Film Professional Flummoxed By Acting Non-professionals



Director Howard Hawks takes us into the high-stakes arena of professional racing with his colorful mid-60s saga of daring racers and their equally daring loves. Focusing on three stock-car professionals and three captivating young women, the romantic structure provided by jinxes, jaded ardor, and jealousy spills over onto the raceways of Daytona and Darlington, among others, as each individually push the red line of the title beyond its numerical limit in life, love, and on the track. With a cast of freshfaced newcomers enacting this world of speed and passion, Red Line 7000 captures the dangers, pressures, and competitive spirit of men and women constantly living on the edge of metal-crunching fatality.

Director Howard Hawks (center), with John Wayne (left) and Angie Dickinson (right) on the set of RIO BRAVO (1959).

Or so I might be very content to leave it at if I weren’t writing this review. As with the best Howard Hawks movies, their genre premises are deceptively simple while true-to-life suggesting, in their very unpretentiousness, a deeper reservoir of meaning: a group of pilots make dangerous mail flights over the Andes (Only Angels Have Wings [1939]), a newspaper editor wins back his reporter ex-wife through covering a big story (His Girl Friday [1940]), a cattle rancher and his surrogate son work out inter-generational rivalries while on the dangerous trail (Red River [1948]), a Western sheriff and small cadre of deputies hold a murderer in their jail while the outlaw’s army of friends lay siege (Rio Bravo [1959]). Along with their often high-pressure milieu and highly-demanding professions – including military and commercial flying (Ceiling Zero [1936], OAHW, Air Force [1943]), deep-sea boating (Tiger Shark [1932], To Have and Have Not [1944]), and big game-hunting (Hatari! [1962]) – the life of the highly-dedicated professional simply has no room for those who don’t perform “up to snuff”.

Which brings us to a franker consideration of Hawks’ late career effort Red Line 7000. Returning to the world of professional racing 33 years after the release of the Warner Brothers programmer The Crowd Roars (1932) – in which James Cagney negotiated both the twists and curves of the Indianapolis Speedway and Pre-Code era beauties Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak – RL7000 updates and multiplies the base premise of love and racing for a then emerging youth market of New Hollywood talent. Unfortunately, the eye for talent that once spotted a sleepy-eyed 19-year-old named Betty Joan Perske on the cover of a magazine and transformed her into “Lauren Bacall” – back-to-back starring his discovery in two iconic films with Humphrey Bogart (THaHN, The Big Sleep [1946]) – failed Hawks 23 years later while casting novice performers like Holly MacGregor, Laura Devon, and John Robert Crawford – among others – who individually fail to register in crucial lead roles.

Either because Hawks at this point in his directorial career had come to rely so strongly on highly “professional” actors like Hawksian favorites Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby [1938], OAHW, HGF) and John Wayne (RR, RB) – along with memorable “strong women” roles for actresses like Rosalind Russell (HGF), Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire [1941]), and Angie Dickinson (RB) – or because he had become disinterested in mentoring or lavishing attention on up-and-coming performers, the decision to cast RL7000 with mainly unprofessional actors is a curious one for the veteran director, especially when the writing, pacing, and structure of the film is there, but the performances simply are not. Indeed, the romantic storyline that comes off best is mainly due to the chemistry between future star James Caan – who would inch further to full-fledged stardom with Hawks’ delayed El Dorado (1966) – and accomplished character actress Marianna Hill (Godfather, Part II [1974]), whose sex-charged and jealousy-tinged scenes at their hotel and later on the speedway exude the crackle and energy achieved in Hawks’ best films.

Despite the notable inexperience of many of its actors, the film is eminently watchable throughout, with the visual gloss of scenes set in the group’s nightclub hangout and Holiday Inn lodgings – lavishly dressed in the mid-century, ultra-modernist mode – a bizarre and bracing visual contrast to grainy, highly explicit race-track footage of crashes, burning explosions, and car length-rolling flips. (Whether spectacularly captured by the film’s second unit or indifferently inserted from stock footage, the action doesn’t quite match, but it does set a mood of danger, if not believability.) And for those diehard Hawks aficionados who have just about accustomed and/or resigned themselves to the mid-film duet between Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, there are further musical challenges awaiting in Red Line, with ’60s Batman TV series composer Nelson Riddle’s rockin’ & swingin’ updates of old folk tunes, ranging from Old Grey Mare to She’ll Be Comin’ Around The Moutain, culminating in story- and character-“jinxed” newcomer Holly McGregor’s throaty sprechgesang to the racing ballad Wildcat Jones. Cringe-inducing fun all-around, adding extra layers of enjoyment to car-racing melodramatics and crack-ups. (Extra-extra layers of enjoyment courtesy of supporting cast member George Takei – as pit mechanic Kato – and bit-part waitress Teri Garr, enthusiastically dancing in separate scenes to the decidedly undanceable music.)

The straight-ahead, non-flashy visual style favored by film storyteller Hawks is well-captured by Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release, with the roaring revs and metal-on-metal impacts fairly overpowering my sensitive speakers. (Basically, if they’d in fact been blown out I would have considered it to have been in a very good cinematic cause.) Film historians Julie Kirgo, daughter of Red Line 7000 screenwriter George Kirgo, and Nick Redman provide an absorbing audio commentary which helps to point out and contextualize both the strengths and deficiencies of this feature-length clash between the Old Hollywood and the emerging New. The Great Film Professional may have been flummoxed here by new screen talent, but directors ranging from Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman to John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino would later arise to pick up the mantle, in their individual ways, on both his effortless style and economy of storytelling.

The images in this review are used only as a reference to the film and do not reflect the picture quality of the Blu-ray.