Commentary Magazine


Rio Lobotomy

Andre Hodeir, the French music critic, once wrote an essay entitled “Why Do They Age So Badly?” on the all but universal artistic decline of good and even great veteran jazzmen. The title invites, even demands, appropriation for a piece on film directors. For, with something like the invariability Hodeir noted, good and even very good directors seem, like jazz musicians, to do their best work first. The difference is that a Lester Young or Roy Eldridge haven’t the benefit of a corps of “critics” armed with “theories” to hail their later lapses from creativity as “maturity,” and pay tribute to their “authorship” and ability to produce “personal” works.

Rio Lobo is Howard Hawks’s forty-third film, and its author is now seventy-five. It is, in the worst possible way, a personal film, the director even obliging his critics by having his name appear in the credits in signature. The characters and situations which have been the staple of Hawks’s later films are once again insistently repeated—not varied or elaborated or reimagined as recurring elements are in the work of John Ford, but repeated, with a kind of mulish intransigence that can come to seem almost admirable (as it can seem in the writing of Hawks’s chief exponent, Manny Farber). After a vigorous prologue depicting a train robbery (filmed, to judge from the clubfootedness of what follows, by Yakima Canutt, the second-unit director, famed for such action sequences as the chariot race in Ben Hur), we are given again the all-man John Wayne hero, flustered only by finding a fainting female in his arms, and the familiar group of adventurers which gathers around him: the callow but daring youths, the grizzled old-timer, the girls who are continually told they’re “not going along” to face whatever danger must be overcome but who eventually gain admittance to the charmed circle by proving themselves just one of the boys. What one has, in short, is the pre-adolescent male gang, jocular in the face of danger, grudgingly infiltrated by a few tomboys who occasionally forget themselves and perpetrate a little female-aggressor sex; e.g., in Hatari!, the ingénue teaching John Wayne how to kiss. But such hanky-panky follows only after the girl is coached by one of the hero’s equally infatuated male buddies on how Wayne is to be wooed.

Now what Manny Farber knows, as does virtually no other Hawks-hawker (and by now this includes the writers for the New York Times), is that it is not upon such personal trademarks that the director’s claims to eminence depend; rather, I would say, it is just such things which imperil them. What Hawks had, at his best, was a lean, hard, uncluttered, straight-ahead style and a sense of timing that resulted, on one hand, in comedies as sharp as Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, the latter perhaps the fastest and funniest (and most cruel) of the screwball comedies of the 30′s, and in thrillers as witty as The Big Sleep, on the other. Which is to say that Hawks, by reputation our foremost “action director,” and sentimentally venerated in some quarters as the leading producer of fodder for the grind-house trade, is responsible for creating some of the American film’s most brilliant and sophisticated entertainments (and I use the word “entertainments” unpejoratively); moreover, unlike such quondam action directors as Ford and Wellman, Hawks has never succumbed to the temptation of artistic pretentiousness. These three aforementioned films alone would be enough on which to base a reputation, but to them can be added others including Scarface, Twentieth Century, parts of Red River and To Have and Have Not, and, very likely, at least some of the highly touted action films of the early 30′s with which I’m unfamiliar: The Crowd Roars, Tiger Shark, Ceiling Zero.

Yet even in his best days Hawks was making “personal” films—the 1939 trash masterpiece, Only Angels Have Wings, made just before His Girl Friday, is already a full-blown anticipation of the ethos of the boyish gang and of the dregs of Hatari!—and even in his best films there is the same insistent preoccupation with passive-aggressive sexual role-reversals and with such Hawksian motifs as the man-chasing woman (Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep) and tomboy heroine (His Girl Friday, in which The Front Page was rewritten to make a principal male character female). (Hawks is, after all, the man who can claim credit for the discovery of Lauren Bacall, that most androgynous of screen sirens, with her singing voice in To Have and Have Not dubbed by a young Andy Williams.) Not that such things appear only in his best films, as the great humor found in having Cary Grant in drag in WAC’s uniform in I Was a Male War Bride can serve to remind one. And if one has one’s doubts about the growing tendency to find humor in violence and killing in the later films, The Big Sky of 1952 certainly sets a clear precedent in its scene of an amputation without anesthetic played for comedy, as does much of Scarface. What is new, and could perhaps be considered variation and elaboration, is the way, in Rio Lobo, the violence has become increasingly kinky (a hornets’ nest tossed like a hand grenade into a group of men, a young girl’s face slashed, one of the villains set afire, another having a gun explode in his face) and is rather lovingly dwelt on; and the way the veteran sidekick of Rio Bravo and El Dorado has turned into Jack Elam’s gleefully kill-crazy, sinister old man.

Andrew Sarris has somewhere remarked (I think wrongly) on the loss of iconic stature suffered by Humphrey Bogart in the films of Huston compared with those Bogart made with Hawks; an observation which might well be turned around to apply to the diminished stature of John Wayne in Hawks’s films compared with those Wayne made with Ford. What is, I think, embarrassingly clear, as increasingly younger girls pursue an increasingly aging, passive Wayne is the extent to which the star has become a stand-in in the fantasy life of the director, as the films themselves have come increasingly to offer a field day for clinicians.1 (And though one may admire Hawks’s ability to turn up unknown, pretty young things looking fresh from the high-school play, their virtues tend to be rather eclipsed by the effect of their performances in such films as Red Line 7000, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo—as do those of the young males, James Caan excepted—which is like nothing so much as an exercise in foreign tongue with transliterated text, or, at the most expressive, a sight-reading in a second language. Yet anyone who can cast such drugstore cowboys as Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in a period Western already has a lot to answer for.)

It is not, of course, the fact of the films embodying the director’s fantasies that diminishes Wayne’s stature and that of the films; the films of Chaplin and Keaton certainly have roots that run at least as deep into their creators’ psychic lives. But while such elements enrich the work of Chaplin and Keaton, what one sees in Hawks’s films of the last twenty-odd years are increasingly static and senile versions of the same juvenile fantasy, endlessly reenacted. And as such “personal” elements increasingly take over the work of their “author,” those qualities from which his earlier work’s brilliance derived shrink and shrivel ever smaller. Can this really be the work of the director of films as sexually sophisticated (however idiosyncratic) as Bringing Up Baby and The Big Sleep, one asks oneself as one cringingly averts one’s eyes from the sickening coyness of the scenes of sexual byplay in Hatari!, Man’s Favorite Sport?, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Rio Lobo? Can this really be the work of a director whose style at its best was one of the genuine glories of the American screen, hard and lean, one asks as one watches the scenes of his later films sink ever deeper into the flaccid folds of their own lard?

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Much as it used to be a custom among the New York tabloids to compete for quotable copy on the latest racy film by coining endless variants on the formula of “It makes I Am Curious look like Little Women,” so is it a ploy among highbrow critics to single out one or another new Truffaut film as the director’s “best since Jules and Jim.” A difference is that there is often a real emotional investment in the latter activity; Truffaut’s early work inspired a very deep and singular affection among its enthusiasts (and I include myself among these), and people really want each new film to recapture the former magic. One did not simply admire Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim; one loved and was enchanted by them; and people who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to a movie soundtrack record will play Jeanne Moreau singing the song from Jules and Jim for intimate company.

And yet, as Lorenz Hart observed, unrequited love’s a bore; or, at least, can seem so when faced with a soporific like The Wild Child. My own vote, halfhearted and decidedly in the minority, for Truffaut’s best film since Jules and Jim would probably be for The Mississippi Mermaid, an interesting failure; though, to speak precisely, one should start keeping score not from Jules and Jim but from Truffaut’s crystalline lyric to unrequited love made as a contribution to the omnibus film, Love at Twenty, which followed Jules and Jim, and is every bit as good as its exuberant predecessors. But it is becoming increasingly difficult not to see what follows, including even a work so admirable in many ways as The Soft Skin, as anything but a classic case of an artist exhausting his creative inspiration in his earliest works, works one suspects to have gestated for years in his imagination before his having had an opportunity actually to film them; and harder and harder not to see the work which follows as a species of critic’s film, willed and arid; even the early work’s technical brio and audacity quickly disappear, and the sudden shift from the intoxication of Jules and Jim (and Love at Twenty) to the rather too self-conscious sobriety of The Soft Skin is really quite remarkable. Thus the exercises in Hitchcock, as far from an understanding of what is to be prized in that director as is Truffaut’s book-length interview with him. It is perhaps some index of the kind of bind in which Truffaut comes to find himself that the best thing in The Bride Wore Black, the rounded creation of the character of the lonely, mild-mannered bachelor whom Moreau “executes,” is moving in a way that is quite beyond Hitchcock’s range and distinctively within Truffaut’s, and yet, in context, is noteworthy chiefly for the way it goes against the grain of what is being strived for and undercuts the attempt at manipulative “suspense.” Unlike Farenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black, The Mississippi Mermaid at least begins to suggest some sort of justification for depriving the thriller form of its conventional satisfactions in the attempt to extend it into something more serious; but the attempt aborts, in part on very Hitchcockian grounds: in the casting, presumably for box-office insurance, of two “stars” far too glamorous to convey convincingly the sense of sexual privation and obsessive entanglement that the characters’ motivation calls for. After this failure, it is The Wild Child, the very model of that cinema of gentility which Truffaut started as a critic by denouncing.

The Wild Child, probably the biggest vote-getter in the Truffaut’s-best-film-since sweepstakes, had seemed to me a true dead end, an impersonal and edifying bore of the kind “enlightened” parents traditionally inflict on children, in which the values of civilization and the life of the mind are treated with all the tepid piety, the lack of passion, one sees in the old-maidish librarianlike celebration of bookishness at the end of Farenheit 451. And yet here now is Truffaut bouncing back with Bed and Board, a film as skilled and as consistently enjoyable as any he’s made since you know what. I don’t, in fact, see how anyone could fail to enjoy it. There’s something for everyone: laughter, tears (pleasantly sad but not painful), sight gags, one-liners, running jokes with well-timed punch-lines, a cute baby, a winning hero, and two girls to choose between, a smashing Occidental and a sensational Oriental. And Paris; Paris in (lovely) color; and French people. Indeed, the courtyard above which hero and heroine reside is so adroitly choreographed for the ceaseless flow of colorful character that one continually half-expects to see Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance by. Who could fail to be charmed? It is all so unerringly programmed to charm that it’s only when one stops to think afterward that it was made by the man who once made films as richly textured and infinitely suggestive as Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim that one has reason to demur.

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For me, the really disturbing thing about Bed and Board was just how much I liked it, at least while it was happening; more, for instance, than Stolen Kisses, whose attempts to be merely ingratiating and to amuse keep stumbling over the remnants of a subject and a theme—the perpetual cycle of unrequited love, of failed contact, missed connections—half-buried by charm, to be sure, but still disconcertingly there. But there is nothing of the sort in Truffaut’s latest; even the closing shot in stop-motion that was so stunning in The 400 Blows has been increased to three and reduced to mere ornamentation. Bed and Board is nothing but an entertainment, and here I do use the word “entertainment” pejoratively. Truffaut and Hawks don’t have much in common, except that it was Truffaut’s promulgation, while writing in Cahiers du Cinéma, of the politique des auteurs, of the primacy of “personal” films, that has provided the basis for Hawks’s currently inflated reputation (other than for Manny Farber, who despises Truffaut in direct proportion to his admiration for Hawks). That, in such different ways, they both should have aged so badly is, I’m sure, the merest of coincidence, and, if there’s a moral in it, I’m not sure what it is unless it’s that, when writing “auteur criticism” no less than when making films about regression to childhood (vide Hawks’s Monkey Business), what one reveals has chiefly to do with one’s self; that, and the fact that one man’s wisdom is another’s folly. Truffaut now makes expert, impersonal entertainments, and everything that was of interest in what one thinks of as a Truffaut film has drained out of them. Hawks, who now makes personal films of a clinical interest only, once made His Girl Friday (which I admire no less than I do Jules and Jim), and could never have made its like without keeping his “personality” rigorously in rein by his intelligence, tact, and artistic control.

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