10 Essential Howard Hawks Films You Need To Watch

6. To Have and Have Not (1944)

to have or have not

Loosely based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel, To Have and Have Not is among Hawks’s most flexible genre inventions. While keeping with its essential Hemingway-ian characteristics, the film subverts the adventure-driven plot to capitalize on a romance. The film sees the late Lauren Bacall in her first film role at the age of nineteen, and the instant chemistry between her and her forty-five year old costar, Humphrey Bogart, is at heart.

Despite the ways in which the narrative itself had been altered from the source material, the essence of the film is greatly due to the fateful casting of the two leads. Bogart plays Harry “Steve” Morgan, a disenchanted American fishing-boat captain in 1940 Fort-de-France, Martinique, and Bacall is Marie “Slim” Browning, a far-from-home drifter, stuck in an exotic land.

The chance meeting of the two and Steve’s subsequent entanglement is curiously reflective of the actors’ meta-narrative. The film plays as the real-life romance developed; Bogart’s Steve compromises his self-preservation, and Bacall’s Slim is drawn into his situation by irresistible passion.

The streamlined narrative of Hawks’s To Have and Have Not uses its premise to focus on the decidedly romantic ideals of self-sacrifice and service of a greater good, while keying in on the incompatibilities of men and women as its truer source of tension. This examination of gender conflict is evident throughout Hawks’s work up to this point, but here it is arguably at its most complicated yet.

The romance between Steve and Slim is preceded by a collision of gender stereotypes; Steve pegs her for the smugly impenetrable female figure and she resents his hard-looking male gaze. As this initial friction wears, their feelings manifest in sexual antagonism. Provocations in the forms of jealousy, subversive rhetoric, and other contrived manoeuvrings abound as conventions give way to more nouveau representations of gender.

However, this form of oppositional tension transforms when Steve forfeits his passivity and enters into the political conflict in order to help Slim. While not particularly sympathetic to the French Resistance, and motivated by his own interests, Steve’s actions are in line with the virtues of selflessness and camaraderie. And realizing her love for him, Slim implicates herself in his exploits, fulfilling Hawks’s archetype as a strong female character.

The tension effectively derives from Steve’s conflict with the local authority, in which Slim becomes a principal character as opposed to a complication of the male protagonist’s situation. In this narrative, issues of gender conflict are observed through a male-female duo. Thusly, Hawks reinvents the adventure genre with a romance that is entangled within the main stakes and not merely parallel to them.

To Have and Have Not measures a man not only by his ability to acquiesce in the service of greater ideals, but by his ability to abandon archaic models of gender. Despite being one of Hawks’s simplest and subtlest films, it is no less innovative in its approach than his more pronounced commentaries.


7. The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep

Hawks’s cryptic noir masterpiece came at the height of America’s Bogie-Bacall fascination. Considering the director’s mastery of genre appropriation, it’s no surprise that the heart of this ostensible crime-drama is the actors’ romance. The public’s captivation with the two stars ultimately manifested in the production of the film: an original 1945 prerelease and the more familiar 1946 theatrical version.

The reshot scenes and additional dialogue attribute to the greater chemistry between Bogart and Bacall in the later cut – what many argue effectively strengthens the film despite a lesser narrative cohesion.

The original cut of the film is only slightly-less convoluted, though; The Big Sleep is a tangled web of blackmail and murder that doesn’t fully explain itself even by its end. Notwithstanding, the film features some of the most compelling and memorable noir dialogue, which keeps the drama moving at a brisk pace. Much of this is due to Bogart, who plays the discerning private detective Philip Marlowe, but even more essential is Hawks’s sense for cunning femininity.

The entirety of the female cast – with the exception of Martha Vickers in the overtly sexualized role of Carmen Sternwood – features women who are every bit as perceptive as their male counterparts. Any sense of objectification here is met with clever displays of sexual dominance, most heavily emphasized in the additional “horserace” dialogue between Marlowe and Vivian.

The playful gender antagonism throughout Hawks’s girl-and-a-gun mystery helps to reinvigorate common noir themes of moral ambiguity. Despite the censorship of the Hollywood Production Code, Hawks imbues the apparently chaste screen-story with powerful implications of sexuality and violence through the many twists, turns, and nuanced exchanges.

Such subtleties as Vivian’s younger sister Carmen being found at the scene of the crime, unconscious and costumed in a Chinese dress, make reference to her more explicit implication in the source material. And by the end of the film, the circumstances surrounding the initial murder are anything but chaste: under Hawks’s direction, the restrained script places the gravity of the entire drama in morally dubious hands.

What’s more, Hawks eschews typical noir elements such as cynical characters and sexualized motivations, preferring a straight-shooter protagonist and displays of gender equality that underscore the central romance.

To say that The Big Sleep is among Hawks’s greatest demonstrations of his capabilities within a genre would undercut the range of his legacy. However, this film does show his aptitude for reinventing established forms through his subtle direction. In this reading, Hawks capitalizes on the relationship between Marlowe and Vivian – Bogart and Bacall – to serve his aims in making genre films more inventive, accessible, and open to greater interpretation.


8. Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)

Set during the aftermath of the American Civil War, Red River tells the story of the first cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail. Texas rancher Tom Dunson, played by John Wayne in his first collaboration with Hawks, decides that he must bring his cattle north where it will be more valuable, as the south has been plunged into poverty and ruin by the war.

As he sets out, the main source of dramatic tension comes from the relationship between Tom and his adoptive son, Matthew, played by Montgomery Clift in his first film performance.

Hawks had his work cut out for himself with first-timer Montgomery Clift starring opposite of the formidable John Wayne in this Western epic. Tom is the essential Wayne character, driven and relentless in his pursuits, and Clift’s first-ever film role is curiously reflective by nature: a young man who comes to usurp control of his adoptive father’s cattle drive. Although Wayne still had a long career ahead of him, this insight provides an interesting meta-narrative for the film.

In Red River, Hawks subverts his own pioneering genre, the “buddy film” – films that deal with the relationships and governing politics between men. Here, the growing tension between Tom and Matt turns into dissension and, eventually, violent hostility. In the context of a Western, though, this tension is the main catalyst for Hawks’s ultimate demythologization of the genre.

The Western was ripe for revisionist interpretations, reexaminations of long-established models of masculinity and machismo perpetuated by over a hundred years of American mythology. In essence, Hawks’s Red River deconstructs and subverts such fantasies as the conquest of dominion, the virtues of violence, and the role of women in a male-dominated society.

Hawks’s ear for conversational dialogue is perhaps at its best in the West. The characters’ most basic interactions often descend into displays of hubris and contests of one-upmanship – these moments don’t contribute so much to the plot as they do to Hawks’s greater deconstructionist aims.

However, Hawks makes a spectacle of his subversion much earlier on in the film: Tom is struggling with a Comanche warrior in a shallow river; he submerges the native beneath the water and, with several powerful thrusts, stabs him to death. In a revisionist interpretation of the American West and its religiosity, this murder bears a striking resemblance to a crude baptism.

Hawks’s deconstruction of masculinity wouldn’t be complete without his “Hawksian-woman.” The role of women and lovers throughout the film is downplayed to the point of objectification, but it is a woman who essentially saves the day and ensures the proper ending to a Hawks buddy film.

As the film builds to what seems like its inevitable climax, the mounting masculinity deflates in a near-comical outburst of emotion. Often mistaken for a trivialization, the ending of the film is as much an empowerment of femininity as it is a critique of the masculine ego.


9. The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Despite the official credit resting with Christian Nyby, general consensus over the years has suggested that Hawks definitively directed The Thing from Another World. The exact nature of the collaboration is not entirely clear, but the film is so thoroughly Hawksian that it was be hard to imagine that he did not have a significant hand in its production.

Viewed and analyzed as such, The Thing from Another World constitutes yet another expansion of the director’s work, his first and only foray into science-fiction. Through their familiar forms and structure, the director mobilizes genre elements in the service of greater ideas. Thus, The Thing from Another World is a science-fiction, but only on its surface.

The genre-subject matter serves a vital function in framing the narrative; once this is accomplished, though, those components give way to reveal the Hawksian elements at work. That is, Hawks isn’t out to make a monster movie, but to reveal an essential truth about the monster by removing it from its familiar surroundings. Critics have cited a relative lack of tension as one of the film’s shortcomings, however, this observation says something about Hawks’s methodology.

The main tension of the film derives not from the conflict represented in the monster, but between men of different ideologies. The monster never feels as pervasive as Dr. Carrington’s heedless pursuit of scientific progress, which threatens to put the lives of his fellow scientists, Captain Hendry and his men in mortal danger. The Thing from Another World is then fundamentally Hawksian, a film about the camaraderie of men united against an evil force.

While the film fits neatly into the rest of the director’s oeuvre, it is unique in at least one regard. Along with its main intentions, the film carries with it certain political notions, otherwise rare in Hawks’s work. The post-war skepticism about scientific motives is clear enough, but the film deals with it in such a way that it takes on greater significance. Contextualized by the conflicting wills of two men, it is not simply a film about the consequences of scientific progress and human fallibility, but the personal – and frightening – nature of our enemies in the nuclear age.


10. Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo

Considered a Western masterpiece, along with his own Red River a decade earlier and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Hawks’s Rio Bravo is perhaps the most complicated of the three. Rio Bravo walks and talks like a Western, but the film seems to have motives that are not readily identifiable with the genre.

For example, aside from a few short encounters – which are always tightly bound to plot points – and the climactic “shootout,” the film is all but devoid of the action one would expect from a traditional Western. In fact, any sense of immediate stakes is wholly missing from the drama: early on the film Sheriff John T. Chance, played by John Wayne, decides that the prisoner’s brother wouldn’t attempt to forcefully break him out of jail.

While the threat exists, it never truly manifests. And without that essential tension – the pervasive Western conflict between man and wilderness, order and chaos – the film must have other dimensions. Rio Bravo, then, is another of Hawks’s genre masquerades.

A prominent visual cue to Hawks’s true intentions is the lack of wilderness imagery, as the film takes place entirely within the town’s limits. Additionally, the absence of any close-ups becomes apparent as Hawks works almost completely in medium and medium-wide shots. In these images, characters bicker and banter, talk and argue about their various situations as well as the occasional allusion to personal issues.

The characters move about Hawks’s carefully composed frames, navigating the politics between them in both physical and figurative ways. As seen more blatantly in Red River, Hawks still pokes at Western mythology here.

There is Wayne as the veritable sheriff, a role with more good humor and less ruthlessness than typical; Dean Martin as “Dude,” the prodigal son, vying for Chance’s approval as means to his own redemption; Walter Brennan plays the old shouting “Stumpy” while Ricky Nelson’s Colorado Ryan is the young gun. These four men are Hawks’s conversation pieces for a commentary on masculinity, aging ideals, and power-relationships within a structure – the shell of a Western.

Angie Dickinson’s role as the enigmatic “Feathers” rounds out Rio Bravo’s principal cast. A Hawksian-woman by definition, Feathers defies all gender roles and stimulates the relatively quiet drama; her presence is as weighty as the situation down at the jail. Early on, the sexual antagonism between her and Chance is established as a parallel tension to the main plot.

Chance, too, admits that things might be different between them if it weren’t for the current state of affairs, as he is bound to his duty in his capacity as Sheriff. But Feathers makes known that she is no ordinary woman, ignoring Chance’s authority and effectively reducing the codes of masculine hierarchy to pure mythology.

Through their romance, plotted throughout the main drama, Hawks acknowledges the superficiality of the gender conflict. With its various threads, Rio Bravo is most impressive sociological study, mobilized in the form of a Western.