Thursday, January 7, 2016

His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) Rating: 10/10 stars.

Grounded in Ben Hecht’s experience in journalism in the 1920s and 1930s, the satirical elements of the film feel outdated today.  Sure, journalism is still a dirty business and Chicago politics are still corrupt, but the specifics here seem foreign and unconvincing to me as a representation of even historical reality.  Instead, what impresses is the way the entire film is one long verbal competition, every scene about clever characters trying to best each other.  Russell and Grant are evenly matched adversaries and totally unscrupulous, tricking and manipulating every less-sharp character and turning every new development to their advantage.  It’s conversation as tactical warfare.  Every exchange is a game played for high stakes with no morals or rules, and the more risked the more fun; verbal and intellectual dexterity are the only virtues.
And they’re playing that game from the very beginning, though not everyone is aware of it (and those who aren’t are used as pawns by the real players).  Whether she admits it to herself or not, by walking back into the office Hildy is effectively dealing Walter back in, and giving him one last shot at the jackpot.  The rest of the movie is a dazzling display of power plays disguised by compliments, declarations of love used as insults, the trumps vs. the chumps; comedy as war, as verbally brutal as Game of Thrones.  There’s casual racism here, cruelty galore, ambulance chasing, lawbreaking, and attempted suicide leveraged for cheap escape by our supposed heroes; the film definitely requires a strong stomach.
Hawks keeps everyone in frame and all expressions visible (and often doesn’t cut for ages), so you can watch individuals’ faces throughout the conversations.  But do so too closely and you’ll probably get lost--the expressions/emotions/reactions move as fast as the dialogue, and it’s near impossible to keep both in focus at once.  The crowded frame allows for a plethora of bits of business and body language to be introduced.  Cary Grant’s performance is justifiably legendary, but for my money, Rosalind Russell just about runs circles around him for half the movie.  The whole thing is a thrilling experience to watch, as well as a challenge--you’re almost certainly going to miss something whatever you do, so every time you watch it there are new clever/funny/witty details to pick up on.  The film ends up feeling inexhaustible, if only on the level of sheer cleverness.  There’s almost nothing else like it.

No comments:

Post a Comment