Howard Hawks, Hollywood's finest practitioner of everyday chivalry

Howard Hawks's films – The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby – are among the most enjoyable ever made in Hollywood, with sublime performances by Bogart and Grant and Bacall. Just don't call him an 'artist'. By David Bromwich

Howard Hawks took legitimate pride in a certain professionalism, but "artist" and "work of art" were alien terms for him. He appreciated the wit of Faulkner's saying to him the first time they met: "I've seen your name on a check."

Setting it up and putting it together, working with actors and the script: these were his elements of film. Hawks knew what a cameraman should do – Lee Garmes brought to Scarface the desert surface Hawks knew he wanted – but he made no pretence about placing lights or finding angles. He was an experimenter whose greatest successes were happy accidents. The standard genres – comedy, melodrama, western, film noir – he took to himself with peculiar zest; his secret was an ease at improvisation that required a constant adroitness with his company.

Katharine Hepburn broke a heel in a gully in the night scene of Bringing Up Baby, an unscripted touch; as she walked off-kilter, her co-star Cary Grant whispered: "I was born on a hill!" She said it and Hawks caught it. He captured a moment as lively when James Cagney in Ceiling Zero jumped from cockpit to runway in a somersault. Hawks never tried to call every move. He was the sort of director in whose presence such things happened.

Something of his alert oversight probably came from his experience as a flyer – the source, too, of a group spirit and discipline that figures in The Dawn Patrol, Ceiling Zero, Only Angels Have Wings and Air Force. The romance of flight for Hawks was aesthetic and manly; as a character says in Ceiling Zero, you are all alone up there, nothing but you and the world. And solitude was the test that underlay his commitment to a society of the brave.

It was mostly a society of men. "Did you ever know a woman," says Geoff Carter (Grant) in Only Angels Have Wings, "that didn't want to make plans, map out everything?" He is the captain of a shoestring airline whose jungle-to-mountain route makes every journey a risk. Jean Arthur, high-class and sentimental, looks wrong for his mate, but her redemption begins as soon as she sits at the piano and plays a honky-tonk tune. By contrast, Lauren Bacall is suited to the company of men as soon as the camera picks her out in To Have and Have Not.

Scarface, the film that made Hawks famous, is an early talkie with long scenes and almost no editing, but it predicts his later style with a plenitude of human figures in lunging motion. Hawks took from his silent work the all-importance of movement and the contagious energy of people in groups. But the motion in Scarface is compulsive, the actions almost abstract. "Hello, Louis," the hero Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) says as we first see him in silhouette and he calmly shoots Louis and walks away. Tony's ethic – "Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it" – is a corruption of the masculine code.

Yet vehemence of word, motive, and action mark the Hawks hero, and all the main characters of His Girl Friday. One thinks of Walter Burns the editor (Grant) slamming down the lid of a desk to hide an escaped criminal; and his ex-wife and ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) diving to tackle the sheriff who has let the man escape. Again at a slower pace, but busy with purpose, Walter and Hildy filing past the city-room desks as they are watched, greeted, ignored by rows of reporters; and the other reporters drifting in and out of the press room in a municipal building as they wait to hear of the execution or reprieve of the convicted man and exchange cynical jokes, and Hildy walks in the door with a scornful salute: "The gentlemen of the press!"

Doorways, in Only Angels Have Wings, are conductors of the action as vital as planes. Through them may walk an old lover, a man of mysterious broken fortune and lowered eyes, a pilot just returned and wondering who will buy dinner. The doors that lead to the rooms of Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not play a part as human as a sidekick or a go-between in three scenes back-to-back which prove the mutual enchantment of the hero, Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), and the new face in town whom he nicknames Slim (Bacall, taking the nickname of Hawks's wife). They steal back and forth across a narrow hall to exchange warnings, criticisms, soul-estimates, and a kiss – a 15-minute stretch of human action without apparent significance for the plot. Nothing of the kind in movies had so deftly explored the beginning of a love; there was nothing like it again until Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless.

At the end of the sequence, Bacall tells Bogart to whistle if he ever wants her and she tells him how; he gives a marvelling look which is the look of the character but also the actor: the two were falling in love and the movie is wonderfully poised in its awareness of that. His whistle, which follows, is the opposite of vulgar. It indicates the intended response to many similar scenes of exhibited manliness, the chivalry of everyday life that is the heart of Hawks's subject.

Some such reaction is asked of the audience itself in his best films. Ceiling Zero puts the camera on three men, two flanking one who is on the telephone. They mock and admire the dexterity of the flyer Dizzy Davis (Cagney) as he fast-talks his way out of a breach-of-promise suit, a jerk on the leash from a grasping woman. We who watch the performer and the two on-screen watchers are meant to marvel at all three for their dedication to the task of keeping each other honest, not telling the world more than it needs to know.

Hawks thought a dame should be a sport. In To Have and Have Not, the wife of a French resistance fighter collapses at the sight of her husband's bullet wound. Bogart gathers her up, his eyes lingering a split second on the gorgeous body, and Bacall dryly brushes past: "What are you trying to do, guess her weight?" Such comments occur almost chorus-like in the pauses of the action, but the elect know not to linger. The forward flow in a Hawks film sends a message about the velocity of fortune and the collision of wills. But scenes of extended, almost absurd, relaxation are no less expressive of his temperament. A long scene compounded of both moods is laid down in The Big Sleep, a visit to the night club owned by the gangster Eddie Mars. The detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) and the woman he is following (Bacall) flirt and chat, there is a song, and gambling, and verbal fencing, and in the process we learn a good deal about all the characters. Without being told the director, anyone would call it a Hawks moment.

Was there such a thing as a minor character, for Hawks? They never seem to bask in the glow of the stars, and if you remember Bringing Up Baby, you are thinking of Walter Catlett as the constable and Charlie Ruggles as Major Horace Applegate, among other things. The surprising chord of pathos touched by Only Angels Have Wings – on the surface so conventional a melodrama – comes from the friendship between the hero played by Grant and his best flyer "Kid" (Thomas Mitchell). There were bigger roles for Mitchell, but his three big scenes opposite Grant mark the performance of a lifetime.

Walter Brennan was first used by Hawks in Barbary Coast, a crime saga of San Francisco during the gold rush, to which Brennan, then 40 but looking 60, lent much incidental humour. He brought him back in To Have and Have Not, Red River and several other films. Grizzled, shrewd, easily mistaken for a fool but, in cases of conflict, loyal: this was Brennan's character, under Hawks, and it is curious to think what a permanent place it holds in the American idea of comradeship. A variant occurs in To Have and Have Not where Brennan plays the drunken sailor, Eddie, Bogart's companion at sea and sometimes on land; when asked "What do you look after him for", Bogart replies with chivalric simplicity: "He thinks he's looking after me."

The best actors of Hollywood films for three decades did a lot of their best work with Hawks. Grant and Bogart, pre-eminently, but also Cagney, Edward G Robinson, Hepburn (whom he introduced to screwball comedy), Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, Carole Lombard (who first showed her formidable power and comic range in Twentieth Century), and Montgomery Clift – a refined actor on the brink of being dismissed as overdelicate when Hawks gave him the second lead in Red River and offered tips on movement and gesture. For example, "the business", as Hawks's biographer Todd McCarthy relates, "of putting a strand of wheat in his mouth"; also "rubbing the side of his nose while in thought". All the dynamic contest of that movie is there in the contrast between the voices of John Wayne and Clift, the loud monotone of command and the distinct but quiet utterance that suggests a reserve of conscience. All this Hawks must have heard at once and measured against the story when he saw the actors read for their parts.

The 1950s suffocated part of his spirit. Directors who made it through that decade with honour and strength – Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, Fritz Lang – set themselves against the mood of the time. Hawks's indulgent acceptance in the face of contemporary mores is especially painful in Monkey Business, a heavy piece of whimsy about a pharmaceutical discovery that gives back the sex drive in middle age. The scenes with the monkeys in the lab are very ponderous fun.

Rio Bravo suffers from a similar approach to polite imbecility. It lavishes affection on scenes and types that have grown void of spontaneous life, and is the father of such later ventures of sham coolness as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where the heroes under pressure say clever-cute things and mug an ironic grin. Still, a few years earlier in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Hawks could oversee a sex comedy without a taint of cheapness and with many details in his best manner – as from Marilyn Monroe with Charles Coburn prompting: "Young lady, you don't fool me one bit." "I'm not trying to. But I bet I could though."

David Thomson has credited Hawks with "emotional intelligence". Strange as the compliment sounds, when matched with a director so resistant to talk of depth, the description is right. At the top of his powers, between 1935 and 1945, the films that most surely bear his touch are perhaps Ceiling Zero, To Have and Have Not, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep. Not far behind as acts of showmanship that are entertaining and that scarcely date are Twentieth Century and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Finally, three films that suggest the perfection of a genre: Scarface, Bringing up Baby, and Red River (except for the out-of-place comic ending).

Movies are the most incomparable art yet the one that invites most comparison, and the career of Hawks shows why all the comparisons (opera, architecture, the novel) both succeed and fail. One of his movies may suggest an inward unity and spaciousness that seems a mark of good fiction, as in The Big Sleep; it may have the scope and resonance to fill a historical landscape worthy of Remington, as Red River does. Ideally, somewhere in the background is music, not intruding, such as Hoagy Carmichael's piano in To Have and Have Not. Hawks's art aspires to the condition of life and sometimes seems to get there, as life rarely does.

The Howard Hawks season is at the BFI, South Bank, London SE1, until February 28.

David Bromwich

The GuardianTramp

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