The Genius of Howard Hawks
Jacques Rivette
translated by Russell Campbell and Marvin Pister, adapted from a translation by Adrian Brine

The evidence on the screen is the proof of Howard Hawks's genius: you only have to watch Monkey Business to know that it is a brilliant film. Some people refuse to admit this, however; they refuse to be satisfied by proof. There can't be any other reason why they don't recognize it.

Hawks' oeuvre is equally divided between comedies and dramas -- a remarkable ambivalence. More remarkable is his fusing of the two elements so that each, rather than damaging the other, seems to underscore their reciprocal relation: the one sharpens the other. Comedy is never long absent from his most dramatic plots, and far from compromising the feeling of tragedy, it removes the comfort of fatalistic indulgence and keep the events in a perilous kind of equilibrium, a stimulating uncertainty which only adds to the strength of the drama. Scarface's secretary speaks comically garbled English, but that doesn't prevent his getting shot; out laughter all the way throughout The Big Sleep is inextricable from our foreboding of danger; the climax of Red River, in which we are no longer sure of our own feelings, wondering whose side to take and whether we should be amused or afraid, sets our every nerve quivering with panic and gives us a dizzy, giddy feeling like that of tightrope walker whose foot falters without quite slipping, a feeling as unbearable as the ending of a nightmare.

While it is the comedy that give Hawks's tragedy its effectiveness, the comedy cannot quite dispel (not the tragedy, let's not spoil our best arguments by going to far) the harsh feeling of an existence in which no action can undo itself from the web of responsibility. Could we be offered a more bitter view of life than this? I have to confess that I'm quite unable to join in the laughter of a packed theatre when I am riveted by the calculated twists of a fable (Monkey Business) which sets out -- gaily, logically, and with an unholy abandon -- to chronicle the fatal stages in the degradation of a superior mind.

It is no accident that similar groups of intellectuals turn up in both Ball of Fire and The Thing from Another World. But Hawks is not so much concerned with the subjection of the world to the jaded, glacial vision of the scientific mind as he is with retracing the comic misfortunes of the intelligence. Hawks is not concerned with satire or psychology; societies mean no more to him than sentiments; unlike Capra or McCarey, he is solely preoccupied with the adventure of the intellect. Whether he opposes the old to the new, the sum of the world's knowledge of the past to one of the degraded forms of modern life (Ball of Fire, A Song is Born), or man to beast (Bringing Up Baby), he sticks to the same story -- the intrusion of the inhuman, or the crudest avatar of humanity, into a highly civilized society. In The Thing, the mask is finally off: in the confined space of the universe, some men of science are at grips with a creature worse than inhuman, a creature from another world; and their efforts are directed towards fitting it into the logical framework of human knowledge.

But in Monkey Business the enemy has crept into man himself: the subtle poison of the Fountain of Youth, the temptation of infantilism. This we have long known to be one of the less subtle wiles of the Evil One -- now in the form of a hound, now in the form of a monkey -- when he comes up against a man of rare intelligence. And it is the most unfortunate of illusions which Hawks rather cruelly attacks: the notion of adolescence and childhood are barbarous states from which he are rescued by education. The child is scarcely distinguishable from the savage he imitates in his games: and a most distinguished old man, after he has drunk the precious fluid, takes delight in imitating a chimp. One can find in this a classical conception of man, as a creature whose only path to greatness lies through experience and maturity; at the end of his journey, it is his old age which will be his judge.

Still worse than infantilism, degradation, or decadence, however, is the fascination these tendencies exert on the same mind which perceives them as evil; the film is not only a story about this fascination, it offers itself to the spectator as a demonstration of the power of the fascination. Likewise, anyone who criticizes this tendency must first submit himself to it. The monkeys, the Indians, the goldfish are no more than the guise worn by Hawk's obsession with primitivism, which also finds expression in the savage rhythms of the tom-tom music, the sweet stupidity of Marilyn Monroe (that monster of femininity whom the costume designer nearly deformed), or the ageing bacchante Ginger Rogers becomes when she reverts to adolescence and her wrinkles seem to shrink away. The instinctive euphoria of the characters' actions gives a lyric quality to the ugliness and foulness, a denseness of expression which heightens everything into abstraction: the fascination of all this gives beauty to the metamorphoses in retrospect. One could apply the 'expressionistic' to the artfulness with which Cary Grant twists his gestures into symbols; watching the scene in which he makes himself up as an Indian, it is impossible not to be reminded of the famous shot in The Blue Angel in which Jannings stares at his distorted face. It is by no means facile to compare these two similar tales of ruin: we recall how the themes of damnation and malediction in the German cinema had imposed the same rigorous progression from the likeable to the hideous.

From the close-up of the chimpanzee to the moment when the diaper slips off the baby Cary Grant, the viewer's head swims with the constant whirl of immodesty and impropriety; and what is this feeling if not a mixture of fear, censure -- and fascination? The allure of the instinctual, the abandonment to primitive earthly forces, evil, ugliness, stupidity -- all of the Devil's attributes are, in these comedies in which the soul itself is tempted to bestiality, deviously combined with logic in extremis; the sharpest point of the intelligence is turned back on itself. I Was a Male War Bride takes as his subject simply the impossibility of finding a place to sleep, and then prolongs it to the extremes of debasement and demoralization.

Hawks knows better than anyone else that art has to go to extremes, even the extremes of squalor, because that is the source of comedy. He is never afraid to use bizarre narrative twists, once he has established that they are possible. He doesn't try to confound the spectator's vulgar tendencies; he sates them by taking a step further. This is also Moliere's genius: his mad fits of logic are apt to make the laughter stick in your throat. It is also Murnau's genius -- the famous scene with Dame Martha in his excellent Tartuffe and several sequences of Der letzte Mann are still models of Molieresque cinema.

Hawks is a director of intelligence and precision, but he is also a bundle of dark forces and strange fascinations; his is a Teutonic spirit, attracted by bouts of ordered madness which give birth to an infinite chain of consequences. The very fact of their continuity is a manifestation of Fate. His heroes demonstrate this not so much in their feelings as in their actions, which he observes meticulously with passion. It is actions that he films, meditating on the power of appearance alone. We are not concerned with John Wayne's thoughts as he walks toward Montgomery Clift at the end of Red River, or Bogart's thoughts as he beats somebody up: our attention is directed solely to the precision of each step -- the exact rhythm of the walk -- of each blow -- and to the gradual collapse of the battered body.

But at the same time, Hawks epitomizes the highest qualities of the American cinema: he is the only American director who knows how to draw a moral. His marvelous blend of action and morality is probably the secret of his genius. It is not an idea that is fascinating in a Hawks film, but its effectiveness. A deed holds our attention not so much for its intrinsic beauty as for its effect on the inner works of his universe.

Such art demands a basic honesty, and Hawks's use of time and space bears witness to this -- no flashback, no ellipsis; the rule is continuity. No character disappears without us following him, and nothing surprises the hero which doesn't surprise us at the same time. There seems to be a law behind Hawks's action and editing, but it is a biological law like that governing any living being: each shot has a functional beauty, like a neck or an ankle. The smooth, orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like the pulsing of blood, and the whole film is like a beautiful body, kept alive by deep, resilient breathing.

This obsession with continuity imposes a feeling of monotony on Hawks's films, the kind often associated with the idea of a journey to be made or a course to be run (Air Force, Red River), because everything is felt to be connected to everything else, time and space and space to time. So in films which are mostly comic (To Have and Have Not,The Big Sleep). The characters are confined to a few settings, and they move around rather helplessly in them. We begin to feel the gravity of each movement they make, and we are unable to escape from their presence. But Hawksian drama is always expressed in spatial terms, and variations in setting are parallel with temporal variations: whether it is the drama of Scarface, whose kingdom shrinks from the city he once ruled to the room in which he is finally trapped, or of the scientists who cannot dare leave their hut for fear of The Thing; of the fliers in Only Angels Have Wings, trapped in their station by the fog and managing to escape to the mountains from time to time, just as Bogart (in To Have and Have Not) escapes to the sea from the hotel which he prowls impotently, between the cellar and his room; and even when these themes are burlesqued in Ball of Fire, with the grammarian moving out of his hermetic library to face the perils of the city, or in Monkey Business, in which the characters' jaunts are an indication of their reversion to infancy (I Was a Male War Bride plays on the motif of the journey in another way). Always the heroes' movements are along the path of their destiny.

The monotony is only a façade. Beneath it, feeling are slowly ripening, developing step by step towards a violent climax. Hawks uses lassitude as a dramatic device -- to convey the exasperation of men who have to restrain themselves for two hours, patiently containing their anger, hatred, or love before our eyes and then suddenly releasing it, like slowly saturated batteries which eventually give off a spark. Their anger is heightened by their habitual sangfroid; their calm faŤade is pregnant with emotion, with the secret trembling of their nerves and of their soul -- until the cup overflows. A hawks film often has the same feeling as the agonizing wait for the fall of a drop of water.

The comedies show another side of this principle of monotony. Forward action is replaced by repetition, like the rhetoric of Raymond Roussel replacing Peguy's; the same actions, endlessly recurring, which Hawks builds up with the persistence of a maniac and the patience of a man obsessed, suddenly whirl madly about, as if at the mercy of a capricious maelstrom.

What other man of genius, even if he were more obsessed with continuity, could be more passionately concerned with the consequences of men's actions, or with these actions' relationship to each other? The way they influence, repel, or attract one another makes up a unified and coherent world, a Newtonian universe whose ruling principles are the universal law of gravity and a deep conviction of the gravity of existence. Human actions are weighed and measured by a master director preoccupied with man's responsibilities.

The measure of Hawks's films is intelligence, but a pragmatic intelligence, applied directly to the physical world, an intelligence which takes its efficacity from the precise viewpoint of a profession or from some form of human activity at grips with universe and anxious for conquest. Marlowe inThe Big Sleep practices a profession just as a scientist or a flier does; and when Bogart hires out his boat in To Have and Have Not, he hardly looks at the sea: he is more interested in the beauty of his passengers than in the beauty of the waves. Every river is made to be crossed, every herd is made to be fattened and sold at the highest price. And women, however seductive, however much the hero cares for them, must join them in the struggle.

It is impossible adequately to evoke To Have and Have Not without immediately recalling the struggle with the fish at the beginning of the film. The universe cannot be conquered without a fight, and fighting is natural to Hawks's heroes: hand-to-hand fighting. What closer grasp of another being could be hoped for than a vigorous struggle like this? So love exists even where there is perpetual opposition; it is a bitter duel whose constant dangers are ignored by men intoxicated with passion (The Big Sleep, Red River). Out of the contest comes esteem -- that admirable word encompassing knowledge, appreciation and sympathy: the opponent becomes a partner. The hero feels a great sense of disgust if he has to face an enemy who refuses to fight; Marlowe, seized with a sudden bitterness, precipitates events in order to hasten the climax in this case.

Maturity is the hallmark of these reflective men, heroes of an adult, often exclusively masculine world, where tragedy is found in personal relationships; comedy comes from the intrusion and admixture of alien elements, or in mechanical objects which take away their free will -- that freedom of decision by which a man can express himself and affirm his existence as a creator does in the act of creation.

I don't want to seem as if I'm praising Hawks for being 'a genius estranged from his time', but it is the obviously of his modernity which lets me avoid belabouring it. I'd prefer, instead, to point out how, even if he is occasionally drawn to the ridiculous or the absurd, Hawks first of all concentrates on the smell and feel or reality, giving reality an unusual and indeed long-hidden grandeur and nobility; how Hawks gives the modern sensibility a classical conscience. The father of Red River and Only Angels Have Wings is none other than Corneille; ambiguity and complexity are compatible only with noblest feelings which are soonest exhausted but rather the barbaric, mutable natures of crude souls -- that is why modern novels are so boring.

Finally, how could I omit mentioning those wonderful Hawksian opening scenes in which the hero settles smoothly and solidify in for the duration? No preliminaries, no expository devices: a door opens, and there he is in the first shot. The conversation gets going and quietly familiarizes us with his personal rhythm; after bumping into him like this, we can no longer leave his side. We are his companions all through the journey as it unwinds as surely and regularly as the film going through the projector. The hero moves with the litheness and constancy of a mountaineer who starts out with a steady gait and maintains it along the roughest trails, even to the end of the longest day's march.

From these first stirrings, we are not only sure that the heroes will never leave us, we also know that they will stick by their promises to a fault, and will never hesitate or quit: no one can put a stop to their marvelous stubbornness and tenacity. Once they have set out, they will go on to the end of their tether and carry the promises they have made to their logical conclusions, come what may. What is started must be finished. It doesn't matter that the heroes are often involved against their wills: by proving themselves, by achieving their ends, they win the right to be free and the honour of calling themselves men. To them, logic is not some cold intellectual activity, but proof that the body is a coherent whole, harmoniously following the consequences of an action out of loyalty to itself. The strength of the heroes' willpower is an assurance of the unity of the man and the spirit, tied together on behalf of that which both justifies their existence and gives it the highest meaning.

If it is true that we are fascinated by extremes, by everything which is bold and excessive, and that we find grandeur in a lack of moderation -- then it follows that we should be intrigued by the clash of extremes, because they bring together the intellectual precision of abstractions with the elemental magic of the great earthly impulses, linking thunderstorms with equations in an affirmation of life. The beauty of a Hawks film comes from this kind of affirmation, staunch and serene, remorseless and resilient. It is a beauty which demonstrates existence by breathing and movement by walking. That which is, is.

Originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema 23 (May 1953); p. 16-23. Reprinted from Cahiers du cinema: The 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier (Harvard, 1985). Translated by Russell Campbell and Marvin Pister, adapted from a translation by Adrian Brine