. But in general the world is kept at bay. (In El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), the other two films of the trilogy in which Rio Bravo is the first, the characters are not driven by any kind of duty to society.) It could be said that one aspect of Hawks’s films is escape. His characters are usually running away from society, their escape is both from the bourgeois world and from themselves, from their own pasts, and this is true for the men as well as many of the women. The groups that his films so often are centred around can be seen as being made up of drifters who have built their own communities, with their own rules and ethics. Rio Bravo for example is about four men who are more or less confined to the jail in their small town, since they are threatened by gunmen, but there is a sense that they are not just hiding in the jail because of the gunmen but that they are hiding from the world in general, and that Nathan Burdette (the leader of the gang) is just a symptom of this world. But it is not just the groups. The films which do not have these self-contained groups instead have individuals who are trying to escape, individuals who also tend to be self-contained, such as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946).

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep

So what they are escaping from can be summarised as the conventions and restrictions of ordinary life, and that includes marriage and family life. It is easy to imagine that Hawks’s characters would succumb to existential boredom if they were not in their self-contained worlds. They could not live in a safe and controlled environment; they must live with the elements, putting themselves at risk. In this self-created world they are working together, being dependent on one another, and are fearless in the face of danger.

Related to this need for escape and self-sufficiency is a utopian element, in that the spaces created by these “escaped” men and women are successful havens, where they are among equals. Hatari! (1962) in particular has this feeling of a perfect world, where people from all over the world come together. It is like a United Nations camp, with people from France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, the US (including a Native American) working in Tanzania. Hatari! is also unusually happy, since the dangers of the outside world do not intrude at all, whereas in most other films by Hawks it might at any moment disturb, restrain or even kill you. One reason why Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is in many ways the quintessential Hawks film is because it has all of these things in such a pure form.


It is tempting to apply Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia when talking about Hawks’s films. Foucault describes heterotopias as “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted.” He calls them heterotopias because, unlike utopias, they do exist. He talks about various kinds of spaces that might be called heterotopias such as cemeteries, gardens and libraries, but also certain colonies. Foucault also suggests that a role of the heterotopia “is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” And this can also be seen in many of Hawks’s films.

See also my article about Hawks and Fred Zinnemann:

And my article about Hawks and Yasujiro Ozu:

Foucault discussed heterotopia in a lecture in 1967 which was then published as an article in 1984 called "Des Espace Autres" or "Of Other Spaces".

When Hawks made Hatari! Pier Paolo Pasolini came to visit as he was a friend of Elsa Martinelli, who acted in the film. I have always wondered how Hawks and Pasolini got along.