Monday, March 17, 2014

HATARI!: Blu-ray (Paramount 1962) Warner Home Video

The eighth highest grossing film of 1962 was Howard Hawks’ Hatari!; relocating the director’s familiar romantic screwball formula to the wilds of Africa and adding not one, but two attractive women to the mix – neither particularly adhering to the trademarks of the traditional Hawkensian archetype. Of all the movies Howard Hawks directed, Hatari! has one of the weakest narratives; Leigh Brackett’s screenplay waffling between irresistible bits of nonsense and perilous bouts of danger. John Wayne’s big game hunter, Sean Mercer can handle just about any wild creature on four legs. On two, he isn’t quite as successful – particularly with Anna Maria ‘Dallas’ D'Alessandro (Elsa Martinelli); the exotic fish out of water who aims to tame him instead. With its expansive Tanganyika vistas luminously photographed by Russell Harlen, nimbly augmented by Henry Mancini’s uber-jazzy underscore, Hatari! is undeniably a textbook example of style trumping substance; featuring an ensemble cast and a premise that never should have worked, but surprisingly does for a staggering 157 minutes without ever wearing out its welcome.
Hatari! (Swahili for 'danger') is something of an anomaly in John Wayne’s career. Irrefutably, he is the most recognizable person in the cast. Yet, Wayne’s game hunter isn’t the catalyst of this narrative; rather a subservient to the sophisticated intercontinental beauty (Elsa Martinelli, playing a character loosely based on the famous Austrian animal photographer, Ylla). Martinelli takes up a good deal of the movie’s run-time, tumbling about the back of a truck, avoiding a leopard attack, and befriending a trio of baby elephants. Red Buttons is in it too, positively delightful as ‘Pockets’; the frequently inebriated, occasionally scatterbrained inventor of the group.  
Also prominently featured are Hardy Krüger, as ex-race car driver turned foreman, Kurt Müller; Gérard Blain, the feisty Frenchman, Charles Maurey, nicknamed ‘Chips’ because he harbors a minor adversarial grudge against Kurt – the pair vying for the affections of winsome, Michèle Girardon, cast as Brandy de la Court; the enterprising lass who has inherited this professional enterprise after the death of her father. Finally, there’s Bruce Cabot as ‘the Indian’ – Little Wolf – not so seriously injured in Hatari!’s opener - gored by a rhinoceros.
Hawks’ direction breaks down the adventure motif, interpolated with vignettes of pure screwball comedy a la the 1930’s – beginning with the awkward ‘cute meet’ between Sean and Anna (he discovers her wearing the top half of his pajamas, tucked between the sheets of his bed). It’s a moment straight out of Twentieth Century (1934), or Bringing Up Baby (1938), or even Ball of Fire (1941); the sophisticated woman and her hapless male suitor caught unawares and off guard. In all of the aforementioned examples, the comedy works – nee, excels – precisely because the audience is primed to see a comedy. Hatari! has no such luxury. 
In fact, the movie opens on a harrowing rhino hunt, ending in serious injury of one of its principle cast. Devolving from drama to humor is a tightrope; the balancing act not altogether successful in Hatari!; though especially troublesome during the finale (Sean and Anna’s wedding night thwarted by a reprise of this earlier scene, this time interrupted not only by a very drunk Pockets but also the three orphaned elephants who have come to regard Anna as their mother. 
The middle act of Hatari! is dedicated almost entirely to chronic disruptions in Sean and Anna's burgeoning romance. Anna may be refined in the ways of the world. But she is decidedly out of her depth as the photographer sent to document the capturing of these animals for a zoo. Infrequently, she incurs Sean’s displeasure with her amateur’s zeal for creating more problems than she is able to solve. He’s frustrated and dissatisfied too, refusing to allow Anna into his heart without prejudice. None of this friction and/or angst is taken seriously in the movie, not in Leigh Brackett’s screenplay either. It’s just par for the course of the traditional screwball – finding roadblocks to set in front of these would-be lovers, so obviously slated to be together in the final reel.
Hawks augments the superficial woes of what is essentially an idiotic love story with an even more farcical and ailing ménage a trois; this one featuring Brandy and two men – Chips and Kurt – each seeking to occupy a special place in her heart. The boys are in full-blown ‘chest thumping’ competition for Brandy’s affections. They’re evenly matched too, as a preemptive range shooting contest reveals; each firing off rifle rounds at a dangling target with expert precision. 
Aside: I’m sure there is a Freudian reference to male virility not so subtly hidden within this subtext. Ultimately, both Chips and Kurt miserably fail in their brawny pleasure pursuit; Brandy drawn to the more effete Pockets instead. Some girls just have peculiar taste. Even more bizarre is the unexpected bro-mance quietly evolving between Chips and Kurt; a pair of preening paragons who start under the most inauspicious dark cloud of mutual contempt, but wind up nursing similarly bruised egos after realizing Brandy has forsaken their efforts for the curly-topped, harmless, red-headed drunkard instead.    
Hatari!’s ace in the hole – at least in its own time – was its spectacular animal hunt sequences; Russell Harlan’s magnificent cinematography capturing galloping gazelle and bison, charging rhinos, giraffes in a dead sprint, and other species fleeing in heart-pounding terror away from the marauding jeeps, vans and other various modes of transport driven by Sean, Kurt and Little Wolf.  Man’s supremacy over the beasts of the earth was - then - still considered something of a worthy sport to satisfy the more ardent adventurist. However, viewed from today’s more environmentally conscious and politically correct vantage, these sequences play as everything from danger-laden silliness to deliberately inflicted cruelty against the natural order.
One has to set aside – or rather, make the calculated attempt to cast such judgments aside, in order to embrace the downright jovial atmosphere that accompanies and bookends these moments, as animals of every shape and size are repeatedly noosed and forcibly hogtied for the spectacle of it all. In hindsight, the netting of the monkeys seems unnecessarily brutal; the entire cast seizing these intimidated simians by their tails or the scruff of their necks, hoarded, poked in the rear and tossed into a decidedly claustrophobic cage from their cut down and netted treetop perch.  Indisputably, it was a different time. But I don’t think I shall ever be able to enjoy the zoo after watching this film.
Presumably, the real attraction in Hatari! is Duke Wayne. In some ways, Hatari! foreshadows the direction the rest of Wayne’s career would follow – the seriousness in his earlier performances as the complex western hero replaced by variations of the curmudgeonly fop. Wayne’s persona has moved on, or rather, been eroded. He doesn’t have anything left to prove in Hatari!  Arguably, he doesn’t even know how to try. 
It’s a queer position for John Wayne to assume; his Sean Mercer generally amused from the sidelines as Hatari!’s narrative meanders in and out of extracts having absolutely nothing to do with him at all and going absolutely nowhere fast. And yet, nevertheless, it’s all extremely entertaining to watch. Case in point: Pocket’s creation of a rocket he’s designed to cast a rather large net over his tree of monkeys; exploding a prototype prematurely in his laboratory and producing a large hole in its thatched roof. Asked by an exasperated Sean to explain the billowing clouds of smoke emanating from the lab, the aforementioned experimental rocket taken off for parts unknown, all Pockets can do is quiver his lips and keep reminding Sean of his promise to butt out until he’s had the opportunity to perfect this better mouse (or rather, monkey) trap.  
It’s good clean fun like this that keeps Hatari! from taking itself too seriously. Even better, the cast assembled for this excursion all manage to strike indelible impressions; particularly Elsa Martinelli’s deftly enterprising wildlife photographer, who is made to endure a rather indignant transformation by the local tribesmen into Mama Tembo (mother of the elephants); ridiculous in heavy pancake brown makeup and native costume complete with neck ring and gargantuan multi-colored hoop earrings. It’s a minor mercy she does not remain in this garb for very long; her moment of humiliation handled with rather uncharacteristic poutiness thereafter. Hatari!’s cast are particularly well-grouped and evenly matched. Krüger’s Kurt and Blain’s Chips have excellent on-screen chemistry as the contestable young bucks, butting heads for the same girl. And Michèle Girardon is a rather smart counterpoint to Martinelli; the fresh-faced ingénue having come into her own vs. the already established woman of the world who finds herself in unfamiliar territory in this decidedly foreign no man’s land. 
Howard Hawks has expertly timed Hatari! for maximum effect; the animal hunt sequences and light comedy in perfect equilibrium. Just as one tires out, Hawks shifts gears into the other. If Hatari! has no plot to speak of, then it unquestioningly has more than ample guts to invest us in its’ utterly fantastic make-believe. And Hawks has not forgotten the trajectory in this connective tissue of the movie’s DNA matters less than its’ overall arc to engross and entertain. Hatari! does both with celebrated aplomb. It may not be Hawks’ or Wayne’s finest hour, but it certainly appears as though everyone is having one hell of a good time.
Our story begins with a rhino hunt; this motley crew of Western expatriates chasing after this wild beast, repeatedly bashing its tusk into the side of Sean Mercer’s truck and the jeep being driven by Kurt Müller.  At one point, the rhino dives head first into the jeep’s passenger side, goring into Little Wolf in the thigh and causing Sean and his crew to abandon their pursuit. Rushing Little Wolf to the hospital in the nearby town of Arusha, Sean is informed by the kindly Dr. Sanderson (Eduard Franz) of Little Wolf’s need for a blood transfusion. The only problem is Little Wolf is an extremely rare blood type.
Just prior to this discovery, Sean, Kurt, Pockets and their employer, Brandy de la Court were approached by Charles Maury, a rather cocky Frenchman.  Already assessing Little Wolf’s injury will undoubtedly sideline Sean’s expedition Charles offers to take the injured man’s place. Kurt is insulted by Charles’ lack of tact and takes a pot shot at him. The two almost come to blows, except that upon learning Little Wolf’s predicament Charles reveals to everyone he has the same rare blood type and chivalrously offers to give his plasma for the transfusion. In gratitude, Sean offers Charles the job. But Charles now turns him down.
A short while later everyone learns Little Wolf will be alright. To celebrate, they go on a bender, returning late in the evening and resigning to go directly to bed. It should be the end of a perfect night for Sean, except that, upon entering his bedroom, he quietly discovers he is not alone. A beautiful stranger is lying in his bed. She makes small talk, but playfully omits her identity from their discussion, leaving the already inebriated Sean utterly befuddled. Both Pockets and Kurt enter the room. They too are startled by the woman’s presence. After Sean has chased them away he grabs his pajamas and proceeds to leave. The woman thanks Sean for the use of his room to which he astutely replies he had no choice in the matter. The next day the woman turns up for breakfast, introducing herself as Anna Maria D'Alessandro. It seems, Anna – under the name ‘A.M. D’Alessandro’ - had written to Little Wolf earlier, hiring Sean and his group to procure new animal attractions for the zoo where she works. The zoo has agreed to pay handsomely for the entire expedition, but only if Anna participates as their photographer to document the wildlife hunt.
Sean is adverse to Anna hanging around, pointing out she knows next to nothing about the skills necessary to ensure her safety during the hunt. Anna pulls rank by showing Sean the conditions as outlined in her letter of reference from the zoo. Unable to shed her, Sean reluctantly places Anna in Pockets’ care. Her first day out with the boys proves hilariously disastrous. Anna is bounced around the back of the truck like a sack of potatoes. Thankfully, the only thing bruised is her ego. Returning to the base camp, Anna sincerely confides in Sean, that she has made an absolute fool of herself and that if he still desires her to leave she will do so without further delay or complaints. In response to her genuine apology the entire group – except for Sean – concurs Anna should stay on.
Sometime later, Anna decides to take a hot bath. But her momentary solitude is interrupted when a leopard enters the bathhouse. Panicking for a moment or two, Anna is attended by Pockets who rushes in with a stool, pretending to tame the savage beast. What Anna doesn’t know is that the leopard is actually a harmless pet on this reservation named Sophie. When Kurt and Sean burst in with perplexed amusement, Anna realizes she has been played for a fool, tossing a wet towel at Pockets before ordering the men out of the room so that she can properly dress.  That evening, Anna befriends Pockets and Sophie, confiding in the former that she has begun to harbor feelings for Sean. Asked what she should do about it, Pockets explains to Anna that only she can solve her romantic problems.  As such, Anna takes it upon herself to pursue Sean. Her first few attempts are met with a very cold shoulder. But on her third try, Anna succeeds at planting a few kisses on Sean and he relents and reciprocates. Unfortunately for the pair, Pockets intrudes, ruining the moment for both of them.
In the meantime, Kurt points out to Sean that their employer, Brandy, is no longer the child of their former boss, but a young woman of substance who has caught his fancy. He’ll have to work fast, because Brandy has also ignited a spark of passion in Chips who wastes no time attempting to seduce her. Kurt is determined to win Brandy. But so is Chips. In the spirit of fair play, these two Lochinvars decide to pair up, allowing Brandy her comparisons and to choose for herself. Unhappily, neither Kurt nor Chips will win this game. For Brandy has already fallen for Pockets who is desperately in love with her, though certain she would rather have either Kurt or Chips as her ideal lover in his stead. The hunt – both metaphorically and literally speaking - progresses. Newly recovered from his injuries, Little Wolf rejoins the troop, though mostly as a spectator.
If Hatari! has a single flaw, it develops late in this third act; the tenuous balance of this hybrid action/comedy inexplicably devolving as the Sean/Dallas romance heats up – or rather, cools off – Anna, suddenly losing interest in Sean because she has mis-perceived he still harbors hidden feelings of resentment over a former flame carried over into their relationship. Becoming uncharacteristically pouty and forlorn, Anna confides in Pockets, slipping a farewell note under his bedroom door before embarking to Arusha, presumably to catch the next plane back home. Predictably, Pockets shares her letter with Sean and the group, everyone racing to Arusha to prevent her departure, including the three baby elephants that have come to regard Anna as their adopted mother. These precocious pachyderms charge into town, roaring and smashing into things as they desperately search for Anna.
Hatari!’s last act is rather naïvely optimistic to downright juvenile. The nature of the traditional screwball comedy is that its adult characters consistently behave as children would under similar circumstances. The audience relates to their predicaments on the level of their stunted adolescence. By first introducing the characters in Hatari! as legitimate – nee serious – hunters, who shortly thereafter begin to take on impractical and very infantile characteristics, the finale (in which everyone is reduced to childish nincompoopery, negates all that has gone before it and makes the audience think less of these characters they suddenly realize they only thought they understood. Up until Hatari!’s penultimate search for Anna, Howard Hawks has been rather cleverly restrained in his madcap. But now the floodgates are broken down, somewhat awkwardly, and the results are more ‘Keystone Cops’ and thoroughly not in keeping with the rest of the movie’s pace; our manly men and sexy ladies reduced to abject buffoons. Hawks concludes Hatari! with an almost verbatim reprise of Sean and Anna’s initial cute meet. Stumbling into his bedroom, Sean discovers her wearing the top half of his pajamas again and lying in his bed. An inebriated Pockets bursts into their room and is promptly shooed away by Sean. Now, Hawks augments the cream of his jest in his farce by allowing the baby elephants who regard Anna as their mother to charge in, attempting to crawl on top of the bed, but predictably smashing it to the ground as Sean impatiently looks on. Will these two ever consummate their romance? Decidedly not in Hatari!
The overall buoyancy of Hatari!’s narrative speaks to another time and era in American moviemaking when the utmost want of its filmmakers was to thoroughly entertain rather than preach their own dower message from the pulpit. The trick isn’t entirely licked in Hatari!, mainly because Howard Hawks has dropped the proverbial ball in his third act, tossing out all logic and going for the riotous grand finale instead. The problem is it just seems tacked on rather than a fitting farewell to these characters we’ve come to know. And despite John Wayne’s presence, Hatari! isn’t his movie, or even his ‘kind’ of movie at all.  He’s more token testosterone than anything else; the screenplay affording Elsa Martinelli and Red Buttons their moments to shine. It’s more of an oversight than a faux pas, because both Martinelli and Buttons are quite good at what they do, lending credence, respectability, and, good humor to their roles. They’re engaging and we fall right under their spell.
As earlier mentioned, Hatari!’s strength is not plot (of which there is preciously little on tap), but rather the successful interaction between its international cast. Initially, Hawks had hoped to star both Clark Gable and John Wayne in the picture, sort of Sean Mercer meets Mocambo. Gable’s untimely death in 1960 put a definite period to those plans. The movie is bookended by the rhino hunt - thus, creating a sort of cyclical logic to the story. At the end we’re right back where we started. The rather brutal pursuit of wild beasts has long since been banned, and in doing research for Hatari! Hawk was introduced to conservationist, Dr. Ian Player (who in 1952 had begun to relocate white rhinos to protect their dwindling herds from extinction) and, government licensed animal catcher, Willy de Beer, whom Hawks immediately hired as his technical advisor. During production, de Beer was mauled by a baby leopard, returning to the set hours later, his arm and throat bandaged; ready to begin work anew and seemingly unfazed by his near-death encounter.
John Wayne made no bones to Hawks about his concerns over safety. Most of Hatari!’s key action and animal wrangling is performed by its stars; Wayne strapped in with a flimsy seatbelt on the hood of a moving van as co-star Valentin de Vargas races at top speeds across the sparse, though nevertheless rugged and pothole-ridden African tundra. If verisimilitude was Hawks’ design from the start, his one cheat is the overdubbing of sounds from the Dark Continent. As untamed animals rarely make the appropriate noise on cue, Hawks hired Arusha game experts and zoo collectors to dub the grunts and battle cries. Dubbing was also necessary for another reason. Apparently, Wayne could be counted upon to use colorful language while wrestling with his animal costars to the ground. Hatari! is also rather famous for Henry Mancini’s score, particularly the cue ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ that became something of a pop standard throughout the ‘swingin’ sixties’ and has remained an immediately identifiable piece of movie music ever since.
In the final analysis, Hatari! is an ambitious undertaking and a fairly impressive movie to watch. Russell Harlan’s cinematography is populated by some exhilarating images shot on location, seamlessly conjoined to sequences photographed on sets back at Paramount. Some of Hatari! doesn’t hold up nearly as well today as it must have in 1962; but the bulk of the story is more than serviceable and the cast is excellently formed; truly functioning as a ‘family unit’ with plenty of palpable camaraderie to satisfy.
Alas, Hatari! on Blu-ray still looks careworn and aged. Arguably, this is the best we’re ever likely to experience it on home video without a full-blown, ground-up restoration effort. And although the image quality is markedly improved over its DVD incarnation, in hi-def the age-related ravages pop out all the more. Chiefly, we have issues with the color – occasionally mis-registered at the far left of frame with annoying pale pink halos cropping up now and then. The elements have also somewhat faded. This is a decidedly pallid palette belying the Technicolor vibrancy Hatari! must have had during its initial theatrical run. Flesh tones are pasty orange or pink. The image waffles between moments of crystal clarity and scenes where the best that can be said is that it marginally improves on the aforementioned DVD…which wasn’t hard to do! Age-related artifacts are still present but greatly tempered. Contrast too is a little weak, particularly during sequences shot at night. There’s also some chronic light bleeding in and around the edges.
Hatari!’s audio fares marginally better, presented in a cleaned up 2.0 lossless DTS.  Good solid dynamic range is in evidence; the chase sequences remarkably aggressive while nicely delineated. The animal cries (created by humans mostly) as well as dialogue are crisp and clear, as is Henry Mancini's score, though in this latter instance, it undoubtedly would have sounded far better in DTS stereo. Extras are limited to a badly worn theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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