In the current world of film criticism where, with some exceptions, there is a a narrow representation of contemporary film tastes on the internet and a lack of space dedicated to film history in print, it's important to return to its history to read, or re-read, its major texts to have a better perspective on where it's today.
The following is one of the first major interviews with Howard Hawks from Cahiers du Cinéma from 1956. Scott Breivold in Howard Hawks: Interviews writes about it,
The following is one of the first major interviews with Howard Hawks from Cahiers du Cinéma from 1956. Scott Breivold in Howard Hawks: Interviews writes about it,
"The "discovery" of Howard Hawks began in the 1950s (ironically not in America but in France) with the publication of Jacques Rivette's 1953 essay, The Genius of Howard Hawks in the journal Cahiers du Cinéma. [...] In 1956, some of the French critics conducted what is regarded as the first important interview with Howard Hawks. [...] The 1956 Cahiers interview is a good foundation for discovery of Hawks, exploring his choice of subjects, genres, techniques, and early influences."In the interview Hawks discusses his films The Land of the Pharaohs, Scarface, Viva Villa and Paid For Love as well as he emphasizes the humor in his films. Saul Austerlitz in his book on film comedy, Another Fine Mess, would highlight the Hawksian "farcical good humor" of the performances and especially the ones by Cary Grant. This interview is also frequently cited (cf. Bill Krohn's The Making of Land of Pharaohs). - D.D.
Interview by Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Francois Truffaut (Cahiers du Cinéma, N.56, Feb. 1956). English translation from Interviews With Film Directors by Andrew Sarris.
“The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks’s genius,” we had recently written. It would have been an exaggeration to pretend that this evidence was accessible to everyone; and critical unanimity is happily far from being settled on the genius of one of the great American cineastes: it is clear enough that our own evaluation has not changed.
It was not a question of interrogating Hawks on his “genius”; no metaphysical speculations; nothing that could distress the champions of clarity or common sense; at least, let us hope that each will find here his own account, and that includes the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians” of pure obedience.
When we arrived for our interview, we found Hawks conversing with whom? Jacques Becker, one of our old friends. The auteur of Casque d’Or courteously took his leave of the auteur of Sergeant York when we protested his departure: since Jacque Becker was a friend of Howard Hawks, the interview could only gain in interest. Furthermore, Becker’s fluency in the language of Griffith made him more than an interpreter, a valuable collaborator.
Since our interview transpired a few days before the release of The Land of the Pharaohs, our first questions quite naturally dealt with that film.
Howard Hawks: I made this film for one simple reason: Cinemascope. At the time I was approached to direct a film in this new screen size, I was considering as a project the story of an astonishing feat of construction in China during the war. The American Army wanted an airfield which the engineers estimated would take eight months to construct. The Chinese supplied twenty thousand men and women, who carried stone in little baskets on their heads, and this huge airfield was completed in three weeks. I was about to abandon this project because the political situation made cooperation with Red China impossible; the producers then considered shooting the film in Thailand. It then occurred to me that the building of the pyramids was the same kind of story – it too demonstrated what man is able to create with his bare hands from sand to stone. This kind of story appeals to me tremendously. We thus wrote our script on this one theme: the construction of a pyramid.
Cahiers: What part did William Faulkner play in the development of the scenario?
Hawks: He collaborated with Harry Kurnitz in the writing of both story and screenplay. As always, he contributed enormously. He’s a great writer; we are very old friends and work easily together. We understand each other very well, and any time I need any sort of help, I call on Faulkner. He has done three or four scenarios for me, but he has also helped me on many others. The story of The Land of the Pharaohs because his imagination was challenged by these men, their conversations, the reasons for their belief in a second life, how they happened to achieve these tasks for beliefs we would find it difficult to understand today, such as the slight importance attached to the present life in comparison with the future life, the rest that was to be assured to the Pharaoh in a place where his body would be secure…
Cahiers: For ages, or even…
Hawks: For eternity, for eternity. For all these reasons, Faulkner was the man for the assignment: he has an affinity for these ideas. They are what he is made for.
Cahiers: We would like to know how you transported your imagination back to an age so remote as the ancient Egyptian.
Hawks: We were assisted by several historians in Egypt’s Department of Antiquities, and above all by a Frenchman who has lived and written numerous books on Egyptian history in a little house in the shadow of the great Pyramid – the exact spot on which we shot the picture. He and the other authorities instructed us in the ways and customs of the Egyptians. I’m afraid we paid attention only to hat best suited our picture. It is possible to reconstruct the furniture and dress, and even some of the ritual, of the Pharaohs from the hieroglyphics and drawings on the tombs. We know what the soldiers’ uniforms looked like, what musical instruments were played, and what utensils were used. As for the architecture, Trauner did a great piece of work. He is, without doubt, one of the greatest scene designers in the world. We tried to reproduce Trauner’s visual conceptions exactly.
Cahiers: Did that French Egyptologist see what you shot each day?
Hawks: He saw some of the rushes, I think. He was very interested in some of the schemes we concocted for moving and transporting the blocks of stone. According to him, it was quite possible the Egyptians had thought of the same stratagems. For example, we were in agreement about the use of a ramp to get the stones to the summit, and the subsequent dismantling of the ramp once it was no longer need. The method by which stones are raised from the ground and lowered onto the boat in the film is our invention. So is the way the pyramid is sealed after its construction. The scholars were quite intrigued. We employed a hydraulic process which is quite modern, but instead of water or oil, we used sand. Thus, we had a huge stone rest upon enormous wooden pilings. Each pile was sunk in a hole, and each hole was filled with sand. For each block of rock to fall into place it was necessary merely to open a small hole which allowed the sand to run out. As the sand did so, the huge block settled down slowly into its final position. This is probably the method the Egyptians used. We don’t know for sure.
Cahiers: Then you have tried to make a realistic film?
Hawks: As realistic as possible, but that didn’t stop us from using camels, even though very few camels were in Egypt at the time of our story. Our justification, shaky on purely historical grounds, was that camels did seem integral to our image of Egypt. There were many other things we could only guess about. That’s why we had the workers be free at the start of the pyramid and slaves at the end. We reasoned that the employment of 10,000 men on a pyramid for 30 years would drain the country economically and that after the first few years of exaltation, discontent would smolder into collective rage and the workers would have to be enslaved to make them continue. This thesis is an integral part of our film.
Cahiers: You ordinarily avoid stories with a long time span, and the notion of continuity plays a great role in almost all your films. Were you bothered by the fact that this story extended over thirty years?
Hawks: Bothered, no, but handicapped. It was difficult to devise a story that lasted thirty years while maintaining an acceptable continuity.
Cahiers: What have you concluded from your experience with Cinemascope?
Hawks: We have spent a lifetime learning how to compel the public to concentrate on one single thing. Now we have something that works in exactly the opposite way, and I don’t like it very much. I like Cinemascope for a picture such as The Land of the Pharaohs, where it can show things impossible otherwise, but I don’t like it at all for the average story. Contrary to what some think, it is easier to shoot in Cinemascope – you don’t have to bother about what you should show – everything’s on the screen. I find that a bit clumsy. Above all, in a motion picture, is the story. You cannot shoot a scene as quickly in Cinemascope, because if you develop a situation quickly, the characters jump all over the wide screen – which in a way makes them invisible. Thus you lose speed as a means of exciting or augmenting a scene’s dramatic tension. You have to proceed differently. What you lose on the dramatic plane, however, you gain on the visual plane. The result can be very pleasing to the eye. You have to decide what seems best. Have you seen a film entitled The Tall Men with Gable?
Cahiers: No, not yet.
Hawks: My brother produced it. It’s Red River, but in color and in Cinemascope, and it’s a very pleasant film to watch. It’s not a great film, but a good film. It made me regret not having Cinemascope when I made Red River. John Ford and I made some anamorphic attempts around 1926, but we didn’t care for the results. I always think that the artist who paints a scene in a certain manner must, in changing his manner, change his scene.
Cahiers: And Africa?
Hawks: For this film we must use portable cameras. For certain scenes even hand-held cameras; the Cinemascope gear would be too difficult.
Cahiers: Will this be your next film?
Hawks: I don’t really know. We can start shooting, the scenario is finished, but I must make another film before; we won’t go down into Africa before next September.
Cahiers: Could you tell us a little about this other film?
Hawks: It’s difficult, we are only beginning to work on it. I can’t tell you very much, because we haven’t even decided on the main plot line. I don’t know what form it is going to take. I don’t even know what genre of film it will be. Its point of departure is a true incident that I’ve heard about, but it might never become a film. It depends.
Cahiers: All your films are based on events which tend to show a man in action, his effort and struggle. Even considering the wide variety of your projects, these themes keep recurring in almost all your films. Do you think this is so?
Hawks: That may be true, but I am not really aware of it. I make movies on subjects that interest me: That could be automobile racing, airplanes, a western or a comedy, but the best drama for me is the one which shows a man in danger. There is no action where there is no danger. It follows that if you achieve real action, there must be danger. To live or to die! What drama is greater? Therefore I have probably chosen this direction because I have gradually come to believe that it matters more than anything else. It’s very easy to make a movie knowing that everyone will love it, but that doesn’t count for much. What one should do, what one must do, is try to anticipate what the public is going to like. I don’t think that these people are producers; they make a picture because somebody makes a picture that is successful, so they make one like it, you know?
Cahiers: Yes, too many films exist only as imitations of others.
Hawks: That’s true. We made Scarface because the violence of this particular era was interesting. Scarface is still being copied – and hence still lives. There were fifteen murders in Scarface, and people said I was crazy to have so many. But I knew that was the story: violence made the story. Also, in practice, all the gangster movies that have followed Scarface only reiterated the same material. Similarly, when I made Red River, I thought an adult western could be made for mature audiences, and now everyone is making “intelligent” westerns. And a film like Twentieth Century… have you seen Twentieth Century?
Cahiers: Helas non!
Hawks: It was the first time the dramatic leads, instead of secondary comics, played for laughs. I mean we got the fun out of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. It was two or three years ahead of its time.
Cahiers: We think that a film like Monkey Business has renewed American comedy, and is undoubtedly more ambitious than it seems…
Hawks: Oh, probably, yes. Because of its general theme: the laughs are born out of the inhibitions that restrict each of us and are here abruptly removed by rejuvenation. It was a good story. Perhaps we pushed the point a bit too far for the public. From this point of view, it is less amusing than Male War Bride or Bringing Up Baby. Monkey Business went too far, became too fanciful and not funny enough: this is my opinion.
Cahiers: And Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?
Hawks: Oh, that was just … fun! In other movies, you have two men who go out looking for pretty girls to have fun with. We pulled a switch by taking two girls who went out looking for men to amuse them: a perfectly modern story. It delighted me. It was funny. The two girls, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, were so good together that any time I had trouble figuring out any business, I simple had them walk back and fort, and the audiences adored it. I had a staircase built so that they could go up and down, and since they are well built… This type of movie lets you sleep at night without a care in the world; five or six weeks were all we needed to shoot the musical numbers, the dances and the rest.
Cahiers: What period of work do you prefer? Script, shooting, editing?
Hawks: I hate the editing.
Cahiers: But you do the editing of your films?
Hawks: Oh, yes! Simultaneously with the shooting, if possible. When I started out in this profession, the producers were all afraid that made a film too short because I didn’t give them enough film for editing. And I said: “I don’t want you to make the movie in the cutting room, I want to make it myself on the set, and if that doesn’t suit you, too bad.” That’s not to say that editing isn’t a chore, particularly when you haven’t done a good job wit the shooting. Editing is a horror for me because I look at my work for a second time and say that’s pretty bad, and that, and also that – The difficult work is the preparation: finding the story, deciding how to tell it, what to show and what not to show. Once you begin shooting you see everything in the best light, develop certain details, and improve the whole. I never follow a script literally and I don’t hesitate to change a script completely if I see a chance to do something interesting. I like to work on the scenarios. Some of my best movies were written in very little time. Scarface took only eleven days, story and scenario.
Cahiers: Does that include the dialogues?
Hawks: Everything. The whole thing took eleven days. I know because I paid the writers who worked for me by the day.
Cahiers: Who gave you the material, the basic facts?
Hawks: The facts came from several reporters in Chicago, many books, and magazine articles. The outline was done by Ben Hecht. He didn’t have to do any research. All he had to do was ask me about this or that detail, and I would rattle off the information because I had read a lot on the subject. For example, I don’t know if you recall George Raft flipping a “nickel” in his hand? There are actually been a large number of murders in Chicago, where, as a mark of disrespect, the killer stuck a nickel into the hand of the corpse. Raft’s character being that of a killer, he always had a coin in his hand. We also exploited another little known fact: The papers that published the photos of a murder indicated “X marks the spot where the body was found.” So we designed fifteen or twenty scenes around the X, finding all sorts of ways to use the X when a murder occurred.
Cahiers: Each time someone was killed, there was an X?
Hawks: Yes. X.
Cahiers: Did that have something to do with the scar on Muni’s face?
Hawks: Yes. Once you start off on that path, why not go all the way? Do you remember the scene in which Boris Karloff is bowling? As he lets the ball go, he’s hit; the pins all go down. An X for a strike is marked on the scorecard.
Cahiers: And the cloud in Red River, was it intentional or accidental?
Hawks: We saw it coming just as Wayne began reading the prayer over the grave. We told him to hurry reading so that we could catch it at the right moment. This was a case of seizing an opportunity as it presented itself. I don’t think we would have held up the scene to wait for a cloud.
Cahiers: You were the producer of The Thing without getting credit as a director, but you undoubtedly supervised the production very closely.
Hawks: Oh, yes. The direction was handled by my editor, but I was on the set for all the important scenes. It was a very pleasant assignment. We wrote the script in four and a half days. I had read the story in Germany, in Heidelberg, where we shout Male War Bride. We only used four pages from it. I bought the rights and hired tow good screenwriters. The story interested me because I thought it was an adult treatment of an often infantile subject.
Cahiers: Many critics have complained about the big differences that existed between the Hemingway story To Have and Have Not and the film you shot from it. Why did you change so much?
Hawks: Hemingway and I are good friends, but whenever I tried to persuade Hemingway to write for the movies, Hemingway insisted that he could be a good writer of books, but he didn’t know whether he could be a good writer of movies. Once when Hemingway and I were hunting together, I told him that I could take his worst story and make a movie out of it. Hemingway asked me what was his worst story. “To Have and Have Not,” I said. Hemingway explained that he had written the story in one sitting when he needed money, and that I couldn’t make a movie out of it. I said I’d try, and while we hunted, we discussed it. We decided that the best way to tell the story was not to show the hero growing old, but to show how he had met the girl, and, in short, show everything that had happened before the beginning of the novel. After four or five days of discussion I left. Faulkner and Jules Furthman then wrote a script incorporating the ideas Hemingway and I had evolved on our hunting trip. In fact, there was enough material left over for another movie (Michael Curtiz’ The Breaking Point) which was pretty good.
Cahiers: Your career has been divided equally between adventure films and comedies. The adventure films seemed optimistic and the comedies pessimistic, but there always seemed a lesson to be drawn from the humor in both genres. Are you more interested in the mixture of genres within your subject or in the clash of genres?
Hawks: Perhaps I can best answer in the following manner. Life is very simple for most people. It becomes so routine that everybody wants to escape his environment. Adventure stories reveal how people behave in the face of death – what they do, say, feel, and even think. I have always liked the scene in Only Angels Have Wings in which a man says “I feel funny,” and his best friend says “your neck is broken,” and the injured man then says “I have always wondered how I would die if I knew I was going to die. I would rather you didn’t watch me.” And the friend goes out and stands n the rain. I have personally encountered this experience, and the public found it very convincing.
But a comedy is virtually the same as an adventure story. The difference is in the situation – dangerous in an adventure story, embarrassing in a comedy. But in both we observe our fellow beings in unusual situations. You merely emphasize the dramatic or the comical aspects of the hero’s reactions. Sometimes you can mix them up a bit. My serious pictures usually have their comic sides. You’ve seen The Big Sky? You remember the scene where they amputate Kirk Douglas’ finger; it was really funny. I had already wanted to do that scene in Red River, but John Wayne had said that I was crazy to want such a scene played for comedy. I said okay, I would do it in my next picture instead. When Wayne saw it, he phoned me and said he’d do whatever I wanted to in our next picture together.
It’s possible to do comedy scenes even at very tragic moments. I once told a Spaniard I was thinking of doing Don Quixote with Cary Grant and Cantinflas, and the Spaniard said it was impossible to make a comedy out of a tragedy. I asked the Spaniard to tell me the story of Don Quixote, and after the Spaniard had done so, I said, “You’ve just told me the story of three of Chaplin’s best pictures.” He looked at me and said, “You’re right. Let’s go make a comedy.” And that’s pretty much the way I see it. The only difference between comedy and tragedy is the point of view. That’s the only way I know how to answer your questions.
Cahiers: The question has been answered.
Hawks: You know the story of The African Queen? I turned down an invitation to direct it because I couldn’t see any humor in the situation. It pleased me to see how they made it a comedy. There were some silly things it, but it went. Whenever I hear a story my first thought is how to make it into a comedy, and I think of how to make it into a drama only as a last resort. Do you remember the story about the man who wanted to commit suicide and stayed on a window ledge – Fourteen Hours? They wanted me to do it, and I said no. “Why not?” they asked me. “It’s a great story.” I told them I didn’t like suicides, and I told my friend Henry Hathaway that I didn’t like the film he had directed. The public didn’t like it either, and Zanuck told me I had been right. I told Zanuck: “I might have done it if it had been Cary Grant getting from the bedroom of a woman whose husband had come back unexpectedly and after he was found on the ledge he pretended he was contemplating suicide.” Zanuck asked me if I wanted to start on that one the next day.
Cahiers: You’re not interested in abnormal characters?
Hawks: Sometimes I get interested in the encounter of a normal person and an abnormal person. Almost all my caprices, my manias (like the way I am playing with key chain while I talk to you), I like to think that these are abnormal things. To see the difference in the way of thinking makes good scenes, but to tell a long story about a nut isn’t easy. Besides, I don’t like theoretical situations. I like stories like Viva Villa! which I wrote and half of which I directed. The Villa in that film, like the Villa in real life, was a quite bizarre man. So was Scarface. Ben Hecht wanted to make the Capone-like character a Caesar Borgia and Capone’s sister like Lucretia Borgia. This analogy permeates that script, and every intelligent person sense something unusual, something that can’t be brought out into the open, but affects all the scenes.
Pancho Villa had a very complex personality – that’s what made him interesting – but these subjects are rare. Fox wanted me to do Zapata, but the script was all wrong about the character. Zapata was the worst murdered Mexico had ever seen. Had Fox been willing to tell the true story of Zapata, I would have been interested. But they made a sort of Santa Claus of him and had him riding around the country giving presents to poor peons.
Cahiers: In short, you’re guided in your work by an intentional reaction to what is going on around you.
Hawks: Exactly. I’ve already said that it’s easy, when one sees crowds rushing off to see a movie, to make another movie almost exactly like it. What is more fun is trying something new, and hoping it will work. That’s how I hit upon the tempo of my movies. I made a film called His Girl Friday in which the characters spoke so fat that the characters kept stepping on each other’s lines. The public liked it. Moreover, the tempo in Scarface was faster than usual in that period. I generally work with a faster tempo than that of most of my colleagues. It seems more natural to me, less force. I personally speak slowly, but people generally talk, talk, talk without even waiting for other people to finish. Also, if a scene is a bit weak, the more rapidly you shoot it, the better it will be on the screen. Moreover, if the tempo is fast you can emphasize a point by slowing the rhythm. Similarly, when you have a scene with two characters, don’t always use a close-up. When you use close-ups sparingly, the public realizes that they are important. I hate movies which, without any reason, are composed completely of close-ups. I don’t like them. I don’t want to say that they’re necessarily bad movies, but I don’t like that particular style of film-making.
Cahiers: Have any particular directors influenced you?
Hawks: In the beginning, I was very much impressed by Murnau’s Sunrise, particularly for its camera movements. I once made a film in this style – Paid to Love – with a great many camera effects, but I have never used such trickery since that time. I try to tell a story as simply as possible with the camera at eye level. Since I had directed Paid to Love at a time when the public was easy to impress, the result was well-received. But I don’t believe the future is in that direction. The other directors who have most impressed me are John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, and Leo McCarey; these are the men who, in my opinion, have been the best.
Cahiers: What do you think of the young directors: Nicholas Ray, for example.
Hawks: I’ve seen several of Ray’s films, and find them very promising. He is one of those directors of whom it is said: “I will go see everything he does because he is a good story-teller.” But the actual situation in Hollywood is hard for young directors. They don’t get the freedom we older directors enjoy. Young directors are told what to direct, where to shoot it, on what day to be finished. It’s hard. However, the more successful a young director’s movies, the more freedom he will be give.
Cahiers: What would be your ideal film, that which you would make for yourself alone?
Hawks: I have no desire to make a picture for myself. There has never been a picture so good the public didn’t care to see it. I like to make comedies because I like to go into a theater and hear people laughing – the more laughter the better I feel. I have no desire to make a picture for my own pleasure. Fortunately, I have found that what I like, most people also like, so I only have to let myself go and do what interests me.
I am actually thinking about a subject for a movie. For four-fifths of the picture there is only one person on the screen. A girl, cut off from all contact with humanity by avalanches and melting ice, bears a child and cares for it for three moths before she is found.
Cahiers: Do you always work on your scripts?
Hawks: From the beginning and for all my films.
Cahiers: If you had to choose three or four of your films to be saved, which ones would they be?
Hawks: For sentimental reasons, my first talking film, Dawn Patrol, then Scarface and probably Twentieth Century; but … there are many others I would like to save. Dawn Patrol was very interesting because it was my firs experience with sound. I had not worked since the coming of sound because the producers didn’t know if I could work with dialogue. I had never had any theatrical experience. I myself wrote almost the entire scenario, and during the shooting, everyone kept telling me: “It’s not good dialogue, it’s not dramatic. Everything is flat. Everything you’re doing is going to be flat.” No one liked the film because none of the characters cried or screamed. When the editing was finished, the studio had so little confidence in the movie, they dispensed with the premiere. They preferred to release it discreetly, and then it turned out to be the best film of the year, and then they got into the habit of screening it for other directors and saying: “That’s what good dialogue is like.”