With books on film, it doesn’t get any better than the subject talking about his or her self. These works don’t get lost in extended attempts to squeeze meaning and reason from every move that is made on screen.
Hawks on Hawks by Joseph McBride from 1982 is that kind of book, a work that steps aside for the man himself to talk and tell us about the pictures, how he made them, why he made them, to shut up the intellectuals and remind us that motion pictures are about smart storytelling and entertainment.
We will be posting excerpts from this and books about other film-related topics as they strike us.
Here, a few words from Hawks:
“I raced cars for about three years [when I was seventeen or eighteen], did my own work on them, and built a car that won Indianapolis… We raced on dirt tracks. It wasn’t polite racing. If you could shove somebody into a fence you did it. I met Victor Fleming [director of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz] driving in a race. I put him through a fence and wrecked his car. I won the race and saw him coming; I thought I was gonna have a fight with him. Instead of that, he came up with a grin and he said, ‘That was pretty good, but don’t ever try it again, because I’ll just run into you.’ We became very good friends.”
The poster for one of Hawks’ last films, a racing picture.
We plan a detailed entry about the Western. Until then, here we have a subject, a legend that has sparked so many renditions it stands at its own sub-genre within the Western: the Wyatt Earp picture.
A character from the early days of cinema to the present, this lawman has been interpreted by the likes of Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner. John Ford told his story, so did other American Primitives like Allan Dwan and the one we highlight today: Jacques Tourneur with the film he directed, Wichita.
This time around, Joel McCrea, one of the great unsung heroes of motion pictures (he worked with everyone from Hawks to Sturges to Hitchcock and settled down his career as a permanent cowboy), plays Wyatt as the reluctant citizen who just wants to start some business, make romances and advances on Vera Miles, and stay out of trouble. As the townsfolk of the budding Wichita notice, trouble finds him anyway. He simply cannot stand by when there is no law and order.
This is a quiet picture. Tourneur does nothing out of the ordinary. He lets the story play out the way it usually does, highs and lows, action accompanies danger, heroism confronts injustice. McCrea too does nothing unusual. By all that I mean that this is a good picture, a solid one, a movie that doesn’t try to remind us how great it is, it just tells us a simple story and lets us go.
Young Girl: “Where does poetry come from?”
Charles: “You show me your titties and I’ll compose a poem, just for you.”
Charles: “Ever heard the sound of one mouth screaming? I have for years… my own. I didn’t want to go home, I didn’t want to see anybody. I just wanted to be invisible for a few days, to get down in the dirt, ooze myself with all the others, the defeated, the demented, and the damned. They’re the real people of this world and I was proud to be in their company. ”
Tales of Ordinary Madness, written by Marcos Ferreri and Sergio Amidei, adapted from the book Erections, Ejaculation, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski
Jack Palance: The Badest of the Bad
As stated before when I was a kid we loved villains. Always identified with them in the movies. Villains were the bad asses of society and we found them exciting.
Now ninety nine percent of the villains were men, but there were a few female villains as well. The only problem is that generally they were led to their villainous ways by some guy and usually had a change of heart close to the end by doing something noble just before she died (of a bullet in the stomach)in the hero’s arms saying: “I’m sorry Steve, I just didn’t ahh..ahh.” We didn’t like that. Didn’t like that at all. We wanted you to be bad all the way through. So that even with your last dying breath you were telling a lie. Then we would leave the theatre saying: “Did you see that? Even while he (she) was dying. Wow!” That was the highest compliment we could give, an astonished “Wow”.
Another thing about villains in those days (the 1950s) is that they looked different. They all had scars and mustaches. Some even had beards, but most had mustaches. Not a romantic, sexy mustache like Clark Gable. No theirs was a Hitler like kind of thing. Or it was thin and wormlike. But the best thing about those villains is that they all had bad skin. Their cheek was pock-marked and cratered so that when the light hit it in certain way you knew that was a face only a mother could love. So that even at the start of the film before his character was established, when he is with the towns people pretending to be a man of distinction, you knew he was up to shit. Why? Because of his bad skin.
Then of course, there was the scar. He would tell everyone that he got it in the war fighting for the North (or the South). But later it would be revealed that he got it from trying to force his sexual attentions on some innocent woman who attempted to defend her virtue by scratching him. He then would get mad and kill her and run off to another town or state. But to his bad luck the dead woman would turn out to be the sister, wife or sometimes the mother of the hero who would then dedicate his life to finding out who did this horrible deed. And God help him if the hero was somebody big and rough like John Wayne. He would punch him, kick him and stomp him before putting him out of his misery with three, maybe four or even five bullets.
Still in spite of that kind of treatment we all wanted to be villains. And our favorite villain in the 1950s was Jack Palance (1919-2006). He was tall and moved with panther like grace. He spoke in a halting kind of whisper, breaking up his sentences in unexpected ways. He was ugly in a kind of way that fascinated us. He seemed to have bad skin not just on his face but all over his body as well. And to top it off he always seemed to be in a bad mood. The kind of guy you would say “Good morning” to and apologize for it right after just in case he heard it wrong. Jack was so bad that he would sometimes beat up the members of his own gang. Some guy would ask a question or challenge his authority and Jack would deal on him with his fists. We loved that. Loved it a lot.
The movie that set him up as a God for us was Shane ((1952). In it he played Wilson the gunfighter the bad guys brought in from out of town. Wilson rode in slow, got off his horse slow, took his drink slow, went back outside slow, taunted the feisty Southerner slow, pulled on his black glove slow and shot the man face down in the mud slow. An incredible piece of movie villainy that has yet to be matched in the annals of great motion picture moments.
Later Wilson meets Shane and shows him respect. Then when their big confrontation came Shane shoots him down between the barrels. They did that because it was a movie and they had to give it a moral. The bad guy can never win. But we kids knew better. We knew that if it was real life Wilson would’ve totally messed up Shane and the conversation would be over. Either Shane would’ve been dead or he would be drinking clear soup through a straw for the rest of his life.
Later on Jack became the hero in his movies and lost us completely. But when he was bad the man had no peer. See Panic in the Streets (1950) for example. The man had no peer at all. He won an Academy Award later in his career for City Slickers (1991) but I always felt he should’ve gotten it for Shane.
My favorite Palance moment comes in the film where he played Attila the Hun (Sign of the Pagan -1954) where without warning he grabs a headstrong princess, pulls her up against him and kisses her roughly on the mouth then pushes her away. When she says: “How dare you!” He tells her in that wonderful delivery of his: “I know you’ve been kissed by kings and courtiers, now you know what it’s like to be kissed by a … barbarian.”
I have been waiting all my life for an opportunity like that to present itself to me. Some haughty member of a royal family will be standing there, I’ll pull her to me, kiss her hard and say those immortal words: “I know you’ve been kissed by kings and courtiers. Now you know what it’s like to be kissed by a… barbarian.” It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still hopeful.
The badass Jack Palance was my role model. He still is.
In a documentary on John Ford called Becoming John Ford, one of the commentators points out that “Raoul Walsh’s characters act out of adventure, Howard Hawks’ act out of professionalism, and John Ford’s act out of tradition.” It is an interesting way to track and study the three directors’ work.
The Criminal Code, directed by Howard Hawks in 1931.
The picture is about a new warden (played by Walter Huston) who takes over a prison populated mostly by the criminals he put away during his stint as District Attorney.
His first day, he and the prison guards listen from his office as hundreds of prisoners crowd the yard, growling, howling, wanting his blood.
The warden decides to go down to meet them. He is advised not to. The chief of the guards insists that he is accompanied.
The warden says, “When my name was on the District Attorney’s door, I was District Attorney. My job was to get convictions and I got them. As an elected governor, I’d govern. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t elected. Well, here I am, warden, and that’s what I’m going to be, warden… This seems to be a matter between me and the boys down there, we’ve got to settle it ourselves.”
He steps out into the yard, lights a cigar, and slowly walks out into the crowd of prisoners. At any moment, they could tear him to pieces but somehow the growling and howling quiets. He eyes the men he means to look after. They cannot meet his gaze.
Now they know he will do his job. They may hate him, but they must respect him because he is professional, from the same ranks as John Wayne’s sheriff in Rio Bravo and the flyers in The Dawn Patrol and Only Angels Have Wings. This is a great, forgotten Hawks picture.
When we were kids going to the movies we always identified with the villains. Always favored them. They seemed to live lives that were carefree and wild. They could do anything they liked right up to about ten or five minutes before the end of the film. Then they would be caught, beat up, put in prison or killed. But before that they always had one hell of a time being bad.
Heroes were dull to us. Heroes had morals; heroes had to live by the rules. Villains didn’t give a damn about the rules. As far as they were concerned rules could kiss their behinds. Rules were for ordinary people like grocers, postmen, bankers and clerks. Boring people like the people we knew. People like our mothers and fathers, teachers and neighbors. Next to them villains led exciting and thrilling lives. We wanted those kinds of lives and didn’t mind if we had to pay for it at the end. Because after all the end would only last for about ten minutes or so.
One of our favorites was Dan Duryea (1907-1968). He was a quintessential villain in two of my favorite genres, westerns and film noir. He had a narrow face and sharp cunning eyes. Film noir femme fatales always lied and the heroes (saps that they were) always believed them. But Duryea never did. He always knew they were lying through their teeth and would tell them so. More than talk he would sometimes slap them around to let them know they weren’t fooling him. Then he would kiss them and they would more than like it, they would love him for it. That was our kind of villain.
Now there are two kinds of bad guys as far as we were concerned. The ones who did bad things and try to get away with it and the ones who took great glee from doing those bad things. They were doing it not just for the money or power but because they just liked being bad. Because they were the bad asses and anybody who didn’t like it would have to lump it. Duryea was one of them. He would giggle and cackle and taunt and tease when he was doing his bad stuff and seemed to virtually get an orgasm when he was killing some innocent, unarmed dupe. Then when the end came, this was the best part for us, he would lie and cry and snivel and beg the hero to save him. And if the hero knew what he was about he would grab his collar, slap him around for a bit, punch him and kick his ass all over the room while we screamed “Beat him! Beat him!” And Duryea could beg and cower and snivel with the best of them and we loved him for it.
The truth is in real life he was a wonderful actor and a very nice man who was born in White Plains, New York, went to Cornell University and distinguished himself in Broadway classics like Dead End and The Little Foxes before moving to Hollywood and establishing himself as a wonderfully entertaining bad guy in films like Winchester ’73(1950) and my absolute favorite Too Late for Tears (1949). For his villainy on screen he achieved a cult status of sorts which says that we weren’t the only one attracted to his terrific brand of badness mixed with humor.
As an actor he was of course capable of playing other parts and did them well. But it was for his villainy he will always be remembered and revered by those of us who love movies and especially film noir.
Andre De Toth
He called himself “a Hungarian born, one-eyed American cowboy from Texas.” He supposedly lost the eye in an anti-Nazi demonstration before he moved to America. He had seven wives and nineteen children.
His most famous directing gig might be the horror film House of Wax, starring Vincent Price: an amazing 3D achievement because of his handicap. He also made a ton of Westerns with Randolph Scott. The film of his we highlight this time is from 1954; it is called Crime Wave.
Not unadulterated Noir by our definition, but a police-procedural mixed with a heist film, Crime Wave, directed by De Toth is lean and mean. It was shot almost in its entirety on locations. He was offered a big budget and thirty days, but declined and said he could do it both faster and cheaper. So they gave him fifteen days; he finished it in thirteen.
Here is the opening scene from the film:
De Toth fought to cast Sterling Hayden as Detective Sims, the ruthless cop who pushes nice guy Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) to help him track down a trio of escaped convicts. The studio wanted Humphrey Bogart. They said, “Sterling can’t act.” De Toth said he didn’t have to, he was the genuine article.
Sterling quit smoking for the part just like his character Sims. The detective explains, “You know, it isn’t what a man wants to do, Lacey, but what he has to do. Now you take me, I love to smoke cigarettes, but the doctor says I can’t have them. So what do I do? I chew tooth picks, tons of them.” James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential, calls Hayden the “the film noir poet brute”. He’s spot on.
The picture plays out with not many surprises in terms of plot; it holds together through Hayden’s character. It’s not clear how far he will go to get what he wants. In many ways, he is scarier than the three ex-cons. He knows Lacey is a reformed criminal with a sweet wife who means no harm, but he has no problem putting both their lives in danger to catch the bad guys.
At the end, when we see a side of him we didn’t know was there, he leans against a wall on a street corner and pulls a cigarette out of his pocket. It’s bent, crooked like he’s had it there waiting for months, years maybe. He puts it in his mouth, lights it, realizes something and throws it away. He slides the toothpick back in his mouth. It’s the last shot of the picture and boy is it a beauty.
More on De Toth later.
-Most information scavenged from disreputable sources such as Wikipedia and the word of James Ellroy and Eddie Muller.