What Howard Hawks did best — whichever studio signed the check (over 44 years, he worked for them all), whatever genre he operated in (ditto) — was clear space for his actors and encourage them to really react to each other. This is so rudimentary that most don’t even bother with it. LACMA’s retrospective, “Late Hawks,” savors the director’s slow, sweet winding down, culminating in his little-loved 1965 swan song, the NASCAR drama Red Line 7000.
Two of these films — Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Red River (1948) — are universally acknowledged pinnacles of tawdry musical comedy and the Western, respectively. These will always screen — so catch the weird stuff while it’s in town, like Hawks’ lusty 1955 CinemaScope epic, Land of the Pharaohs. SEE! swarming extras raise the Mighty Pharaoh’s pyramid (extravagantly designed by the great Alexandre Trauner). HEAR! the voice of Anubis, god of the dead. WITNESS! the cuckolded monarch’s downfall, thanks to “beautiful young bitch” Joan Collins. A tale of lucre monomaniacally stockpiled in the desert, Pharaohs was the template for Scorsese’s Casino.
Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1967), and Rio Lobo (1970) all star an increasingly monumental John Wayne and were scripted by Ms. Leigh Brackett, retracing the same paths to diminishing returns. (Hawks: “You’ve got fellows with guns, and one of them’s a sheriff ... there isn’t much you can do.”) Hedged in by outlaws, the Law waits on reinforcements. This involves rolling cigarettes, propping his leg on whatever’s handy, and generally bullshitting. Wayne nurses a gunfighter-turned-lush (real-life alkies Dean Martin or Robert Mitchum) back to self-esteem and humors a procession of orn’ry ol’ crackers (real-life crackers Walter Brennan, Arthur Hunnicutt and Jack Elam). Hawks shows he can still turn a scene on a dime, as when Bravo’s carefully modulated tension suddenly explodes into a romp (“Got me some diney-mite!”), or in El Dorado’s shift from pastoral openness to the intimate suffering of a gut-shot kid (one of the toughest scenes Duke ever played). Oh, and the apex of American culture may just be Bravo’s jam session with Dino, Brennan and Ricky Nelson.
Brackett also banged out 1962’s Hatari! day by day, on location. Hawks’ faint notion was to send an international cast on safari under Mount Kilimanjaro, so Wayne winds up leading nouvelle vague pouters (Gerard Blain) and borscht belt shticklers (Red Buttons) in capturing, by lasso and herding jeep, a menagerie of African fauna for zoos. In the hunting lodge as in the sheriff’s office, there’s the loose, buzzy hilarity of happy-hour social-club interaction. Lay a frivolous Henry Mancini score over the cast roughhousing with wildlife and you’ve got something crazy entertaining — the roping of a rhino into submission is a particular marvel of camera coverage and authentic grit.
Gender-identity crisis Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) is, inversely, all about faking it. Rock Hudson plays a self-disgusted armchair outdoorsman whose bogus salesroom expertise is outed (ahem) when he’s dragged into the Great Outdoors by two angular, long-stemmed menaces, Teuton Maria Perschy and Texan Paula Prentiss, the latter a mad bustle of dangerous gesticulations and gangly diction. It’s long been consigned to the “Lesser Hawks” doghouse for its yawning pace (cut from three hours!) and lowly yuks (a bear suit riding a trail bike or gone-fishing gags even the Dorf people would reject). I, however, couldn’t look away.
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LATE HAWKS | LACMA Bing Theater | Through Friday, March 27 | www.lacma.org