Did the guy look good?

Howard Hawks is being celebrated at the NFT - a reason to be cheerful
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Increasingly these days we hear a lament from the people whose trade or calling it is, that it is very hard to make motion pictures. (Would it were impossible, some answer.) Lord knows, they are trying in every spectacular way they can contrive: they take longer, they spend more money, they publish their own scripts and diaries "on the process". They give interviews to the press in which they summon and bare their souls, and they are often regarded (and not only by themselves) with the solemnity that our society devotes to rock artists and high criminals. You have to wonder what Howard Winchester Hawks would have thought about this. No one told him that movies might be difficult - or to let on, to explain or complain, if ever they were. He has been dead only 19 years and a bit, but he is a paragon from a different age: he made movies, not so much easily as naturally, in the way a man might throw a ball or eye a pretty woman. We shall not see his like again. No one now could make the whole muddled movie thing seem so effortless, so graceful, or such fun. Whether by art or commerce, brutalism or camp superiority, the simple thing is now overshadowed or ashamed of just shining there, on the screen.

He would have been a hundred years old this year - he was one of that generation of masters born at the moment when the movies began, and maybe it is hard to expect anyone born much later to understand their craze. At any event, in the proper course of its duty, the National Film Theatre is now about to present as close to a complete season of the works of Howard Hawks as we are ever likely to get. You could do yourself a favour by getting a season ticket, but beware: these "old" movies are damned quick and they shift tone and direction while you're breathing; more than that, get set on a diet of Hawks and you may return to the modern movies with tastes no one else can satisfy.

All of which may help to explain the rare esteem in which this man has been held by film-makers as varied as Jean-Luc Godard, Stephen Frears and Quentin Tarantino. He has been a model for younger practitioners, even if there is no way of regaining the "age" of Hawks. Everyone points to the aplomb with which he covered the range of American genres - the musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes); the screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday); the western (Rio Bravo, Red River); the war movie (Air Force); film noir (The Big Sleep); romance (To Have and Have Not); and even those sublime, insolent mixtures of adventure, dressing up, spinning lines and sheer nonsense, like Only Angels Have Wings, that one might as well simply label "Howard Hawks".

Those nine films just named could give you more fun than you're smart enough to manage. And just because I've assigned the nine to genres, don't trust such boundaries. The Big Sleep looks like film noir, talks like it, and knocks off a lot of bystanders along the way, yet it's also a love story, a comedy, and one of the strangest, most daring movies ever made, about how having fun doesn't need a story if the fun is fun enough. You could call it pure movie movie.

These are nine great pictures (if you want to impress yourself with that term), and there are another four or five by Hawks to go with them. Yet only one Hawks film was even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar - Sergeant York, actually not one of his best, though it is also the only film for which he was ever nominated as Best Director. It was only three years before his death - as if realising he was still there, and seeing that every New Wave adored him - that the fatuous Academy gave Hawks an honorary Oscar as "a master American film-maker whose creative efforts hold a distinguished place in world cinema". Jean Renoir got a similar Oscar the same year; but he was called "a genius".

Not that Hawks ever wanted such a label - again, "genius" somehow suggests unusual or ungentlemanly effort. And Howard Hawks never meant to rock the boat, frighten the horses or seem less than one of the coolest dandies in town. He'd have taken a fine English topcoat any time, instead of "genius". And better than either, he'd have wanted that girl, that one there in the corner, the one who refuses to smile.

There's a Hawks photograph to be cherished, from the late Thirties, in Palm Springs, on one of those days when it's 100 degrees by noon. It shows Hawks, Tyrone Power, Cesar Romero and Darryl Zanuck playing croquet. All four guys are stripped down to tailored shorts, and there's hardly enough fat on them to fry an egg. These are princes of the American West, and if Zanuck was plainly the most powerful, they were all made men who could drop a few thousand over croquet and then retreat to the stucco cool, a martini and some patient starlet who needed to be taught to smile. And talk.

Howard Hawks went into movies, not because he was a genius fit to burst, but because he was a hip young American out of private prep school and the Ivy League who saw, by 1930 or so, that there wasn't an easier, more glamorous way of being in, making scads of money, having all the women he wanted, and getting to play croquet with men's men. It was a lifestyle, and to be successful in Hollywood in the Thirties and Forties, when the money was merely ridiculous, and California was still an unknown paradise, was as close as America has ever come to the good life. It went with that territory that Howard Hawks was a cold, selfish, imperious manipulator, a chronic gambler and a hard businessman (a very Hollywood cocktail), a ruthless womaniser, a born liar and - this is most vital - a devout fantasist who wanted to think well of himself.

He was no more a sweetheart or an oak tree of integrity than he ever meant to be a genius. Todd McCarthy's biography of Hawks, expected later this year, should spell out the deviousness, the snobbery, the anti-Semitism, all of which were standard operating procedures for what we now like to think of as Hollywood's golden age. Much harder to research or describe is the way in which Hawks made pictures of worlds - often enclosed, besieged paradises - that he longed to inhabit. That's what the fantasising comes to, and fantasy may be the greatest gift of the movies, as well as their stealthiest virus for a sane society.

When Hawks got to Hollywood, the movies were already the American elixir, a bizarre, heady confusion of the real and the dream. What he called "having fun" in making a movie - and it was his constant test of scenes and material - was whether or not it was a becoming fantasy for him. Did the guy look good? As I've suggested, in this he was only doing what the town and its business did. Just about every American movie ever made is a set of dream premises waiting for you, and you, as ideal residents. So Hawks saw himself in Gary Cooper, Jimmy Cagney, Cary Grant, Bogart, Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and so on, and he loved movies in which the guys just hang out, talk, roll a cigarette, waiting for some sudden passage of lethal action. And look at women.

Hawks collected women: he had three wives, and along the way he "discovered" or stumbled upon such as Louise Brooks, Ann Dvorak, Frances Farmer, Katharine Hepburn (never so wild or funny until he touched her), Lauren Bacall, Joanne Dru, Ella Raines, Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson. He made some of the greatest scenes between men and women ever done in America - talking, teasing, glancing, scoring, one-upping, soothing, smooching, scratching, all in the perfect dream of how a guy and a girl might pass time. Not so much in marriage, as in some suspended trance of wooing, with both partners too smart and cool to get sentimental, or messy.

He's the man who just had the idea to push the Dorothy Malone scene in The Big Sleep - a girl running a bookstore - because she looked so damned attractive. Private eye Philip Marlowe comes in for a bit of info, and gets whatever your dreams can stretch to. Malone takes off her glasses and lets down her hair - so intelligent yet so obedient. It was the actress's big break, and she's never been better. It is a shameless piece of male power, very funny, very sexy, unforgivable, and so what? You see, he did it in 1946, when America was still a young, strong, cocksure country, when Hollywood was the centre of the world, and making movies was taken for granted. It was his luck to be in his prime then. And now the luck is all ours, no matter the problems of that scene and the miles of idyllic dream that look so real and natural.

A major season devoted to the work of Howard Hawks, 'American Artist', begins at the NFT on Tuesday. For more information, call 0171 928 3232. 'The Big Sleep', a monograph by David Thomson, is being published (BFI, pounds 6.99, paperback) to coincide with the season. See also, Howard Hawks offer: 'Real Life', page 10.