Henry Hathaway: Portrait of an Underrated Artist

At this year’s New York Film Festival, two retrospectives were planned to coincide with the release of Bertrand Tavernier’s new documentary My Journey Through French Cinema. The first was a collection of French films prominently featured in Tavernier’s documentary. The second was a selection of titles by Henry Hathaway, a director Tavernier credits as one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated filmmakers. However, in the festival’s infinite wisdom, they scheduled the two retrospectives at the same times on the same days, making it physically impossible to see all of the revivals.

Our Nathanael Hood chose to focus more on the Hathaway retrospective. Here are his reviews:

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From Hell to Texas (1958) ★★★½
If Henry Hathaway’s From Hell to Texas debuted this year, it would easily rank among my top picks of the festival. And I’m not just saying that because Don Murray’s son Christopher serendipitously crashed the screening. Tod Lohman (Don Murray) is a young man on the run from the tyrannical Boyd family after being falsely accused of killing of their number. Though determined not to kill, the grim realities of survival force him into a crucible of the soul set against the barren Alabama Hills.

The film moves with the weight of legend, communicating with the same Old Testament bombast that fueled the Westerns of Sam Peckinpah. And much like Peckinpah, these characters act according to unspoken codes of conduct. After one of his sons kills Tod’s horse, stranding him in the desert, Hunter Boyd (R.G. Armstrong)—the Boyd paterfamilias—gives Tod a new one and an afternoon’s head-start. He’s also not rude enough to kill Tod while he’s under somebody else’s protection, somebody like the kind-hearted rancher Amos Bradley (Chill Wills) and his adopted daughter Juanita (Diane Varsi). But Tod can’t and won’t hide with them forever. The film is greatly aided by Wildred M. Cline’s stunning CinemaScope cinematography. Cline paints in shimmering geological dioramas, allowing his characters to be dwarfed and defined by their environments similar to Anthony Mann’s Westerns with James Stewart.

From Hell to Texas also features one of the snappiest screenplays of any American Western of its era; the dialogue crackles like a hard-boiled noir. This is in large part thanks to screenwriter Wendell Mayes who would go on to pen Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) and two epic-sized thrillers for Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder [1959], Advise & Consent [1962]). The one thing keeping the film from genuine classic status is the romance sub-plot with Juanita. With due respect to Varsi—she does an admirable job with such weak material—her sappy relationship with Tod which sees her literally trade her blue jeans for a frilly dress belongs in a much different, much worse film.

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The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) ★★½
The Shepherd of the Hills doesn’t always work. But when it does, it’s as pretty a bluegrass poem as has ever been written.

Set in the old days out somewhere in the Missouri Ozarks, the film follows a mysterious yet benevolent stranger named Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey) who descends upon a community torn apart by the conflict between two local families. He falls into the orbit of two star-cross’d lovers: the wide-eyed but superstitious Sammy Lane (Betty Field) and the brash but kind-hearted Young Matt Matthews (John Wayne). Not so much an adaptation of Harold Bell Wright’s famous novel as an original story that merely borrows the book’s setting and plot impetus (think what Paul Verhoeven did to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers), Hathaway weaves a powerful Christian parable of intergenerational sin, forgiveness, and redemption.

There are moments of astonishing, almost painful beauty as Hathaway takes full advantage of Technicolor to paint rainbow skies and verdant, pastoral forests. But it’s in the moments of human tenderness that the film truly shines: an elderly woman blind since birth seeing her family and the countryside for the first time after an operation; a young retarded man grasping at dust motes floating in a ray of sunshine; a young woman running down a muddy road only to pause before a puddle and whisper “I almost stepped on a cloud.”

But the film feels truncated, at times too fast, at times too slow. All signs point to Paramount Studios who reportedly demanded several rounds of edits to Hathaway’s intended cut. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final third where the film watches as two major characters die in a fire…only to be promptly ignored by the rest of the cast. The experience of watching this film wasn’t helped by the fact that the auditorium we watched it in echoed, resulting in the near 70-year old audio track from an original 35mm print having no clear consonants. Only about 70% of the dialogue was intelligible.

But that’s the fault of the festival, not the film. I’d be eager to see a restored version of it. And as long as we’re dreaming, I’d like to see Hathaway’s original cut, too.

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Niagara (1953) ★★★★
Nothing about Henry Hathaway’s Niagara should have worked. A Technicolor film noir? Marilyn Monroe playing against type as a femme fatale? But miraculously, it does. It works so well, in fact, that most people don’t notice that the film orbits one of the biggest plot holes in classic Hollywood cinema—exactly how does Joseph Cotten know to have a specific bell-tower play a specific song at a specific time of day?

Filmed on location on the Canadian side of the eponymous falls, the film sees starry-eyed couple Ray and Polly Cutler (Max Showalter, Jean Peters) arrive at a cabin complex for a 3-years delayed honeymoon. Unfortunately they cross paths with a less healthy couple, George and Rose Loomis (Cotten and Monroe), staying in the same complex. Both George and Rose are bad news. George suffers from bouts of hysteria and insanity brought on by the PTSD he picked up in Korea. And Rose? Let’s just say she’s the type of dame who reapplies her cherry red lipstick just to lounge around in bed naked in the wee hours of the morning. And during the day she parades around groups of men while wearing dresses “cut so low you can see her kneecaps.”

Long story short, Rose wants George dead so she can run away with her rugged lover. But things go terribly awry when the wrong body washes up against the shore beneath the falls. What’s worse, Ray and Polly get dragged along for the ride. When I first saw the film years ago, I wrote that Ray and Polly were superfluous to the plot; the film should have focused solely on George and Rose. But watching it again it’s easy to see that things aren’t exactly picturesque in the Cutler household. George seems a little too eager to blow off his wife to buddy buddy with his boss, a little too willing to ignore her and speak for and over her. It casts an additional sinister veneer that aids the noir atmosphere.

The film is drop-dead gorgeous. Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald—who had already collaborated with Hathaway on the superlative Call Northside 777 (1948) and Fourteen Hours (1951)—brings out the luscious colors of three-strip Technicolor. To his credit, he also knows when to figuratively and literally pull the blinds down and flood the interiors with darkness and shadows. A murder scene shot at the top of a bell-tower ranks among Hathaway and MacDonald’s very best work. And the climactic rescue sequence on the top of the falls makes a similar boating scene in John Huston’s The African Queen (1951) seem hilariously quaint.

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Garden of Evil (1954) ★★½
It’s easy to dismiss Hathaway’s Garden of Evil as a cheap riff on John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). In addition to following a group of Americans stuck south of the border seeking gold, Garden of Evil replaces Huston’s ruthless Mexican outlaws with vengeful Apaches as extensions of a harsh environment that strips outsiders of their civilized manners and sanity.

But the big difference is that Hathaway injects a romantic element in the form of Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward), a miner who recruits the film’s heroes to journey with her into the wilderness to rescue her husband John (Hugh Marlowe). Tempers and passions flare up among the group, particularly with the stoic, stentorian ex-sheriff Hooker (Gary Cooper) and the cunning gambler Fiske (Richard Widmark). Whereas Huston allowed his characters to circle a drain of their own obsessions, Hathaway curiously sidesteps condemnations of greed by framing them as side-effects of romantic mania. For example, when they find John trapped in a mine, he’s gone mad with jealously over Leah, not his being trapped in hostile Apache territory. By surrendering to the tenants of traditional melodrama, anything Hathaway tries to say about the human condition feels either trite or under-developed. But the film does have its merits.

Much has been said of Bernard Herrmann’s score and Milton R. Krasner’s widescreen cinematography, but I found myself particularly impressed with William Tunberg and Frank Fenton’s crackerjack screenplay. The dialogue, particularly in the scenes between Hooker and Fiske, are superb. Like with From Hell to Texas, the screenplay here has more than a little of the verbal mannerisms of film noir. As a side note, Twilight Time recently released a Blu-ray edition of Garden of Evil. Checking it out, I was pleased to find a decent enough transfer—while the humans occasionally appear to be made of grease-covered wax, the format really does justice to the on-location cinematography. Collectors will also be happy to learn that the Blu-ray has some of the most generous additional features I’ve yet seen from a Twilight Time release: audio commentaries, isolated score track, three making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, and more.

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Kiss of Death (1947) ★★★
It’s almost comical to see the lengths to which Kiss of Death went to hammer home how its protagonist Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) wasn’t actually a crook or villain, despite a lengthy career of safecracking, police-punching, and prison-sentencing. After all, this was still 1947: the Hays Code was still in full swing. So they give him two pwecious wittle girls who can’t pwonounce w’s and a beautiful young wife. After getting caught during a jewelry robbery, the authorities cut a deal with him: turn evidence on psychopathic crook Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark in his film debut) and he can walk. And oh, what a character that Tommy is. Perpetually grinning, perpetually chuckling, he’s practically a Looney Tunes parody of himself. But he’s no joke: an infamous scene where he pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs ranks alongside the coffee pot scalding in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) as one of the most horrific acts of violence in the noir genre.

The film doesn’t truly come alive until the last third when, preposterously, Udo gets acquitted despite Nick’s testimony. A dangerous mouse-and-cat game ensues as Nick waits for Udo to come a’calling: it’s so tense you can practically feel the film holding its breath. That’s not to say that the first two-thirds are boring. In fact, they’re fascinating in their own way as procedurals for how the justice system bends itself backwards to accommodate criminals who squeal (“Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine”).

The film was renowned for being shot on location in New York City, but so much of the film takes place in stuffy offices and poorly lit rooms that you can rarely tell the difference between its more studio-bound noir predecessors and contemporaries. There’s never a scene like the climactic Williamsburg Bridge shootout in Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) that truly takes advantage of the city as setting. The film feels a bit mechanical at times as it sets all the pieces up for Nick’s turn to the law and his final confrontation with Udo. But despite being a bit rough around the edges, Kiss of Death still satisfies.

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North to Alaska (1960) ★★★½
Jacques Rivette once described North to Alaska as a “rodeo slapstick” film. Failing to think of a better way to describe it, I’ll settle for declaring it one of the most unexpected and delightful surprises of Henry Hathaway’s entire career. Where did this film come from? The first half is a rousing adventure comedy charting newly rich prospector Sam McCord (John Wayne) traveling south from Nome, Alaska to Seattle to pick up the fiancée of his partner and best friend George Pratt (Stewart Granger).

Trouble is, she’s already married. Afraid of disappointing George, Sam hits on the brilliant idea of taking a local French prostitute named Angel (Capucine) back up North with him instead. But when they get back up to Alaska, they’ve found to their mutual frustration that they’ve fallen in love with each other. But don’t tell that to George: he begins to fancy her as well. The second half morphs into a leisurely Hawksian hang-out as the characters mess around with each other. The film’s easily about 30 minutes too long, but we don’t care because we enjoy the characters so much that it’s a genuine pleasure to see them joke around and fall in and out of love with each other. There’s a brilliant comedic set-piece where George and Angel deliberately make Sam go nearly mad with jealously by pretending to be a happy (and consummated) couple.

And that’s one of the true pleasures of North to Alaska: it gives Wayne a chance to flex his tragically underutilized comedic muscles. Hathaway repeatedly asks Wayne to make a damned fool of himself, and Wayne eagerly complies. There’s something truly satisfying in watching the paragon of American hyper-masculinity do a goofy cross-eyed pratfall after getting socked in the nose. The film almost veers into farce territory, but Hathaway wisely kept the most outrageous slapstick sequences for the opening and closing scenes, allowing everything in between to maintain a casual, yet believable level of absurdity. These two sequences, a raucous saloon brawl and a town-wide mud-fight, both rival Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan at the top of their respective games for creative fight choreography and gratifying lunacy.

A quick word on teen idol Fabian who played George’s perpetually horny younger brother Billy. Yes, his pretty boy looks and grinning demeanor are totally out of place in the Old West, but that’s the joke. Thankfully, the film—and Fabian himself—were smart enough to know it.

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23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) ★★★
I was rather surprised to learn that one of the most eagerly anticipated revivals at this year’s Henry Hathaway retrospective was 23 Paces to Baker Street. Having seen it, I suppose it’s because it was perhaps the closest Hathaway ever came to making a Hitchcock film. The similarities between it and Rear Window (1954) are obvious: a disabled artist accidentally witnesses what may or may not be a crime and struggles to solve it.

But whereas James Stewart was a crippled photographer, Hathaway’s hero Philip Hannon (Van Johnson) is a blind playwright. The set-up is delicious: while at a London pub Hannon overhears two people orchestrating a kidnapping. Armed with only an eidetic memory of their conversation—which he re-enacts for his tape recorder and obsessively listens to again and again—their voices, and the smell of a specific perfume worn by one of the schemers, he seeks to stop the crime before it occurs. The film’s inventiveness in formulating suspenseful situations for its blind protagonist is its most intriguing feature. One of the best sequences sees one of the kidnapper’s lackeys luring Hannon to the top floor of a half-demolished building and trapping him in a room with a collapsed wall overlooking the street.

But the pièce de résistance is the climax where Hannon goes one-on-one with the lead kidnapper in his purposefully darkened apartment and confuses them with tape recordings placed in different rooms. 23 Paces to Baker Street is competent and entertaining, but it ultimately frustrated me by refusing to follow up with what I felt to be the most fascinating part of the film. When we meet Philip Hannon, he’s bitter, disillusioned, and miserable in his success as a playwright. But when faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of the kidnapping, he springs back to life, loving every moment of the chase.

If properly handled, this could have been a piercing statement about man’s need for obsession, man’s need for hardship and challenge in the face of complacency. If taken one step further, it could have also been an allegory for Hannon reclaiming his sense of masculinity after the metaphorical castration of his blindness. But the film does neither. In my opinion, this is what keeps an admittedly good film from being a great one.

About Nathanael Hood 96 Articles
Nathanael Hood is a 25 year old film critic currently based out of South Florida with a passion for all things cinematic. He has a Master's Degree in Film Studies from New York University - Tisch and is currently a writer for the Turkish Journal of American Studies, TopTenz.net, and TheYoungFolks.com.

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