Just like a man

Howard Hawks relished male camaraderie. He liked to shoot from eye-level - 'because that's the way a man sees it'. As for women, he saw them as mere distractions. Hawks was never confined by genre. He made flying dramas, screwball comedies, westerns and gangster pics with equal facility

Half-way through Kevin Macdonald's new documentary on Howard Hawks, there is some home-movie footage from 1939, dug out late last year from dusty oblivion in Hawks' son's attic, and showing the film-maker relaxing with his wife, Slim, and his old friend, Ernest Hemingway. In one shot, Hemingway, moustachioed, barrel-chested, looking like an overweight Errol Flynn, mugs for the camera, affecting one of those cheesy grins we've all worn at one time or another when the photographer tells us to "Smile!". Hawks, by contrast, is a lanky, bony, slightly effete figure with a solemn air. He watches his wife as she expertly blasts away at clay pigeons with a shotgun.

Hawks and Hemingway make a fine pair. It is not just that they were chums and that Hawks made a movie of what he considered Hemingway's very worst novel, To Have and Have Not. Both men seemed to live and work by roughly the same creed. Whereas Hemingway was famous for his pared-down, demotic prose style, Hawks gained a reputation as the most unfussy of directors. He eschewed fancy camera work, preferring to shoot from a static, eye- level perspective "because that's the way a man sees it". Like Hemingway, Hawks relished male camaraderie. (He even went as far as to describe his first important movie, A Girl in Every Port, as "a love story between two men".) And the so-called "Hawksian woman", self-reliant, insolent, capable of running with the boys (Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday or Bacall in The Big Sleep), was not so very different from a character like Brett in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

Hawks didn't like fluster or cowardice. Witness his contemptuous remarks about Gary Cooper as the marshal in High Noon (a film he loathed) "running around like a wet chicken... the man was not a professional". Not a professional: in Hawks' lexicon, there could be no more damning insult. As Macdonald puts it, "The only people he respected were those who could do their jobs properly."

Squeezing Hawks' life into a trim 58-minute documentary was always going to be a sisyphean task. Every time he thought he had finished editing, Macdonald realised that there was some precious anecdote left on the cutting- room floor, some key film that wasn't mentioned. Even now, when he is virtually finished, he is not happy about what he has lost. We don't get to hear the old-timers talking about Hawks' mastery of mannerism. (Watch Red River and see how often Montgomery Clift scratches his nose or look at the erotically charged way Bacall sucks on her cigarettes in The Big Sleep.) Nor do we learn about his skill at coaxing great performances from his stars. "He understood that the secret of star acting was to make the line between the performance and the star as thin as possible," Macdonald explains. "Several of his old colleagues said this to us. If you want to know what John Wayne was really like, watch him in a Hawks movie."

Almost inevitably, the documentary is unbalanced. Most of Hawks' associates from the early days are long since dead. There is no Victor McLaglen to explain the brawls in A Girl in Every Port and Paul Muni isn't on hand to talk about his choice of ties in Scarface. (Gangsters like to dress gaudy.) Although the venerable Constance Cummings, star of Hawks' 1931 effort The Criminal Code, is alive and well and living in London, she apparently had nothing of any interest to say. And the budget didn't stretch to tracking down Karen Morley, a blacklisted actress who "appeared wonderfully" alongside Muni in Scarface. Instead, Macdonald relies on a handful of contemporary American film-makers to explain Hawks' early work. These range from the scowling, hirsute and formidably articulate Walter Hill to dapper, effete Peter Bogdanovich, with Michael Mann and William Friedkin coming somewhere in between.

But there are plenty of survivors from Hawks' later days. James Caan talks about life lessons with the old master. "Hawks taught me the important things, like this is a good steak, this is not a good steak; that woman is good-looking, that woman is not." Lauren Bacall, described by Macdonald as "very grand, very snappy and extremely fussy about how she was lit", waxes caustic on how Hawks tried to seduce her on the set of To Have and Have Not. Angie Dickinson, meanwhile, explains why, Bacall apart, he only ever used actresses once. (Basically, they were all playing the same role.)

Macdonald, a twentysomething Scottish writer and film-maker whose elder brother produced Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, admits that he wasn't a huge Hawks enthusiast when he started work on the film. He was given the job when Stephen Frears pulled out at the last minute. ("At first, Frears wanted me to co-direct it with him. Then, after a lot of talk, he decided he couldn't make it. He was too critical of Hawks. He had too complex a viewpoint of him.")

In the course of his research, Macdonald quickly realised what a paradoxical figure he was dealing with. Hawks has a reputation as an action director with a penchant for taciturn, manly heroes, but most of his films are about people sitting around in rooms talking. "He's incredibly theatrical in some ways."

For years, even when Cahiers Du Cinema was acclaiming Hawks as one of the great auteurs, the Brits remained sceptical. "There is something rather camp, rather anti-intellectual about his films," says Macdonald. "The French could take them seriously. The British were always rather more cynical."

Hawks was always going to be a slippery subject for a documentary. As Macdonald puts it, "It's very difficult to have an interesting unifying theory about him." Although it is easy enough for dewy-eyed cineastes to spot recurrent motifs in his work, he remains one of the most protean of the great Hollywood directors. He was never confined by genre. He made flying dramas, screwball comedies, westerns and gangster pics with equal facility. Nor is there any such place as Hawks country. "It's not like making a John Ford documentary. You can't just go to Monument Valley and stick your camera in the sand. There isn't anywhere that means anything in terms of place. If Hawks films take place anywhere, they take place on a sound stage."

In the documentary, Walter Hill goes to great lengths to explain why Red River is a better film than Rio Bravo, but then acknowledges that to "Hawksians", as the director's followers style themselves, the latter film will always mean much more. It may have a rambling, flimsy narrative structure but it encapsulates his key themes - professionalism, friendship among men, strong-willed women. "He remade the same film again and again," Macdonald observes. "There is the automatic assumption that this is what makes him a great artist - expressing personal obsessions. But I would question that. I would say his best films are the atypical ones, like Red River, His Girl Friday and Scarface."

Macdonald admits he would far rather have made a more esoteric documentary "that wasn't just talking heads and clips". But given the constraints he was working under, this was always going to be difficult. Time was short (he started work in September), and although he had a reasonable budget of around pounds 200,000, at least half of it went on paying for rights to clips. In the end, taking his cue from Hawks himself, he plumped for a simple style. "It's very straightforward. There are no tricks, fancy dissolves or anything like that."

Watching the documentary, you still don't get much of a sense of what made Hawks tick. He was an Ivy League boy, good at sports, who liked to tell tall tales and had a sadistic streak. Beyond this, he remains stubbornly inscrutable, as if hiding behind his own mask of professionalism. "I spent a lot of time grasping around, trying to understand him, where he was coming from, what his politics might have been," Macdonald admits, "but then I realised I was looking at it completely the wrong way. I was trying to look too deep. What you see is what you get"n

Kevin Macdonald's 'Howard Hawks: American Artist' is at the NFT, 7pm 27 Jan, as part of a Howard Hawks season. Booking: 0171-928 3232

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