Crime films, screwball comedies, westerns, melodrama – a truly versatile director who has left a CV peppered with bona fide classics. If you’re not sure, let me show you…………..
1. His Girl Friday
Rather than witter on about how it was a remake and adaptation and the gender of one of the key roles was switched to create a different dynamic (see IMDb for more), let’s focus on what really makes a difference here – script and performances. Cary Grant was properly in his stride by this stage of his career – dapper, funny, witty, sharp and eloquent – and Rosalind Russell matches him stride for stride and quip for quip throughout.
He wants to win her back (they’ve divorced and she has come to his newspaper to tell him she is re-marrying the next day) and piques her curiosity with a story of miscarried justice, but this is all about the banter, the rapid-fire dialogue and a compelling story that keeps it all hanging together in a narrative we care about.
Whereas a lot of modern clever dialogue can be self-consciously so, drawing too much attention to itself and seeming smug in the process, His Girl Friday is as smooth as velvet, charming and amusing but with sufficient weight given to the newspaper story around which the protagonists revolve to keep it from floating away in light-hearted irrelevance.
It might be argued that with performers this capable and a script this sharp, any old hack could have directed it, but Hawks must be given due credit – he brings out superb performances, keeps scenes moving, avoids getting bogged down in the potentially wordy exchanges and gives the whole thing a breathless but compelling atmosphere. Top marks.
Bear in mind that this was the decade that gave us Little Caesar, The Roaring Twenties, Angels With Dirty Faces and The Public Enemy, so we’re in pretty exalted company, but Scarface deserves to be here. Paul Muni, George Raft and Boris Karloff all crop up here, but it is Muni’s show, by turns menacing, deranged and terrifying.
It is easy to sneer at gangster films of this era and certainly compared to films like The Untouchables, Road to Perdition, Carlito’s Way and their ilk the 1930’s gangster cycle can seem tame, even twee. But the very best of them are defined by compelling, enduring acting performances (Muni, Cagney and Robinson would never be caught delivering a line as hackneyed as that film clip Kevin uses in Home Alone) and even if the moral code of the time insisted on us always seeing the criminals get their comeuppance (Scarface’s subtitle says it all – The Shame of the Nation), that often lent a more tragic arc to the stories, with the heights to which they climbed always having to lead to a spectacular demise.
Hawks draws a career-defining performance out of Muni (saying something considering what he went on to deliver in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang) and keeps the whole film moving with threat and menace. Whereas De Palma would go for graphic violence and Pacino dialled up to 11 for his 1980’s version of Scarface (a very different film, but similar at its core), Hawks undoubtedly lays claim to having made the better film, ironically a less dated affair, despite being half a century older than its hysterical namesake.