The Directors, The Auteurs, the Commanders of the Ship, Masters of All They Survey. This is the second of this two-part series on the greatest directors with more of cinematic luminaries under the spotlight. You can see the first part of this article here. You can catch up with the greatest writers, andthe greatest actors here.
Here’s Part Two.
Howard Hawks – The Big Sleep
Hawks, like his peer Billy Wilder, proved a genre-hopping master. Like Wilder, he had his crime/noir masterpieces (Scarface, The Big Sleep) and his comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday). Hawks also did a strong line in westerns, with Red River and Rio Bravo the best known and best regarded of this latter-career focus of his. As with any director who covers a lot of thematic ground during their career, it can be difficult to choose a “Best”, as you are often comparing apples and oranges. It depends what you like, what you are in the mood for and what you think represents that director’s forte.
His Girl Friday got a nod in the Writers list and rightly so, as it is clearly the high water mark of Charles Lederer’s career. Indeed it is one of those films, like Up In the Air or LA Confidential that is the high water mark of anyone and everyone involved with it. But variety is the spice of life and so it is probably appropriate to make a different selection for Hawks. And so we come to The Big Sleep.
Raymond Chandler, author of the source novel, was contacted during filming to resolve an ongoing mystery that the director and screenwriter (William Faulkner) had been unable to address, namely after all was said and done, who killed the chauffeur? Chandler famously replied, “how should I know”. Brilliant. Frustrating, but brilliantly so.
It is that sort of labyrinthine film; you sort of have a handle on it while watching it, you quickly lose track afterwards, but all that does is lead you back to enjoy its seemingly limitless charms all over again. However, The Big Sleep is not just a great plot, an elaborate story. It has style, vivacious acting performances, great monochrome contrasts and a wholly difficult-to-achieve balance of high stakes and breezy tone that make its 115min run time fly by.
Bogart & Bacall are of course perfect, building on their effortless chemistry from To Have And Have Not (their further pairings for Dark Passage and Key Largo were solid but no patch on this), but even the bit-part players carry their scenes through with conviction. To a degree watching it now can feel like an exercise in cliché, but that is simply because it created the template for the genre and it was increasingly replicated to diminishing effect by lesser films. Michael Winner’s ill-advised remake (starring an otherwise well-chosen Robert Mitchum) certainly shows in stark relief that it takes more than just solid source material and a major star to capture lightning in a bottle.
Since Bringing Up Baby is one of the great screwball comedies, it may seem unfair to overlook it, but The Big Sleep is such a towering achievement, so nuanced, intelligent, entertaining and satisfying that it remains the only really solid alternative to His Girl Friday as the Best of Hawks’ Best.