In terms of international recognition—industrially and critically as well as in terms of audiences—European cinema was seen rather differently than US cinema. If US cinema was produced in factorylike conditions for mass consumption and entertainment, European cinema was seen much more in relation to, and as the equal of, the other arts. But it is also the case that European critics (and probably audiences as well, though this is less clear) considered the cinema in general—including US cinema—much more as an art form on a par with the other arts than US—and British—critics and audiences (and this was also true of other aspects of popular culture). In the postwar period, especially in France, the cultivation of cinema as an art form was sustained in part by a network of art cinemas and cine clubs (and in Paris by the Cinémathèque Française), though directors like Howard Hawks (1896–1977), King Vidor (1894–1982), and Frank Borzage (1893–1962) had been identified as distinctive as far back as the 1920s.
As well as racing cars and planes, the young Howard Hawks also worked vacations in the property department of Hollywood's Famous Players–Lasky studios. After serving as an army pilot in World War I and working in the aircraft industry, Hawks returned to Hollywood in the early 1920s as a cutter, assistant director, story editor, and casting director before writing screenplays and selling the story The Road to Glory (1926) to Fox on condition that he also direct. Thereafter, Hawks worked for over forty years in Hollywood as director, producer, and writer, one of the few filmmakers whose careers spanned the silent period, the heyday of the studio system, and the post-studio period, making over forty major features.
Hawks accommodated the demands and constraints—as well as exploiting the possibilities—of the studio system, covering a wide range of genres as well as making classic examples in several of them: Ceiling Zero (1936) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939) in the action-adventure genre; Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) in the western; Scarface (1932) in the gangster film; The Big Sleep (1946) in the noir thriller; and Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), and Monkey Business (1952) in the screwball comedy genre. In addition, Hawks's economical style—often referred to as "invisible"—makes his work a major example of classical cinema.
Though Hawks's talents were noted within the industry as far back as the 1920s, his work was not critically recognized until the 1950s, when French critics like Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer in Cahiers du Cinéma took his work seriously and claimed him as an auteur whose work demonstrated a consistent personality and worldview. Hawks—along with Alfred Hitchcock—became a key test case for the possibility for authorship within popular cinema. Hawks's predilection for understated, everyday heroism, often in the context of the all-male group; his straightforward, direct visual style; and his flair for bringing out unexpected traits in stars like John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart were seen as marking Hawks out as special. In the early 1960s Hawks was taken up by auteurist critics in the United States like Andrew Sarris and in the United Kingdom by Movie magazine and Robin Wood, who took Hawks as a supreme example of the understated artistry possible within the Hollywood system. Later, Peter Wollen emphasized the way in which the male struggle for mastery in the adventure and western films serves as an inverted mirror image of the comedies, which stressed gender role reversal and lack or loss of mastery.
Scarface (1932), Ceiling Zero (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Rio Bravo (1959), Hatari! (1962)
Hillier, Jim, and Peter Wollen, eds. Howard Hawks: American Artist . London: British Film Institute, 1996.
McBride, Joseph, ed. Focus on Howard Hawks . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
——, ed. Hawks on Hawks . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Wollen, Peter. Signs and Meaning in the Cinema . 3rd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.
Wood, Robin. Howard Hawks . London: Secker Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968. Reprinted, with "Retrospect," London: British Film Institute, 1981; New ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Postwar France was thus fertile ground for critics trying to develop new ways of thinking about cinema, particularly American cinema. From 1944 and 1945, Hollywood films that had not been allowed in France during the German occupation arrived in a flood and prompted insightful ways of thinking about cinema, especially American cinema. Examples are André Bazin's ideas about realism, responding to Welles's and William Wyler's (1902–1981) films with cinematographer Gregg Toland (1904–1948), and the identification
of new strains in the crime thriller as film noir . The "egocentric conception of the director" embodied by Welles was important: François Truffaut (1932–1984) later used as an epigraph to his collection of critical writings, The Films in My Life, Welles's dictum, "I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it." This was the atmosphere in which the young novelist and director Alexandre Astruc wrote in 1948 the polemic "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo [Camera-Pen]" (Astruc in Graham, 1968, pp. 17–23). Although Astruc's precise meaning is not always clear, a central idea was that cinema was becoming a medium of personal expression like the other arts: "In this kind of filmmaking the distinction between author and director loses all meaning," he stated. "Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing. The filmmaker-author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen" (Astruc in Graham, 1968, p. 22).
Contentions like Astruc's that filmmaking was as much an expressive art form as painting and the novel—art forms where the essentially Romantic idea of the individual artist before the page or canvas was easiest to sustain—and that the filmmaker arrives at self-expression through the process of direction, helped nurture the development of the politique des auteurs —the auteur policy or polemic—in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s. Some confusion tends to arise from the fact that the auteurism associated with critics like Truffaut, Rivette, Eric Rohmer (b. 1920), Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), and Claude Chabrol (b. 1930) is usually linked with their enthusiasm and reverence for Hollywood directors like Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), Ford, Nicholas Ray (1911–1979), Anthony Mann (1906–1967), and Samuel Fuller (1912–1997), whom they identified as auteurs , while the essay often credited as setting the scene for the politique was Truffaut's critique of contemporary French cinema (in his essay, "Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français" (A certain tendency of the French cinema), in the January 1954 issue of Cahiers . As spectator-critics, the Cahiers writers enjoyed and admired American popular cinema, but as future French filmmakers-critics in the French nouvelle vague (new wave), they would inevitably make French films, not American Hollywood ones; thus, their major concerns included French cinema (along with, for example, Italian cinema, which offered conditions and possibilities much more akin to their own than did US cinema).