Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Howard Hawks Gets Hip

When Howard Hawks did an audience Q&A in the late '60s (today it would be an online chat), one audience member asked him for help in explaining to his or her friends why Red Line 7000 was a masterpiece. Hawks, clearly amazed at the capacity of movie buffs to redeem any movie, blurted out: "I don't think it's any good." I watched the movie again recently, and Hawks was right. Like almost every movie he made after Rio Bravo -- and, indeed, Rio Bravo itself -- it's a rehash of movies he made earlier. In this case it has some added interest because the movies he's rehashing aren't all that well-known; instead he's rehashing his early '30s racing films like The Crowd Roars. But the script is weak (it would have been even weaker if Hawks hadn't brought in Leigh Brackett for an uncredited rewrite), and Hawks tried a casting gambit that didn't work: basically he looked for young, little-known actors whom he could put under contract and use on a regular basis in subsequent movies. (I think he tried that with Lauren Bacall but she wound up under contract to Warner Brothers instead of him.) But most of the actors he picked, by his own admission, weren't -- as a Hawks character would say -- "good enough." James Caan was good enough to use in his subsequent rehash movie, El Dorado, and I've already explained why Marianna Hill should have been a star, but much of the other acting is just plain awful. Add in the over-use of rear projection and the drab sets, and it's got Decline Phase written all over it.

The other thing I noticed when re-watching it is that while Hawks was clearly trying to make a movie that would appeal to younger people -- that was the point of assembling his first all-young cast in a long time -- he really didn't seem to know how to go about portraying under-30 characters in a contemporary setting. Exhibit A is the music. There are scenes where the characters are supposed to dance to contemporary-sounding music, but Hawks and/or the musical director (Nelson Riddle) didn't seem to know any such music, so the "hip" dance music is, I kid you not, an electric-guitar arrangement of "The Old Grey Mare." Hill is very good in this, her first big scene in the picture, but it's really not approprate choice of music.

And then we get exactly the same arrangement for "I've Been Workin' On the Railroad" (or "Eyes of Texas" if you want to get into that). This, incidentally, is the scene where Hill and Caan meet, and is notable for a) Hill's struggle to reconcile her attempted French accent with Hawks' apparent instructions to do a Lauren Bacall voice , and b) The blatant product placement for Pepsi. Still, even in decline, Hawks was still a good director of romantic scenes, and Hill and Caan do generate some real chemistry that you didn't often see in '60s movies (where love scenes tended to be very mushy and sappy). Note also the umpteenth re-use, in a Hawks movie, of the line "I know I talk too much."

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