Howard Hawks mystifies me. A former pilot and avid outdoorsman, Hollywood’s “Grey Fox” was tight-lipped in interviews and is popularly viewed as the poster child for Hollywood classicism. By and large, his movies are old-fashioned genre fare about teams of professionals in tough situations (a synopsis that covers 4/5 of the movies on this list). Whereas some filmmakers give me an impression of flamboyance or eccentricity, Hawks feels vanilla and taciturn—the strong silent type.
But this vague sketch is totally insufficient when it comes to Hawks’s films. I’d rank his masterpieces alongside those of his modernist collaborators, like Hemingway and Faulkner; they’re sublime works of art made by an utter genius. Clearly, more was going on beneath the surface than Hawks chose to give away. This extends to the realm of sexuality: on the surface, Hawks was just a thrice-married heterosexual filmmaker who specialized in action/adventure movies. But buried in his work were strange, compelling sexual undercurrents. I’ve already discussed the queerness of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so here are a few other Hawks films with surprisingly sexy moments…
Throughout Hawks’s gangster classic Scarface (1932), anti-hero Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is pretty preoccupied with the sexual comings and goings of his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). He slaps her around for daring to dance with other men, and is consistently abusive and controlling. Yet in the film’s last scene, as he’s holed up in his steel-shuttered bunker and surrounded on all sides by cops, Cesca is there for him. When he asks why she didn’t kill him (he did murder the man she loved, after all), she explains that it’s “because you’re me, and I’m you.” This scene blazes with incestuous tension, and when Cesca dies moments later, it does not play as a brother/sister death scene. “I’m no good without you,” says Tony as his sister breathes her last. It’s pretty obvious what he means.
As Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941), co-written by Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck is a firecracker of compressed libido. She’s a stripper on the lam who stumbles upon a coven of academics working on an encyclopedia, and decides to tap into their latent desires… especially those of the lanky, sexually unaware Bertrand Potts (Gary Cooper). He’s an easy mark, as Sugarpuss introduces him to the wonders of “yum yum,” a slang term that becomes a running joke. You get one guess about who gives the film its title. (1941 also saw Stanwyck seducing the professorial Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, which is a better film and contains a hotter seduction.)
Hawks had the rare privilege of working with Hollywood’s hottest couple twice, first in To Have and Have Not (1944) and then in his noir masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946). Both films contain scenes of explosive sexual tension: the former has the infamous “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” exchange; The Big Sleep has the brilliant horse-racing conversation. Bogey and Bacall throw double entendres back and forth, metaphorically mixing sex and detective work with talk of being “rated” and “who’s in the saddle.” When Bogey says “I don’t know how far you can go,” they’re not discussing horses anymore. It’s a remarkably crude-but-subtle way to undermine the Production Code in the name of sexy, sexy art.
I think this image from Hawks’s Red River (1948) gets the erotic point across pretty well. Matt (the very gay Montgomery Clift) and his potential rival Cherry (John Ireland) have just met and, knowing one another by reputation, decide to test their “sharpshooting skills.” To do so, they trade “guns” and evaluate how well each “gun” handles. Maybe, just maybe, you can detect some subtext. As usual, Hawks’s use of sexual metaphors is unobtrusive and undeniable, saying exactly what he wants it to say with minimum fuss and maximum erotic power.
Although credit for directing The Thing from Another World (1951) technically goes to Hawks’s frequent editor Christian Nyby, everyone and their grandmother agrees that it’s covered in Hawks’s auteur earmarks. So I’m including it for its bizarre but fun example of fairly explicit bondage. Kenneth Tobey, playing a tough military man stationed in the Arctic, expresses a romantic interest in the only woman at the base, played by Margaret Sheridan. He offers to let her tie him up, if she has a drink with him, and she takes him up on it. The hand-tying always strikes me out of nowhere: so much of The Thing feels conventionally 1950s, and then it’s like, “Bondage!” Oh, Howard Hawks, you perverted devil.