July 23, 2016

by Alexandre Astruc

Originally published in Paris-Match, 1108 (1 août 1970) as 
"'Le Shérif': Alexandre Astruc fait rendre justice à Howard Hawks". 
Translated by Dorothea Hoekzema.

A fascist is, as everyone knows, someone who despises men, believes only in relationships of force, manifests a pronounced taste for quarrels, considers women as subproletarian, privileged by the fact that they are given the pleasure of washing the dishes and wiping the kids. 

Besides, since American directors, and Howard Hawks in particular, are evidently, in so far as they are authors of Westerns, a heap of reactionary riff-raff, of rednecks, of cops, and of militarists, Rio Bravo, a sublime film, merits, without a doubt, the label of fascist. Moreover, Hawks is an old airman, and he must have the mentality of a general. His best pal was the racist Faulkner. Everything fits the pattern: we are at the height of a reactionary period!... Faulkner had an enormous admiration for Hawks, not just because he was his best friend and fought in the war with him. He adapted the war for him. He adapted for him the screenplay of To Have and To Have Not from a novella by this Hemingway who couldn't hold a candle to him. But the greater one is, the humbler he is. The same Faulkner (still for Howard Hawks) adapted detective dramas (like The Big Sleep). Don't be surprised if this The Big Sleep is equally sublime. Let's get back to Rio Bravo, which just came out, to tell--but everything fits the pattern--the profound raison d'être of this film. We are in 1955, and Zinnemann, a so-called leftist, a humanist, and a detestable director, just brought to the screen with Gary Cooper one of these traditional Westerns which permit armchair progressives, especially, to defend a genre which is counter-revolutionary.

This very bad film is called High Noon. In this film in the best tradition, the sheriff Gary Cooper, who is engaged to the Quaker virgin, symbol of the American woman's purity, played by Grace Kelly, future princess of Monaco, makes his exit, his job finished, on the exact day when a killer, whom he had arrested, is going to come back. 

Racking his brains, Cooper, just married to his Quaker in a nice wedding, is in the process of leaving. In the end, duty is stronger. He goes back to the city and tries to find someone to help him keep the dangerous bandit from killing him: naturally, as in all humanist films, men are too cowardly and, because of fear, are ready to collaborate with the killer. Which is normal, all humanism having as its first principle good personal conscience and contempt for the unfortunates who do not have the happiness of being visited by divine inspiration: the classic history of the saved. 

Cooper, finding no one, performs, against his wishes, his role as hero, and, to really show his disgust, before leaving, throws his sheriff's badge on the ground--what admirable audacity of Zinnemann! We are at the height of moralizing, of the traditional, hypocritical, and so-called progressive kind. 

The fascist Hawks is so disgusted with this film that he decides to do a remake of it with his friend Dean Martin. This is Rio Bravo

The only differences are:

1) The role of Grace Kelly is replaced by that of the barmaid Angie Dickinson. She performs honestly her woman's work, which is to love John Wayne. 

2) Put in the same circumstances as Gary Cooper, John Wayne doesn't ask for anyone's help. He has a job to do: he is sheriff; he is paid for that. He locks himself in his office, gets his guns ready and, with the help of a sixty-year-old man who acts as his assistant, awaits with determination the killer's brother, who promised to break into said office. 

3) Stroke of genius. There is a human wreck, a drunk, an alcoholic: Dean Martin. Dean Martin, it is evident, inasmuch as he is a drunkard, does not have a sense of honor, and the function of sheriffs is to despise alcoholics. Well, Wayne protects Dean Martin who, in an admirable scene (I even had tears in my eyes), drunk as he is--but it is well known that Hawks despises the man; he is not like Zinneman, the liberal--finds in himself the moral strength to refuse to pick out from a spittoon money tossed there by the killer. Then, he arrives at the sheriff's and offers to help him. He can't, his hands tremble, he sobers up a little, he succumbs and again touches the accursed bottle. Then John Wayne does this admirable thing: he smacks him in the face, proof of the greatest respect; one doesn't fight with someone one despises--but, evidently, this is again the fascist moral. Rio Bravo is only a Western: a Western is not enriching. This is not like the erotic and avant-garde films of Robbe-Grillet; this is nothing but two tired heroes of forty to fifty years, who criticize each other and drink whisky. 

But it is impossible to leave Rio Bravo (like El Dorado, another film of Hawks, which resembles it like a brother) without feeling proud of being a man. The people who make these films are not hacks, they are not manufacturers; they are moralists, in the true sense of the word. The films of Hawks, even the comedies that he made, like Man's Favorite Sport, go much further in the knowledge of man than the so-called Underground analyses and studies do. Why? Because Hawks knows what a man is, and that is why he can make films. One cannot make films if he does not like life, if he does not believe, above all, that physical manifestations are privileged. The body does not lie, nor does the human face: this is the strength of the cinema and its health as opposed to literature. 

A supplementary reason for the glory of Hawks: he made comedies as well as tragedies. Bringing Up Baby as well as Red River and The Big Sky.

A new reason, naturally, not to take him seriously. It is not serious to make people laugh; it is even shameful. Pagnol and Moliere are an evident proof. Moreover, people who cause laughter are reactionaries; it's well known: American comedy is fascist. 

You will excuse me this one time for having retold the plot of the film, which is not my habit. I did it purposely; I did it because it is simply a question of truth, of this truth which is seen as it is filmed. 

July 22, 2016

by Alexandre Astruc

Originally published in Paris-Match, 1139 (6 mars 1971
as "Un Massacre par sequence: Rio Lobo de Howard Hawks.
Translated by Dorothea Hoekzema

As he gets older, Howard Hawks--he must be something like seventy-five years old now--seems to take a mischievous pleasure in multiplying the number of corpses which litter his films' fertile-green carpet, scattered with cow-dung. 

To kill, to shoot, to cool off, to disembowel one's fellow creature by firing at him point-blank with one or another popgun stuffed up to the muzzle with avenging gunpowder was, until now, a pleasure reserved for a small, privileged elite. 

It was like a lord's occupation, a profession carefully protected by a a kind of closed group. Lords and masters delightfully abandon themselves, romping joyously in the tall grass, searching for two-legged game, while a small group of non-violent people, slaves and concubines, cook and make tortillas while raking or hoeing rutabagas or manioc. 

Alas, alas! This division of labor may have seen its last days. In the latest film of Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo, with the long-lasting John Wayne, everybody, absolutely everybody, without differentiation of age, sex, or race, everybody able to move forward while brandishing a harquebus or a catapult, joins the shooting gallery. 

Don't let all that keep you from immediately flocking to Rio Lobo, which is an excellent and marvelous film at the same time as a wonderful example of what a narration of pure cinematographic action can be. 

Unlike so many young people whom we know only too well, this old, super-silvered fox, Howard Hawks, is not going to permit his action to slow down and spoil our pleasure under the pretext of philosophizing or of making crocodile tears flow by lingering on rows of corpses which are barely cold and which he just lined up. 

Oh no! It's useless to stock up on Kleenex. One hardly has the time or the leisure to slow down in Howard Hawks' films, in Rio Lobo in particular, where gunpowder talks rather quickly and clearly.

In short, in this film, as the captain of Jacques le Fataliste by Diderot says: "Every bullet that leaves a rifle has its mark." 

All of this is rather inebriating and exciting for the soul, but it risks not being an especially recommendable spectacle for cardiacs. I greatly fear that I can't advise going elsewhere to all those heart specialists and psychological analysts, who seek in the Western only a new approach in the broadening of the knowledge of man. 

In Rio Bravo, indeed in El Dorado, between two performances of shooting and a drinking bout, Mr. John Wayne, tired as he was, still found time to exchange some condescending off-hand remarks with his partners, Mr. Dean Martin or Mr. Robert Mitchum. It's useless for you to flatter yourself because you are hearing anything other than the sputtering of blazing lead in so many voices coming out of so many mouths of fire. 
Psychology, lyricism, photography, explanations: Hawks, this time, has thrown everything overboard, including musical filler. Only a thin and dry guitar underscores, with a few Jansenist chords, a straight-lined production.

There seems to be nothing else on the screen. Nothing more than a fantastically played action, served by a black, ferocious humor, nothing more than the broken wire of a spring which expands and vibrates in the blue-gray sky of the forest. 

Nothing more. Nothingness, that's what. That is, nothingness successively and in the same film and the same breath: the attack of an armored train by Southern forces in flight, with anti-railroad terrorist commandos, bombardment with wasp-filled bags, train on the loose, pursuit in the branches and the marshes, bloody corpses thrown in the ballast, capture of John Wayne, ambush, John Wayne delivered by the yellow scarves, War of Secession continued and concluded. Camps of prisoners, search for the traitor, murder of a mountebank, arrival of a distressed orphan girl, reconciliation of John Wayne and the Southern son of Robert Mitchum, the orphan's assassination attempt, filling the four killers full of lead by the pair Wayne-Jim Mitchum (Robert's son), Rio Lobo in the hands of a sadistic and extortionist sheriff, love affair of the orphan and Mitchum's son, a ranch attack, occupation of the sheriff's office, sequestration, ransom, final explanation, splash in the water. Whew! Stop. John Wayne triumphs. No kisses. Nothingness, as I have the honor of telling you. Nothing: next to nothing. Nothing but great, admirable cinema.

The only question which still has to be asked concerning this marvelous film, the only mystery left unsolved, is the appearance of John Wayne. 

Thick, weighing at least a ton of bones and beef, heavy as an ox lost in the middle of a robbery of thoroughbred horses, a preeminent paunch, bags under the eyes, one wonders how he is able to hoist himself into the saddle, then be able to stay there... Not at all. A good shot of whiskey, then he is off again, dashing and lively. It's because he doesn't want to unleash the old man to give all these young people a chance. He stays in the spotlight. He hangs on, climbing the stairs four at a time like an ex-football player to keep in shape, and sleeping with his boots on. 

Burt Lancaster, with his young fifty-nine years, can talk about rest and think retirement. 

As for John Wayne, he will leave as the brave do, those shooting-off-at-the-mouths, the veterans. 

He will enter the grave as he always lived. 

On horse. 

July 4, 2016