Howard Hawks and the Auteur Theory
François Truffaut once said, “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors.” He, along with other critics-turned-directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, advocated the auteur theory in the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. The theory is simple – a great film is the personal vision of the director, and because the director is in charge of image and sound, he or she is the true author of the film, rather than the actual screenwriter. What started as a theory now holds a permanent place in cinema, and now, the concept is so ingrained in filmgoers that it’s hard to think of a film to be anything other than the work of its director. And one of the earliest examples of the auteur was Howard Hawks.
Howard Hawks holds a special place among the original auteurs, primarily because his current reputation was initially non-existent. When one thinks of an auteur, a figure like Alfred Hitchcock immediately springs to mind – a man whose works are both thematically linked and permeated by his obsessions and worldview. But Hawks was the complete opposite. He wasn’t as stylistically inventive, his films weren’t cut from the same cloth nor overtly intellectual, at least not on first viewing. Hawks ran through an assortment of genres – westerns, screwball comedies, musicals, film noir, gangster pictures – and was primarily seen by the rest of Hollywood as a simple, no-nonsense craftsman who would always come out with a solid, entertaining picture.
And for most of his career, that’s what he was known as, despite the fact that most of his films were critically acclaimed and did reasonably well at the box office. At that time, John Ford, King Vidor and William Wyler were the major directing forces in Hollywood, and Hawks, who recklessly jumped from genre to genre, was nowhere near as widely admired, or widely known. But the fact that Hawks deliberately chose to tackle any story he could meant that he was truly a master of form. Hawks couldn’t be tied down to one story or mood, and this mastery of cinematic technique brought him to the attention of the aforementioned French critics, who later venerated him.
Godard, for example, declared 1932’s Scarface one of the greatest American sound films ever made, Rohmer declared Hawks a “genius,” and Rivette suggested that the works of Hawks could be divided into two distinct parts, the first was “madcap comedy,” and the second was “action drama.” Soon, his films became more available in the United States, and in the early 1960s, retrospectives abounded. Around the same time, the Andrew Sarris-coined “auteur theory” had already made its way to various film circles.
But what made Hawks one of cinema’s leading auteurs? His reputation with the French critics was so much more than camera placement and approach to editing. A quick view of his career reveals him to be an innovator in naturalistic dialogue, but a deeper view of his work reveals what is perhaps his defining theme – the conflicted relationship between men and women. Hawks’ films were filled with modern characters, and he presented a world where men stressed importance on their principles and professions, and where women had to adapt harsher, masculine qualities to compete. Hawks became renowned because he was a mainstream director who instilled a particularly specific perspective into his films.