Thursday, August 27, 2009
Red Line 7000
No one but Howard Hawks could have made Red Line 7000. It is a truly Hawksian picture through and through, bearing the distinctive imprint of his work in every frame. Not that this means it's any good, because for the most part it really isn't. In fact, it's an almost defiantly bad movie, as though Hawks was trying to figure out just how awkward and lackadaisical most of the film's elements could be while still making a picture that, overall, always feels like a Hawks picture. His signature themes are all there: the antagonistic relationships between men and women, the camaraderie of men in dangerous occupations, the anxieties of the women who love them. But it's all so naked here, so unvarnished; it's the essence of Hawks without the pleasures afforded by his crackling dialogue, his ability to mold performances, his feel for characterization. The characters are stripped-down to nothing, the script is flat and resolutely undramatic, and the dialogue is mostly utilitarian and mostly given to the women; the men all but grunt and slur out monosyllables.
For the story, Hawks returned to very early in his career, to the fascination with stock car racing that generated his early James Cagney talkie The Crowd Roars. Like the earlier film, Red Line 7000 is set at a race track, in a tightly knit milieu of drivers, mechanics, and the girls who hang around waiting for their men to either crash and burn or win the glory. But while the earlier film focused on the races and relationships of just two men, more or less, Red Line disperses the action between a loose group of men, none of them very clearly defined or developed. There's the wiry, angry Mike (James Caan), who's got a chip on his shoulder and insists that he won't take anything "secondhand," including his women — which unfortunately counts out the woman who most catches his eye, the French Gabrielle (Marianna Hill), who showed up with Dan (Skip Ward) but was soon available. There's Ned (John Robert Crawford), a beefy farm boy eager to prove himself, to become a big shot both on the track and off. There's Pat (Norman Alden), the knowing older man who presides over the younger racers and tries to dispense his wisdom to them. There are also the women who love them. Holly (Gail Hire) showed up looking for a racer who'd died the day before, and is convinced she's cursed until one of the men convinces her otherwise. Pat's sister Julie (Laura Devon) pines pathetically for her man even though he abandons her. And the wise bar owner Lindy (Charlene Holt), after losing two husbands to car crashes, has decided to marry a banker instead.
Among this entire cast, there's very little screen presence or real acting talent. Caan, of course, is promising in an early role, projecting a side-of-the-mouth tough guy defiance that really becomes something special in the late scene where he's required to be contrite and abased while still holding up this tough guy façade. Hill is also fun to watch, in much the same way as the rather awkward, rough multinational cast of Hawks' earlier Hatari!, in which Hill would've fit nicely with her vivacious manner. Her character seems modeled roughly on Elsa Martinelli's in the earlier film, as a lively exotic foreigner. The rest of the cast, composed almost entirely of inexperienced newcomers, amateurs and TV actors, ranges from merely boring to jaw-droppingly awful. In the latter category is surely Crawford (who indeed never acted again), one of several anonymous, hulking Aryan blonde types glaring his way through the film from beneath a heavy caveman brow. But there's a special kind of terrible in Hire's performance, which seems to have been modeled off of Hawks' famed coaching of Lauren Bacall for her first roles. Hawks even gives Hire a song to sing, or more accurately lip-sync along with, but there's no comparison with Bacall's memorable ballad from To Have and Have Not, despite Hawks' blatant attempts to make the connection through his mise en scène. (Though this bizarre number does have its own campy charms, possessing a peculiar breed of outrageous awfulness.) Likewise, Hire's attempt at Bacall's distinctive, sexy low voice is simply embarrassing and awkward, and any scene with her is unintentionally hilarious just because of how stilted and awful her performance is. How could Hawks, always justly acclaimed for the quality of the performances he could coax out of nearly anyone, have thought this was acceptable?
Of course, even if the cast here had been up to the standards of Hawks' previous work, the film would still have more than its share of problems. Foremost among these is the shockingly indifferent quality of the script, which despite being based off of a Hawks story, shows little of his characteristic flare. As in most of his late work, there's also pretty much no story: a series of races, a few small dramas, some romance, hints of rivalry. But whereas films like Rio Bravo and Hatari! compensated for their formlessness with verve and wit and complex characters, there's nothing here to distract from the numbing blankness of the script. Here, the characters aren't even remotely likable, let alone fun to spend time with. And when the audience has to be rooting for not just one, but two of the central romances to fail because the men are such obnoxious, unrepentant jerks, there's clearly something wrong — especially since Hawks, in a sappy denouement that has the women all but throw themselves at these assholes, shows no awareness of just how insipid these characters are.
All of this means that the film's primary pleasure is, as in The Crowd Roars (which had suffered from similar problems over 30 years earlier; so much for maturity), the viscerally exciting racing footage. As always, Hawks has a feel for danger, and the races are vibrant and tense, with inserts of the red speed needle inching its way up into the danger zone as the men jockey for position. In a weird way, the undistinguished nature of the cast actually amps up the suspense. If there was a strong central driver or two who dominated the action, there'd be little real suspense about Hawks killing his stars off early in the film. But in this case, no one stands out so everybody's equal, and everybody's in danger; the races feel especially vital because nobody ever seems really safe. This is perhaps the philosophy behind Hawks' occasional preference for non-star group casts, and in his more successful films in this vein — like Air Force or The Thing From Another World — the films project a democratic spirit of cooperation and equality, a sense that everyone's important, both to the film and to the job being done within the film. There are hints of that spirit in Red Line 7000 as well, in the moments of emphasis given to the pit crews, which contribute anonymously to the success of the drivers.
The film is also interesting for its treatment of the women, who are at least arguably less boring than their male counterparts. Hawks, as always, was interested in how women could be incorporated into a distinctively male world, and in this respect the introduction of Julie marks her out as a potential successor to the line of strong Hawksian women. She rides up on a motorcycle and immediately begins bantering and arguing with Ned, who says he thought she was a boy at first. Later, it becomes apparent that she tries to fit in with the guys because of her brother, who's always treated her like a pal. "Cut it out," he says, "you're acting like a female," and her retort is one of the film's few real flashes of Hawksian wit: "well, what do you think I am, your brother?" Unfortunately, despite Julie's spunky demeanor in her first appearance, she quickly descends into a mire of weepy melodramatics, and has an utterly silly love scene with Ned where she keeps pathetically asking him if she's sexy while lounging on top of him in her underwear.
All in all, Red Line 7000 has to be considered Hawks' worst film, and it's a failure in a distinctly Hawksian mold; it's a bad film that could only be Hawks' bad film. That's something, I guess, and there are sparks of the director's characteristic talents here and there. The final scene, in particular, is quite good, summing up the typical Hawksian virtues of endurance and commitment under pressure. The three central women (Julie, Gabrielle and Holly) are sitting in the stands at a race, watching the action, standing up in unison whenever there's a close call, their eyes darting back and forth around the track. Slowly, over the course of the race, Hawks keeps returning to the three girls, framed in a head-on shot together, more and more frequently, cutting away from the actual race more and more. Finally, he settles on them as they roll their eyes, smile and make jokes to each other about the repetitive nature of their lives, waiting for men who they're afraid might die at any time. It's a perfect shot, a direct statement of the conflicted ideas about masculine pursuits that have woven throughout Hawks' entire oeuvre. Then Hawks abruptly cuts away from the women to a fiery crash, and the film simply ends there, as though suggesting that there really is no end, that the cycle will continue to repeat itself in endless variations long after the camera has stopped rolling on these characters.