Thursday, May 21, 2009

Red Line 7000 (1965, Howard Hawks)

Thanks to BAM's "The Late Film" series, I finally had  a chance to see Howard Hawks' elusive Red Line 7000.  The source was an archival 16mm print that had certainly seen better days, but it was clearly the best and only option.  As far as I knew there was nothing in circulation at all.  I happen to know for a fact that several enterprising programmers will be putting in calls to the BAM Cinematek staff to get the goods on how and where to secure this print.  So, everyone is dying to see this film because it's one of the last, and most hard to find, films made by the great Hawks.  How is it?  In a few words: a mildly diverting, largely mediocre film with some good car racing action, pretty faces, and a few laugh out loud moments, of both the unintentional and intentional kind.  

James Caan leads a cast of mostly attractive unknowns. Caan is star NASCAR racer, Mike Marsh. He drives for the paternal Pat (Norman Alden) who has a motorcycle riding kid sister (2nd billed Laura Devon and one-time wife of Maurice Jarre) and a Japanese-American mechanic (George Takei) who is the only non-white face seen in the film.  Ned Arp (John Robert Crawford) is a hot shot up-and-comer who is taken on by both Pat and Julie.  Dan McCann (Skip Ward) is a top driver who's returned from a victorious tour of Europe with a new French girlfriend (Marianna Hill, a cousin of Stormin' Norman Schwartzkopf) and a new contract with Pat.  Complications ensue when Dan falls for the beautiful, but emotionally shaky Holly (Gail Hire) who is convinced that every man that falls in love with her, dies tragically. When we are introduced to Holly, it is after her previous boyfriend, Mike's teammate Jim Loomis (Anthony Rogers), dies in a fiery crash.  Lindy (Charlene Holt) owns the restaurant and nightclub that everyone adjourns to after races.  Interestingly, even though races occur all over the South, the drivers, and their women, always end up back at the same Holiday Inn and Lindy's place. 

So we get prime Hawks material: race car drivers, the woman who put up with them, etc. However, in this film there is too much of the latter and the soapy histrionics that go along with it, and not enough of the business of driving, the male camaraderie, the competition, and the undying desire to risk life and limb for a shot at glory.  The script has the strange habit of introducing and then dropping characters for long periods while it concentrates on a new set of characters and conflicts.  

Ultimately, the movie settles on three couples (and sort of forgets about Pat and Takei's Kato), but it's only the Caan and Hill pairing that yields any significant drama.  This isn't surprising considering that Caan and Hill are probably the most seasoned and skilled of the performers. In fact, Crawford and Hire would not act in any other films.  The brutish tendencies of his character, foreshadow some of the later, more celebrated work of Caan and offer a much-needed contrast from the dull, ham-handedness offered by the pretty boys who fill the other two male leads.  Hill does a more than admirable job with the French accent and would later make her mark in a groundbreaking nude scene with Robert Forster in Haskell Wexler's game-changing Medium Cool.

Hawks isn't helped by the drab sets and photography, which have a decidedly TV feel to them; the fact that I viewed a 4:3 16mm print certainly didn't alleviate matters.  Hawks would finish up with the more widely seen, and better regarded, Westerns, El Dorado (also co-starring Caan and Holt and also playing in BAM's series) and Rio Lobo.  In spite of my griping, I have to say that this film should be more readily available as it is part of the oeuvre of one of our greatest filmmakers.  If I haven't already made it abundantly clear, this is not a great "lost film" or Holy Grail item; without expectations of greatness, this one goes down as a fairly entertaining sub-2 hour sports melodrama.