The best films of Howard Hawks

“That [Howard] Hawks does not feel himself superior to material many may find ‘corny’, ‘melodramatic’, or ‘banal’ is not a sign of inferior intelligence or sensibility,” wrote Robin Wood in his seminal text on the director. “He responds, directly and spontaneously, to all that is valid in the genre, assimilates it and transforms it into a means of personal expression.” This passage comes from Wood’s exegesis on Only Angels Have Wings, a lyrical masterpiece in which manhood is prodded, tested, found wanting. If on my twelfth viewing Jean Arthur still looks as if she wandered in from another gayer picture, perhaps a Mitchell Leisen project, I’ve made my peace with her.

I used “gayer” on purpose, for Hawks was cold-eyed about the way in which men liked women but loved men. Remember the quiet solicitude shown by John Wayne to Dean Martin’s alcoholic in Rio Bravo; he never takes his eyes off his friend when he’s about to do something as simple as grab a gun. Or Cary Grant’s habit of lighting Thomas Mitchell’s cigarettes in Only Angels Have Wings. Or the flash of affection and respect between Humphrey Bogart and Elijah Cook, Jr.’s hapless thug in The Big Sleep. Patters recur, with Hawks shuffling the gradations of couples with gradations as minute as Ozu’s, sometimes less felicitously, I’ll grant: Hatari! has fun safari sequences but no reason to be 543 minutes.

At the bottom of the list sits an overesteemed comedy. Why I like Bringing Up Baby least of Hawks’ major work is a mystery; perhaps it comes down to finding Katherine Hepburn’s choice of register a menace; perhaps Hawks, despite his fealty to buddy Hemingway’s men-without-women ethos, needed strong women as antagonists or protagonists after all. His leading men didn’t suffer Rosalind Russell, Frances Farmer, Joanne Dru, Paula Prentiss, and several others.

1. Only Angels Have Wings
2. The Big Sleep
3. Twentieth Century
4. Rio Bravo
5. His Girl Friday
6. Scarface
7. Red River
8. To Have and Have Not
9. Man’s Favorite Sport?
10. Ball of Fire
11. El Dorado
12. Come and Get It
13. Barbary Coast
14. The Dawn Patrol
15. Bringing Up Baby

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