Part of the problem in reevaluating Hathaway is that auteurism has never completely shaken off its allegiance to the practice of valuing directors according to their themes - no matter that themes are generally created on the level of script or story conference. To find Hathaway, we have to explore areas of creation that the director actually controls, even under a powerful front office.
Over my holiday vacation, I revisited what may be my two favorite Hathaway films: the 1944 horseracing drama Home in Indiana, and the 1958 Western From Hell to Texas. (I'd need to throw in the 1935 British Empire adventure Lives of a Bengal Lancer to be sure I'd mentioned all the Hathaway films in my top drawer. But there are many I haven't seen.) The two films present different faces to analysis. 1944 Hollywood style was more codified, more devoted to the well-known rhythms of classical American framing and editing. As a result, personal touches stand out more clearly. 1958 belongs to an era more challenged by new, unruly ideas about what constituted realism, framing conventions, and the studio style in general. It's correspondingly more difficult to determine directorial inflection with the same degree of confidence.
There's another difference between the films that makes comparison tricky. The script of Home from Indiana, by Winston Miller from a story by George Agnew Chamberlain, is rather genre-bound and not particularly noteworthy. Whereas From Hell to Texas is co-written by Wendell Mayes (the fine scenarist of Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, and In Harm's Way) and Robert Buckner, from a book by Charles O. Locke; and it features both memorable dialogue ("Just trying to be constructive" says Jay C. Flippen, advising pacifist Don Murray to take an opportunity to kill a few adversaries) and strong thematic content, both of which help lift the project, and neither of which I attribute to Hathaway.
Hathaway's most obvious contribution to both films is a distinctive, very attractive visual style. The Academy frames of Home in Indiana have a number of characteristics that one finds in much of Hathaway's prewar work, all of which combine to give the image a ceremonial solemnity:
- The use of frames within frames. Hathaway is especially fond of organizing compositions around arches - once you start looking, they come fast and furious. These shots are generally fairly symmetrical and solid.
- A lot of slightly depressed camera angles.
- In conjunction with the depressed angles, a taste for shooting in spaces that open up in the background of the shot. Depressed angles in other directors' films sometimes crowd the frame, as the camera picks up ceilings and other visual constraints; Hathaway likes to find a hole in the background, to suggest a big playing field.
- A marked taste for keeping the characters low in the frame, with a lot of space above their heads. This is almost a Hathaway signature; you don't see it much in other people's films.
- A fairly frequent recourse to foreground-background opposition between characters. This taste affects the editing style of the films: quite often the result is a scene played out in a single take, with the forced perspective providing the tension that editing would otherwise create.
- In conjunction with the foreground-background opposition, an unobtrusive taste for longer lenses than were usual at the time. The effect is that the frame seems designed for something far away, and that foreground figures are slightly out of place in the composition.
- A definite taste for long shots, especially at the beginning and end of scenes, and during transitional interludes.
- A distinctive lighting style for interiors: dusky, light-streaked. The image takes on a burnished quality, and sometimes seems a bit hazy.
A visual style that doesn't connect to the mechanics of narrative can seem superficial. (Henry King comes to mind as a director whose pictorial skills don't strike me as strongly related to the films' way of moving forward.) Hathaway is not forceful in his inflection of storytelling, but he can use his church-like, weighty visuals to beautiful effect. Often he deemphasizes the drama of a story moment, and substitutes the weight of the image for the force of a strong dramatic cadence. There are lovely, anticlimactic scene endings in Home from Indiana where the lovelorn character played by Jeanne Crain wanders sadly off into long shot, framed by hanging branches and increasingly unavailable to our inspection. Even key plot points are sometimes soft-pedaled in this fashion: for instance, Crain's moment of realization that her beloved Lon McCallister is smitten with her friend June Havoc. The scene, centering on the exchange of Christmas presents, is executed largely without closeups, so that we are forced to look for the signs of Crain's surprise in the midst of fleeting group-oriented full shots.
In general, Hathaway is far from being a drama addict as regards performance: he likes to include small-scale behavioral touches where he can, though he stops short of undermining drama. The contrast between a somewhat diminished sense of narrative drama and a heightened sense of compositional drama is close to the heart of Hathaway's style.
The obvious comparison is to Ford: there is a like tendency to elevate key moments with a sense of visual grandeur. The difference between the two directors is instructive. More assertive, Ford has a strong tendency to override the narrative with his privileged visual interludes; he draws attention to the fiction-making process by subordinating it to these portentious effects. Even when his narratives are most compelling, Ford's visuals can take on an autonomous quality: for example, the Monument Valley vistas in the sublime scene in Fort Apache when Wayne parts from his doomed regiment. By contrast, Hathaway's low-angled, deep-space long shots never rupture the storytelling - they are a way of doing things, not a thing in themselves.
It's not a cinch to make a connection between the visual qualities of Home in Indiana (which seems of a piece with Hathaway's other prewar work) and those of From Hell to Texas. For one thing, Texas is very widescreen, and the new format made it more common for filmmakers to stage scenes within the frame, without resorting to classic cutting style. So Hathaway's penchant for keeping interaction within the frame was to an extent absorbed by the changing times. The same is true of his taste for long shots and longish lenses; and the vistas that open up in the background of his shots were pretty much up front and center in the widescreen Western.
Still, Texas gives special attention to the enveloping quality of the vast Western landscape, to the spectacle of characters suspended on small promontories as the landscape rolls far away and rears up behind them. One of the first aspects of its visual style that one notices is that Hathaway uses point-of-view sequences with surprising, Hitchcockian rigor to parse the dynamic of pursued vs. pursuers in the vast landscape. Though the camera in Home in Indiana was much less subjective, the films share a pronounced awareness of camera position and cutting patterns as a way of relating the viewer to story events. More than Hawks and Walsh, almost as much as Ford, Hathaway seems to have a rulebook for what to do with the camera and when. If Ford evolved a Zen-like instinct for selecting "the right shot" (right for him, anyway) and ignoring traditional ideas about decoupage, Hathaway became a theorist of traditional camera style, abstracting and simplifying it for more standard uses.
Though Hathaway's visual style is less unorthodox in the context of 1958 than of 1944, Texas is still marked by his peculiar, dusky lighting style, by interiors that open up in the rear of the shot, and by compositions around arches and other frames within frames. The two films have somewhat different visual vocabularies, but ultimately I absorb the same vibe from both of them: a restraint in unleashing narrative drama, but a heavy, cosmic visual drama embracing and bolstering the story.
Interestingly, I feel in both films a slight letdown at the climax, a sense that Hathaway falls back on convention as the story peaks. It's as if he knows that he's obligated not to understate at this crucial point in the plot, but he doesn't have an overdrive mode to make up for the sacrifice of his usual meditative gravity. Still, if Hathaway has never thrown away the book and completely reshaped a project in his own image, there's quite a lot to value in his long, successful career. Home in Indiana, almost unknown, is close to the auteurist ideal of the pedestrian project lifted to art by sheer directorial grace and control; and the less disadvantaged From Hell to Texas is one of the most beautiful of Westerns.