#36 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
When talking about Red Line 7000, I think it’s required to talk about both Rio Bravo and Hatari! because the earlier two films point to what Hawks was surely trying to do in the latter. The two adventures with John Wayne were loose collections of character moments brought together by a central plot and premise that provided enough focus for everything to really feel of a piece. The throughline in Red Line 7000 barely exists, in contrast. Instead of creating a relatively small world like a border town in Texas with a jail problem or a tightknit group of men trapping animals in Africa, we have an entire subculture of stockcar racing. It becomes so dissociative that for the last forty minutes it feels like we’re watching two different movies cut together that just happen to involve the same sets and locations.
It’s the story of three racing men and the three women who end up loving them. There are echoes of some of Hawks’ earlier work (surprise!) such as The Crowd Roars and Ceiling Zero, but where those were relatively tightly focused (Zero more than Crowd, for sure), Red Line 7000 loses it completely. There are simply too many characters to really track in this rather short two-hour runtime. This is another Hawks film that really feels like it was cut down. The six characters ends up dominating their own spaces for so long that it’s really hard to figure out who’s the actual main character. There are arguments to be made for all six, especially the three men.
Those three racers are James Caan’s Mike, John Robert Crawford’s Ned, and Skip Ward’s Dan. Caan gets top billing, so we’ll start with him. Mike is a bit of a cipher for a long period, creating little impression in his early conversations with his friend and fellow driver Jim (who dies in the movie’s opening car race), leaving Mike in charge of the girl Jim had fallen in love with and brought out from California, Holly (Gail Hire). You might think that this setup would be ideal for getting Mike and Holly together in the end, but you’d be wrong. Mike’s going to spend the first thirty minutes of the film, essentially, with Holly, but he simply stops interacting with her after a while. No, she’s going to end up with Dan, who brought back the French beauty Gabrielle (Marianna Hill). Gabrielle ends up noting the infatuation Dan has with Holly, quickly letting him go and falling for Mike. Who’s Ned ending up with? Well, Ned is going to end up with Julie (Laura Devon), his race team’s manager’s sister.
Describing all of this feels like describing the farce that is Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, but where that was light and fun in the end, the point of the film being the juggling of pairs, none of the romance in Red Line 7000 seems terribly important, especially in comparison to the racing.
The racing is…interesting. Mike is the chief racer for Pat (Norman Alden), Julie’s brother (who looks old enough to be her father, but whatever), and he’s a winner. Dan has won some big races in Europe before he joins the American circuit where he’s prone to do well. Ned is an up and comer who manages to prove himself well to Pat after Jim’s death, demonstrating his ability in Mike’s car that is pulling to the right. The racing stuff is never particularly interesting from a character perspective. Mike and Dan simply race, while Ned has a pretty typical story about a young, talented kid getting too big too fast before falling hard. I have no problem with typical, but this movie gives almost no time to dedicate to any one thing in particular. It feels like we’re skipping through the film instead of letting it play out.
So, the racing itself. Coming in a couple of movies after Hatari! where it was obvious that John Wayne and his fellow actors were in Africa wrestling with a real rhino, it’s odd to see the quality of the film stock of the actual races here plumet every time we see real cars only to have it return to the quality of the rest of the movie the second we see a closeup of a racer’s face in front of rear projection. All of these sorts of movies use rear projection from time to time, but because it’s the exclusive way we see the actual actors in the midst of this dangerous sport, and the racing ends up coming back again and again, it ends up feeling incredibly and obviously fake.
I think I can lay the majority of the blame of my problems with this movie on one thing, though. Holly, being the sole beneficiary on Jim’s life insurance policy, buys into a racing bar where everyone hangs out, and we get a whole lot of time dedicated to this bar. There’s a musical number and everything. This would be like in Ceiling Zero if we got a subplot about the bar owner’s troubles instead of the bar owner simply being a bit part in someone else’s story.
Much like I think with Land of the Pharaohs, I am all but convinced that there was a workprint of this film that lasted about three hours. There’s no way that the sudden introduction, in the film’s final twenty minutes, of several large new plot twists, like one of the racers losing a hand, would be planned to be introduced and moved on so quickly as it is in the final product here. This has to be Hawks bowing to studio pressure to turn in a film of a given length in order to get a certain number of showings per day. The end result is easily Hawks’ worst film. It’s very much of a piece with his body of work dealing with a dangerous profession, the men who love it, and the women who love them, but this is also the worst presentation of the ideas in his body of work. Thankfully, he never sank this low again.