The Complete Howard Hawks

What one should do, what one must do, is try to anticipate what the public is going to like… I have no desire to make a picture for my own pleasure.

— Howard Hawks, in a Cahiers du Cinema interview with Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut, 1956

If one of the side effects of auteurism’s midcentury flourishing as an interpretive framework was to encourage critics to retroactively assign subterranean artistic intent to commercial film entertainment, few directors were as invested in demystifying that notion toward their own work as Howard Hawks (1896 – 1977). The prolific Hollywood genre pioneer, who occupied the dead center of the industry for at least three decades of his career, was first and foremost, by his own admission, in the business of filling movie theaters. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, the other half of the famous “Hitchcocko-Hawksian” designation given to the French New Wave critics-turned-filmmakers who elevated these two directors as the zenith of Hollywood’s crop during the classical era, Hawks was not interested in pursuing personal obsessions irrespective of the audience’s pleasure. Until the final decade of his career, when the tides of culture finally outpaced his sensibilities, Hawks’ body of work was defined by a canny accommodation of popular opinion. When a film underperformed at the box office, Hawks didn’t blame the viewership; rather, he corrected course.

Yet, despite this conservatism, Hawks persists as a widely influential figure as well as one of the greatest exemplars of a certain kind of genre cinema. His directorial run from 1926 to 1970 encompasses action-adventures, screwball comedies, gangster films, Westerns, noirs, musicals, war films, science fictions and historical pageants, but the seeming variety of his output betrays a remarkable coherence of vision, a precise attitude toward genre filmmaking that endured through the different clothing his productions wore. In a nutshell, the tenets of this attitude included a resistance to outward displays of sentiment within his narratives; a preference for large ensembles of mostly male characters; a tendency to de-emphasize spectacle in favor of the passages of character-building downtime in between; and a pared-down, pragmatic visual style that rarely allowed for overtly expressive uses of the camera. Above all, Hawks’ films are about people, not politics, abstract concepts or social issues.

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