A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

The Big Sky is a good Henry Hathaway or Budd Boetticher movie, except that it was made by Howard Hawks, from whom we have come to expect more. Hawks had just passed through one of the peak periods of his long career, with the sterling achievement of To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Red River (1948), and he was to return to form in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Rio Bravo (1959). But The Big Sky looks like a routine Western adventure in that company, even though it has some old Hawksian hands on board in screenwriter Dudley Nichols, cinematographer Russell Harlan, and composer Dimitri Tiomkin. It has the director's characteristic touches in places: overlapping dialogue and the usual male-bonding moments. Some of the latter, especially between Kirk Douglas's Jim Deakins and Dewey Martin's Boone Caudill, verge on the homoerotic, since Boone is given to wearing tight leather pants and both go around with their shirts flared open, making one scene look like it's taking place in a West Hollywood bar and not a St. Louis saloon. The absence of the usual "Hawksian woman," able to return wisecrack for wisecrack, is particularly noticeable. The only woman in the large cast is Elizabeth Threatt, playing an Indian woman named Teal Eye, who doesn't speak English. This was the only film appearance for Threatt, a model Hawks had spotted in a photograph. Her chief function in the film is to provide sexual tension among the members of a crew of fur traders making their way up the Missouri River and to spark a bit of rivalry between Jim and Boone. Teal Eye has been brought along on the expedition by Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt) to act as a go-between with the Blackfoot tribe, to which she belongs. Also along for the journey is a somewhat addled Blackfoot known as Poordevil, played by Hank Worden, a regular member of John Ford's stock company who sometimes moonlighted for Hawks. The journey is interrupted by Indian attacks, river rapids, and the threats from a rival trading company, in scenes that are staged and shot well but never provide more than the routine excitement of the genre. Hunnicutt and Harlan received Oscar nominations for their work.