Weekly Top Five: The best of Howard Hawks

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Only Angels Have Wings
  • Only Angels Have Wings

New York City is smack-dab in the middle of a complete Howard Hawks retrospective that includes every existing work by the master director. Each film—including such hard-to-find movies as Fig Leaves (1927), A Girl in Every Port (1928), and Fazil (1928)—screens in either 35mm or 16mm, making this an extraspecial event. While Chicagoans aren't exactly starved for Hawks films—his best-known stuff appears frequently in local repertory houses; most recently, the Logan screened his noir classic The Big Sleep—the chance to see his life's work is enticing. With any luck, something similar will head our way. In the meantime, here are my five favorite Howard Hawks films.

5. Hatari! (1962) My favorite of his late period, a thoroughly entertaining actioner brimming with exuberance for form, setting, and characterization. The film is something of a victory lap for Hawks, who effortlessly unfurls his trademark themes.

4. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Audacious, colorful, and just a hair away from being outright vulgar, this flamboyant musical ranks among Hawks's most curious films. It's easily his most socially aware, a calculated look at sexual identity. I'm actually not sure all of it works, but its sheer velocity is impossible to deny.

3. The Big Sky (1952) The visual antithesis of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, this deceptively casual western is growing in stature as Hawks's most unsung work, a romantic envisioning of unspoiled American countryside that displays some of the director's most poetic qualities. Russell Harlan's inky cinematography, for which he received an Academy Award nomination, is the film's most enduring aspect.

2. Twentieth Century (1934) The defining comedy of Hawks's career, better even than Bringing Up Baby. The frantic dialogue, breakneck pace, abrupt shifts in tone, and incessant energy amount to a whirlwind of comedic action. The film is set on a passenger train, a perfect metaphor for the film itself.

1. Only Angels Have Wings (1939) The capstone of Hawks's early career, featuring an elegant balance of macho material with romantic inclinations, a theme that would mark the best films of his career. Hawks specialized in stark opening sequences; the foreboding, fog-ridden opening scene in this melodrama ranks among his most memorable.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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