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Howard Hawkes: American Artist

Concise, clip-packed and almost always on the nose, "Howard Hawks: American Artist" is a dense thumbnail sketch of a director who, like fellow helmers John Ford and William A. Wellman, did what he did and left others to talk about the art. For a man who led a pretty unremarkable life outside his movies, this is watchable stuff. British documaker-writer Kevin Macdonald, best known for the biography of his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger, has rounded up enough buff moments and a reasonable collection of mavens and witnesses (including Variety chief film crit and Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy) to educate the uninitiated and press the right buttons with cinephiles.

With:
With: Lauren Bacall, Harold Jack Bloom, Peter Bogdanovich, James Caan, Harry Carey Jr., Angie Dickinson, William Friedkin, Paul Helmick, Walter Hill, Michael Mann, Todd McCarthy. Narrator: Stephen Frears.

Though often dubbed a maverick within the commercial industry, the point is well made early on that Hawks (1896-1977) in fact came from a wealthy Indiana family that virtually owned the town he was born in, was Ivy League educated (engineering at Cornell U.) and found a secure place within Hollywood’s charmed circle through his first marriage, to Norma Shearer’s sister.

Skating over Hawks’ silent career, whose only notable product was “A Girl in Every Port,” the film quickly focuses on the director’s own favorite, “Scarface,” described by Walter Hill as “the best gangster picture ever made” (noting its use of mobile camera) and “truly unique” by Michael Mann (noting its subtle lighting and character handling).

Referring to Hawks’ flying pics of the ’30s, Hill succinctly notes that they’re not really about flying at all, more about “the measure of the man.” That, plus Hawks’ fondness for sassy female characters who unsettle male universes, is the running theme behind most of the ongoing analysis, copiously illustrated in well-chosen clips.

For buffs, these insights may not be news, but they’re the unmistakable common denominator to a career that spread over 50 years, more than 40 directorial outings and genres as diverse as gangster movies, screwball comedies, films noirs, action-adventures, musicals and Westerns.

Macdonald & Co. struck lucky with the recent unearthing of the original version of “The Big Sleep,” originally shown only to U.S. servicemen overseas before being recut with new material for general release. Some neat comparative clips show how the originally clearer plotting turned into a brain-twister as explanatory scenes disappeared and ones turning up the Bogart-Bacall sexual heat were added.

Helmer’s working practices are described in fair detail, especially his fine-tuning of lines with actors just prior to shooting, often turning up on the day with pages of dialogue, and (per Angie Dickinson on “Rio Bravo”) communicating his wishes through a kind of osmosis rather than detailed instructions.

Hawks the man peeks through in several previously unseen home movies (surfing in Hawaii; with second wife Nancy “Slim” Gross and Hemingway in Florida), a brief clip directing John Wayne in “Rio Lobo,” and various interviews in the latter part of his career. More pertinently, Bacall notes Hawks’ anger at losing her to Bogart during the shooting of “To Have and Have Not,” and how he tried everything to upset the pair’s relationship. It’s one of the few moments when the director’s darker side shows through in a mostly uncritical portrait.

Some may quibble with the observation that Hawks lost his edge during the ’50s — “Land of the Pharaohs,” maybe, but “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” surely not — and the total omission of the echt-Hawks connoisseur item, “Hatari!” Otherwise, Macdonald’s docu dissects the man and the filmmaker with a pretty sharp knife within its allotted time.

Howard Hawkes: American Artist

Production: BFI-TV production, in association with Bravo, DocStar and the Museum of Modern Arts' Department of Film & Video, for BBC Television. Produced by Paula Jalfon. Executive producers, Colin MacCabe, Adrian Wootton (for the British Film Institute), Jonathan Sehring (for Bravo). Directed by Kevin Macdonald.

Crew: Camera, Caroline Champetier; editor, Cliff West; music, Donald Fraser; sound, Steve Hinkins; consultant, Todd McCarthy. Running time: 1 HOUR.

With: With: Lauren Bacall, Harold Jack Bloom, Peter Bogdanovich, James Caan, Harry Carey Jr., Angie Dickinson, William Friedkin, Paul Helmick, Walter Hill, Michael Mann, Todd McCarthy. Narrator: Stephen Frears.

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