Howard Hawks is one of the definers of classical Hollywood style; what is likely Chicago’s first complete Hawks retrospective begins this week with his powerful Scarface (1932) and this monumental 1948 western, one of his greatest films. John Wayne, in the most complex role he’d done till then, is Thomas Dunson, the founder of a huge Texas ranch, and a young Montgomery Clift plays his surrogate son with notable intensity. Dunson steals the land from its rich Mexican owner, defends it with his gun, and after the Civil War tries to blaze a 1,000-mile trail to get his beef to market. Dunson is a complex and divided figure, larger-than-life in his ambitions but murderous as well. “I didn’t know that big sonovabitch could act,” said John Ford, who’d directed Wayne years earlier, after seeing this film. Hawks’s elusive style grows from a kind of antiformalism that builds imagery around characters’ tiny movements and gestures, so that each shot seems organized around personality traits–it’s almost as if each composition grows organically from a single glance. In the films of more formalist directors such as Fritz Lang or even Ford, the fates of characters seem determined by some larger mechanism. In Hawks’s films–and never more clearly than in Red River–it’s the characters who shape the world around them. Repeatedly setting Wayne’s powerful figure against an almost featureless landscape, Hawks creates a strong tension between the two, making visible the film’s overriding theme: the struggle of individuals to seize the land–from nature and from Native Americans–and to master it. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, October 9, 8:00, and Thursday, October 15, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Fred Camper
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.