It’s finally here in all its glory, the Howard Hawks movie nobody loves. The epitome of clueless ’60s filmmaking by an auteur who left his thinking cap back with Bogie and Bacall, this show is a PC quagmire lacking the usual compensation of exploitative thrills. But hey, it has a hypnotic appeal all its own: we’ll not abandon any movie where Teri Garr dances.
Red Line 7000
KL Studio Classics
1965 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date September 19, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: James Caan, Laura Devon, Gail Hire, Charlene Holt, John Robert Crawford, Marianna Hill, James (Skip) Ward, Norman Alden, George Takei, Diane Strom, Anthony Rogers, Robert Donner, Teri Garr.
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Film Editors: Bill Brame, Stuart Gilmore
Original Music: Nelson Riddle
Written by George Kirgo story by Howard Hawks
Produced and Directed by Howard Hawks
Critics have been raking Howard Hawks’ stock car racing epic over the coals ever since Robin Wood couldn’t see his way through to defend it in the heyday of the auteur theory. I personally love Land of the Pharaohs (to witness its demolition consult David Cairns) and can squeak by with Man’s Favorite Sport? because it has the all-healing Paula Prentiss. I can be energized by auteurist games well enough to appreciate how Hawks’ Monkey Business is related to his Scarface and The Thing from Another World. Where I part company with Hawks fans are with his beloved westerns — to me Rio Bravo is stale posturing, and his later revisits of the same material are tepid, fossilized replays of things that Hawks once did better than anyone else in Hollywood.
Where does that leave Red Line 7000, yet another regulation Hawks look at macho guys pursuing a violent profession? This time around he has no big names, but instead seems to be nominating a new generation of ‘Hawks discoveries,’ his idea of what youthful stars should be. The one winner in the stack is top-billed James Caan, whose character is so foul, we want to shove him under a shop hoist. Marianna Hill gives her part energy and style but didn’t catch the brass ring, and Charlene Holt only won a chance to come back and play another thankless Hawks role in El Dorado.
Hawks of course shone in the ’30s and ’40s with an unending array of movies that seemed made of pure entertainment. They didn’t always have clear stories, but that was irrelevant in something like To Have and Have Not, which concocts a ‘cinematic place’ where we’d be happy to return to immediately – heaven might be the ability to hang around with the likes of Bogart, Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael. Apparently taking a long break after his Pharaohs epic, Hawks’ subsequent pictures would try to recapture the spirit of movie stars as great company, people that can charm us just by trading small talk or singing songs. Hatari! ambled on to a leisurely two hours-plus, with hardly a structural conflict in sight. Audiences didn’t mind a bit. In Red Line Hawks tries the same thing without his usual top-grade stars on board.
Did you know that the stock car circuit was really a singles-only soap opera? Young racer Jim Loomis (Anthony Rogers) buys the farm during competition, just before the arrival of his fianceé Holly MacGregor (Gail Hire). This leaves it to the drivers and women of the Kazarian racing team to console Holly when she arrives the same night. Holly believes that she’s a jinx, which makes the combined concern of driver Mike Marsh (James Caan) owner Pat Kazarian (Norman Alden) and mechanic Kato (George Takei) all the more awkward. Meanwhile, unknown driver Ned Arp (John Robert Crawford) wins a place as Jim’s replacement, and falls immediately into a relationship with Pat’s sister Julie (Laura Devon). Then the experienced Dan McCall (James Ward) joins up with the group, bringing with him the Parisian beauty Gabrielle Queneau (Marianna Hill). All are quartered at a local Holiday Inn, a swinging singles joint that would seem to predict a ’70s Los Angeles vibe-to-come. At night all gather at the club run by Lindy Bonaparte (Charlene Holt), where various women sing and romantic attachments undergo a major mix-up. Dan goes for the troubled Holly. The self-contained Mike falls hard for Gabrielle, but she brings out his schizophrenic violent side — Mike can’t abide the idea of being some woman’s ‘second’ lover.
Red Line 7000 has no stars. Most of its actors lack charisma. Some either have no talent, or must work in such a directorial strait-jacket that their good qualities are dampened. The screenplay consists of long expository speeches, where people explain their motives, or the motives of someone off-camera. Howard Hawks main directorial contribution is to enforce a casual coolness on all interactions – these are professionals, remember. Filmed in bright Technicolor with high-key lighting, we get a good look at a lifestyle straight from fantasyland. The drivers are clean-cut dudes in color-coordinated casuals from the better pages of Sears Roebuck; the women wear mostly garish designer clothing that the credits say is designed by Edith Head.
I’ve never seen soap opera relationships as twisted as these. The women exist for the pleasure of the men. They must make all the moves, while the men simply stay in their boxes and play cool. Self-hating dialogue arranges for the women to constantly be apologizing, if not for a real reason, then just for being women. Unattached Lindy stays off on the sidelines, as if she were a veteran Hawks woman who has taken the cure against male oppression. But Holly, Julie and Gabrielle are just vessels for psychological abuse, all dished out with polite conversation. The disconnect is pretty strong. James Caan is undeniably arresting, but the other two male leads lack basic charisma. Arrogant self-confidence is important but it isn’t everything — what do these women see in these jerks?
We know that Hawks spent decades ‘developing’ actresses under contract, which launched a star or two but consigned many others to the rubbish heap. In this show Gail Hire gets the worst of it, as she seems to be coached to affect a deeper voice than normal. She’s as cute as a button but is a functioning non-entity, with no family, outside friends or life before her relationship with her race driver. Without a coherent character to play, Hire looks clueless in most scenes, going through the motions.
Hanging around inarticulate and witless race drivers fulfills some mysterious inner female need that the story doesn’t even begin to address. Did someone think it was cool for Laura Devon’s Julie to hop in the sack with the dim-bulb Ned, just a few hours after they meet? This being 1965 with the traditional Howard Hawks, there are no bedroom scenes. We don’t even see any heat being generated; they just start kissing as if given an off-screen cue to get down. We soon wonder if car racetracks are crawling with drop dead gorgeous mental defectives.
Marianna Hill’s Gabrielle wins the prize for charm; her accent is winning and she’s indeed sufficiently glamorous to get away with enticing Mike Marsh by wandering around the motel court wearing a shirt for pajamas. Perhaps because Hawks has a thing for French accents, Gabrielle is allowed to show much more in the way of personality, at a shallow emotional depth. Mike and Gaby meet at the Pepsi dispenser, a cheerful detail. The fantasy Hawks is selling is laughable – glamorous Gabrielle just doesn’t fit in the low-rent motel ambience.
Perhaps James Caan wanted to give the lightweight story some teeth, but viewers will be repulsed by his behavior. Mike screams at Gaby for daring to talk about a former romance, as Macho guys only want to hear about themselves. When she protests he belts her across the mouth. It even looks real. Barely a scene later Gabrielle is once again pursuing Mike with open arms. But Hawks’ story seems unconcerned about basic character motivation throughout. Red Line 7000 reaches a dramatic climax at more or less the hundred-minute mark. Then comes a sudden-death-overtime final fifteen minutes where we wait for the other shoe to drop. All we get is more bad male behavior rewarded with unconditional female adoration. Phitooey.
Thus the romantic wrap-ups that stretch out the finale have no real ending — and Hawks’ editors must resort to a completely thoughtless, artificial finish — our three racetrack babes in their designer dresses and sun hats watch from the filthy bleachers, as if nobody’s going to spill mustard on them. They leap up to witness yet another hairy crash, and the ‘The End’ title comes up.
Is the problem budgetary? Some Hawks films stick close to the words on the page, and are performed and filmed with unerring precision. But we’re told that other more amorphous pictures (Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not again) were allowed to develop on the set to some degree, with rewrites and reshoots going off in directions suggested by the chemistry between the actors. That’s supposedly how Hawks discovery Dolores Moran found herself shoved to the margins of To Have and Have Not to better showcase Lauren Bacall. In the penny-pinching ‘sixties, when Hawks could no longer just shoot until he got it right, the script and characters of Red Line stayed what they were, not what the directors actors might have been able to make of them.
What in the Hawks classics were grace notes are now liabilities. Holly partners up with Lindy in the nightclub, where we hear an amorphous blend of pop music that’s neither rock, nor the country music we’d expect on the mostly Southern stock car circuits. As Hawks’ old sing-along notion will no longer fly, Holly sings a bouncy song backed by four go-go dancers (Teri Garr among them). Not only is Holly’s performance total amateur hour (that deep voice is still there), but the dud song makes light of a race fatality, and Holly has supposedly just lost the man of her dreams on the track.
The general ambience is plastic. Various personality-challenged guys wander into the nightclub, as if we’re meant to remember their faces. Are they real drivers doing cameos? Are they the sons or daughters of Hawks’ drinking buddies? The show subscribes to the IN CROWD notion of who can be in play and who cannot. Pat Kazarian is over 35, so when the kids pair off he crawls off to do sexless things like play cards. George Takei is given some professional respect but not a single dialogue scene. The name ‘Kato’ indicates that nobody CARES what the Asian guy might have to say; he’s supposed to be grateful to be allowed in the clubhouse. I think it would be terrific if one of the cast-off, abused doll-women in the movie went head over heels for Takei’s character.
Most of the action takes place on the nightclub and motel sets under artificial light, although I spot angles taken on the Paramount lot, standing in for racetrack staging areas — the barn-like camera department is in one background. Attractive cars proliferate — Stingrays, Mustangs and an exotic blue Shelby Daytona Cobra. Unlike most racecar pictures the racing action is coherent, which is commendable. Hawks appears to have sent cameramen out to record races and to try to capture as many crashes as possible. Unless I’m mistaken that material was filmed in 16mm for economy’s sake and later optically enlarged. I guess we can assume that, if they happened to catch a nice wreck with a car number 21, a matching car was later mocked up for James Caan to drive. It looks as if one crash, where a car vaults fifty feet over an embankment, was a stunt smartly filmed in 16mm to fool us. The driver supposedly walks away from the crash, which seems impossible.
It’s true that Red Line 7000 came along at a moment when ‘youth movies’ were in crisis, before the English Rock Invasion would show us kids a new kind of politically savvy cool to imitate. In 1965 Beach Party movies still dominated, along with lame ‘wild weekend’ movies where actors at age thirty played kids aged twenty, while behaving like kids from the 1940s. When a Howard Hawks picture caught on, it was probably because the fantasy he was selling didn’t seem out of date, and his stars looked like they were the characters we see on screen. Red Line just can’t keep the illusion going, yet it is a picture that film buffs are going to want to see. It’s not a camp disaster like, say, John Brahm’s Hot Rods to Hell. Even when it’s bad, it’s interesting to the point of fascination.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Red Line 7000 is the first opportunity I’ve had to see the show since it appeared on network TV in the late 1960s. I think I saw the ‘motel Pepsi’ scene three times without ever making it to the end — with all the commercials, TV stretched the show out by at least an hour, giving the impression of no forward progress whatsoever.
The transfer is good but not great. Some scenes seem a little light, lacking density. I only noticed this up front so it wasn’t a major problem. We don’t mind the intercutting of the 16mm racing material because Hawks’ editors match things beautifully, and the scenes are organized so that anybody that pays attention will be able to tell who is racing which car. That’s a sore point with most racing movies, including the deluxe John Frankenheimer epic Grand Prix. That picture has things in common with this one: another to-die-for bed-hopping French character (Françoise Hardy) and a scene in which brain-addled race fans compete on a slot car toy race track.
Kino gives us a fat stack of trailers, plus an audio commentary by Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo of the Twilight Time label. In this case the commentary is special because Ms. Kirgo’s father is the film’s credited screenwriter. We naturally hear about his career but also get a spirited discussion about what in the movie works and what doesn’t. Redman and Kirgo had basically the reaction I did — what did these women characters do to deserve such abuse? Julie’s insights are not clouded by her personal connection, not at all.
Three days later, I want to see this again, to find out if my opinion of it has changed. I might show it to my screening group next Tuesday. We’re all Howard Hawks fans, and it’ll be fun to hear what they think. If you’re really into Howard Hawks pictures, I recommend this one.
Oh, and it was very difficult to scrape together good images for this title — the movie on disc looks far better than any of the stills presented here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Red Line 7000 Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good–minus-minus / Fair ++plus-plus
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Film Historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 26, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson