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Hatari!

It would be easy to dismiss Howard Hawks' Hatari! (1962) as a late-stage film by a master beginning to lose his grip on the cinematic arts. Hawks' career began in the silent age, and he produced some of Hollywood's greatest masterpieces (including His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and To Have and Have Not, to name only a few). Hatari! was Hawks' 38th picture, as well as his longest, clocking in at two hours and 37 minutes (even longer than his epic Land of the Pharaohs). The story has no antagonist, and there is a drawl to the cinematic language of that hadn't shown up in his previous work. But to dismiss the film because it's long or casual is to miss the point, as Hatari! is perhaps the best encapsulation of the Hawksian universe. He made films about men with life-or-death professions, men who drink and live hard because of it/ They have casual relationships with women that are based on mutual respect, and (like the Fordian heroes of the same era) they observe social codes that remain unspoken. In this sense, Hatari! neatly sums up Hawks' idealized universe. John Wayne stars as Sean Mercer, the de facto leader of a team of men who capture wild animals in Africa for zoos and circuses. When a female journalist (Else Martinelli) shows up (thought a man because she goes by A.M. Dallesandro), she is nicknamed Dallas and causes a stir — these men of the Serengeti are professionals who don't have time for a tag-along greenhorn. But when Dallas shows that she's got moxie, she becomes friends with her macho cohorts, including "Pockets" (Red Buttons), "The Indian" (Bruce Cabot), "Chips" (Gerald Blain), Kurt (Hardy Kruger) and sole other female Brandy (Michele Girardon), allowed in the inner circle because her father owned the business. As the season carries on, the team catches zebras, monkeys, and eventually rhinos — the most dangerous of all. As Dallas starts to fit in she romances the stalwart Sean, while also becoming a surrogate mother to three baby elephants (this was, after all, the film that introduced Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" to ice-rink organists everywhere).

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In Hatari!, plot is secondary to character development (much like Robert Altman's films would be a few years later). In some quarters, this has been mistaken for sloppiness. But episodically, the viewers' get to live with the team as they go through a season and experience their coded affection for each other, as well as the silent honor of danger ("Hatari," after all, is the Swahili word for danger.) The film is about everything that defined Hawks, as all of his most beloved characters and situations are found herein. Dallas is his archetypal female — a nicknamed, fast-talking chain-smoker who can banter with the best of them, and she seduces Sean into a relationship (using questions about kissing that Hawks has used in variation since 1944's To Have and Have Not). Sean is the archetypal lead — verbally reserved, emotional only under the surface, handy in a dangerous situation, and always in charge. Though these types are fascinating, and the film is filled with the witty dialogue Hawks was known for (written by long time Hawks collaborator Leigh Brackett), it should be noted that Hatari! is marvelous entertainment in the old Hollywood fashion because — make no mistake — it is filled with exciting action (shot clearly and concisely by Russell Harlan). The men have to capture wild animals, and there are spectacular sequences, including some magnificent eye-level shots of a rhino bumping one of the cars. One is left wondering how much was doubled (Hawks claimed it was really the actors, but he was also a notorious fibber). As François Truffaut pointed out, the animal hunts in Hatari! are a metaphor for the process of filmmaking, and though Hawks worked for eight more years and continued to make interesting films (his final work being 1970's Rio Lobo), this film serves as a career summation of a master director who is at peace with his favorite archetypes (and it's also one of the rare Hawks films that ends in marriage, and not just in sex). Paramount's DVD doesn't offer much in terms of extras, but it's presentation is splendid, with an anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) and a newly restored monaural soundtrack. Both picture and sound quality are excellent, though there is occasional wear on the print used. A theatrical trailer is included. Keep-case.
—DSH



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