Friday, January 16, 2009

Tiger Shark

[This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon hosted right here at Only The Cinema. It will run from January 12 to January 23, 2009.]

Howard Hawks' Tiger Shark is an odd and oddly fun fishing drama (now there's a genre that never quite took off) about two commercial fisherman buddies and the woman who comes between them. Mike Mascarenhas (Edward G. Robinson) is the self-declared "greatest fisherman in the Pacific Ocean," a manic personality whose outrageous lies and boasts, and his seemingly inexhaustible good humor, are sufficient to overcome his many problems with women and even the loss of his hand to a shark attack. Early on, a tiger shark takes his hand after he and his friend, Pipes Boley (Richard Arlen) are shipwrecked, the only survivors left after Mike is forced to throw a mutinous third survivor to the sharks. Robinson obviously relishes this part, infusing Mike with a gleeful, untempered quality: he is vicious with his enemies, fiercely loyal to his friends, and always ready with some bold, bawdy humor. He's every bit as much an ethnic caricature as Paul Muni's Tony Camonte in Hawks' Scarface, made earlier the same year, though Robinson's slurred Portuguese accent is perhaps not quite as outrageous as Muni's stab at playing Italian.

The pleasures of the film are largely to be found in the broad strokes of Robinson's oversized performance, and in the many subtle touches that Hawks brings to the film. The plot was endlessly recycled in countless other Warner films of the time. Mike falls in love with the lovely Quita (Zita Johann), the daughter of one of his former shipmates, and though she doesn't really love the crude, stout, unattractive Mike, she does owe him a debt of gratitude for cheering her up and helping her recover from a long depressive illness. When he asks her to marry him, she says yes, eager to make him happy, but no sooner has she said "I do" (after a great wedding scene in which Mike keeps the ring slung around his hook) than she realizes the hopelessness of a loveless marriage. Of course, soon enough she falls in love with Mike's best mate Pipes instead.

The whole thing is such a standard melodrama that it'd hardly be worth a look if not for the sensitivity and warmth that Hawks and the performers bring to this maudlin tale. Robinson, even through all his hammy grandstanding and emotive fireworks, makes Mike an incredibly sympathetic and tragic figure. He's a whirling dervish of activity, a great and successful fisherman, and yet he feels a profound absence in his life. Mike's the kind of guy who can try to laugh off anything, even his crippling injury, but one feels his sadness whenever he talks about women, whenever he tries to cover up his rejections with cheerful boasts. His camaraderie with Pipes is poignant too, a fatherly affection for the younger man who's always stood by his side. Hawks captures the men's affection for one another in the shots of Mike scratching Pipes' back, a gesture that's an obvious descendant of the finger-pulling between the male leads in A Girl in Every Port: physical gestures of intimacy and mutual helping between two very close friends. Even at Mike's wedding, he takes a break from the ceremony to scratch his best man's back, as though to reassure Pipes that this woman will not come between them.

Nevertheless, of course, she does. But the film never condemns Quita for her actions. She's not yet the quintessential Hawks heroine who can be truly accepted by the men — she doesn't fare so well in their fishing milieu — but neither is she the devilish femme fatale of Louise Brooks in A Girl in Every Port, a manipulative gold-digger who purposefully shatters friendships. Instead, Quita is a complex, tragic figure in her own right, torn between her sense of obligation to Mike and her increasingly strong feelings for the quietly handsome Pipes. Johann, an inexperienced actress who had previously only played in a late D.W. Griffith effort and who would be most famous in her short career as the target of The Mummy's menace, is disarmingly good here. Her broad, open face communicates her character's world-weary desperation, and there's a warm, motherly glow in her eyes whenever she casts her gaze on Mike. Her emotionally rich realism plays surprisingly well off of Robinson's sturm und drang, and in her quiet way, it's she who sells the film's drama rather than the much more showy Robinson. If she had been less sympathetic, or simply a blank trophy beauty, the film's drama would have largely deflated. It's because Hawks manages to make all three sides of this love triangle relatively appealing (the solid but unexciting Arlen to a lesser extent, obviously) that the film crackles with such energy and brio.

Hawks also has a great deal of fun with the film's many fishing sequences, which have a documentary quality that greatly enhances the film's verité. Some of these scenes drag on a bit long, with too many repetitive shots of men hauling fish after fish on board, but despite the need for some slight trimming, the fishing in the film is exciting and visceral. Hawks devotes the same care and attention to the processes involved in catching fish — the fishing itself, the unloading of the ship, the gutting and cleaning, catching bait, casting nets — that in other films he'd lavish on scenes of fighter pilots preparing for battle or racing drivers prepping their cars or cattle ranchers minding their herds. What matters to Hawks is that these men are a tight-knit group, almost a family, and that their work bonds them together. One senses that for Hawks, to make a film about these men and not include generous documentation of the actual work they do would be tantamount to sacrilege. The action of Hawks' films is always grounded in the occupations of the characters, and here the rhythms of the fishing life, with its long voyages to sea and brief respites on dry land, are reflected in the film itself.

Hawks is also generous with the humor in this film, which despite its ultimately dramatic and tragic plot is often quite funny. Robinson is of course the central figure in this regard, especially when he's sparring with his crewman Fishbone (hilarious character actor Vince Barnett). Between Fishbone's goofy antics and Mike's thickly accented patter, the film is at times like a prototype screwball comedy with a bad case of the mumbles, its rapid-fire humor often masked by an accent that makes all the jokes hit a few seconds later than usual as one tries to decode Robinson's patois. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Robinson seems to be having a blast with this character's over-the-top demeanor and slurred speech.

Hawks also finds an ersatz spirituality in these men and their brutal communion with nature. Mike, who views the tiger shark as the ultimate arbiter of fate, nearly worships the creatures even as he hates them. There's a certain theological subtext running through the film, an obsession with Heaven and Hell and where one winds up in the afterlife. Mike is haunted by fishermen's legends that one cannot enter Heaven without a complete, "perfect" body, and fears that his missing hand will someday be the wellspring of his punishment. Mike's fears are very serious, but Hawks also undercuts this religious discourse with a funny, moving sequence in which Mike says a few words for a shipmate who's about to be buried at sea. It is a typically Hawksian funeral, dealing with mortality through humor: Mike's speech for his dead friend is directed towards Heaven, an impassioned plea that the man not be denied entry just because a shark took his legs. Mike, who made a point of killing the attacking shark in order to retrieve his shipmate's missing lower half, tells the angels, "he won't be able to walk in, but he has his legs with him!"

The unbelievable audacity of lines like this underscores Hawks' brilliant sense of emotional complexity, the way he so fluidly mingles high drama and boldly uncensored comedy. The film isn't perfect, and its melodramatic ending sometimes threatens to dissipate some of the good will earned by Hawks' light touch, humor and visual panache. But it remains a powerfully Hawksian film, one in which masculine friendships and the pleasures of good manly work are threatened by love and the intrusion of the feminine. It's a rough, rugged film, fast-paced and truly economical.


Joshua said...

I think you really point out just how much fun the film is, for Robinson especially. I also find it fascinating how much time Hawks spends on the processes the fishermen go through in catching the fish, cutting them open, dumping them on the dock, etc.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Josh, I thought it was a blast too. This is one of my 2 or 3 favorites of the early Hawks films I've watched over the last two weeks. And the fishing footage (shot by Hawks' steadfast documentary collaborator Richard Rosson) is great for the way it firmly entrenches this story as a fishing story: it could only happen, in this particular way, in this specific milieu.

Joshua said...

By any chance have you seen Manpower? Edward G. Robinson plays the same role only as a power lineman. George Raft plays Arlen's part and Dietrich takes over for Johann. I haven't seen it yet, but my interest is piqued. I think you've hit the nail on the head in that no matter how closely they follow the storyline, it won't achieve the same sort of atmosphere as Tiger Shark does in it's utilization of the fishing footage.

Ed Howard said...

I haven't seen it, Joshua, though I know that it is basically a remake in a different situation. In fact, the same story was apparently replayed in countless Hollywood films of the era, and indeed even Hawks used very similar dynamics in many of his other 30s films. Apparently the common source is Sidney Howard's 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted, from which Hawks and many other directors of the time may have derived the basic scenario.

Joshua said...

And as I mentioned, Clash by Night (although the play has a completely different setting) has a very similar basic storyline, although Hawks and Lang are so dissimilar they handle everything differently. Might make a worthwhile double bill some night.

Anonymous said...

Having just watched TIGER SHARK, I thought this was an extremely insightful review by Mr. Howard; he was right on, as far as the nuances, as well as the plusses and minuses of the film.