Henry Hathaway | Subjects
| Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style
Films: Diplomatic Courier
| O. Henry's Full House: The Clarion Call
| Niagara | The Bottom of the Bottle
| 23 Paces to Baker Street
Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors)
| Mathematics and Visual Style
Henry Hathaway was a prolific director of Hollywood films. He was one of
the pioneers of the semi-documentary crime thriller in Hollywood.
A recommended survey of Hathaway is by Jean-Pierre Coursodon in his
book American Directors (1983). See online pieces on Henry Hathaway, by:
Henry Hathaway: Subjects
Some common features in Henry Hathaway films:
- Semi-documentary crime and spy films (The House on 92nd Street, Kiss of Death, 13 Rue Madeleine,
Call Northside 777, Diplomatic Courier, Niagara)
- Uniformed government organizations (museum guards, police chase stolen cab, John Russell as cop: The Dark Corner,
police foil robbery, Sing-Sing guards: Kiss of Death,
New York police, firemen: Fourteen Hours,
Army Intelligence: Diplomatic Courier,
boat, helicopter personnel: Niagara,
Border Patrol: The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Police blockades (outside jewelry store after robbery: Kiss of Death,
searching for missing Marilyn Monroe at border: Niagara)
- Borders between countries (US and Canada: Niagara,
US and Mexico: The Bottom of the Bottle)
related (German Consulate in New York on foreign territory: The House on 92nd Street)
- Spy schools (German: The House on 92nd Street, American: 13 Rue Madeleine)
- Morgues (German spy: The House on 92nd Street, city: Niagara)
- Air travel (Call Northside 777, hero flies to Europe: Diplomatic Courier, Niagara)
- Trains (elevated train tracks outside hero's office window: The Dark Corner,
to Sing-Sing: Kiss of Death,
train from Salzburg: Diplomatic Courier,
finale on train: The Clarion Call)
- Lengthy searches for information (laundries: The Dark Corner,
search for Wanda: Call Northside 777,
detective looks for crook in many places: The Clarion Call,
nobles on a street, passenger list: 23 Paces to Baker Street)
- Newspapers as sources of information (crime reported in newspaper, art gallery ad found in newspaper: The Dark Corner,
prisoner hero consults back issue files: Kiss of Death,
reporter hero: Call Northside 777,
paper offers reward: The Clarion Call)
- Objects serving as clues (lipstick-stained cigarette: The House on 92nd Street,
ink-stained white suit: The Dark Corner,
fingerprints identify mystery man: Fourteen Hours,
watch: Diplomatic Courier,
gold pencil: The Clarion Call,
doll: 23 Paces to Baker Street)
Characters and situations:
- Long distance transmission of information (shortwave radio station: The House on 92nd Street,
photos: Call Northside 777, State Dept code machine: Diplomatic Courier)
- Technical environments (laboratory: The House on 92nd Street,
nickelodeons, vault in art gallery: The Dark Corner,
burglar alarm in building, prison string factory: Kiss of Death,
lie detector, police lab: Call Northside 777,
switchboard, police call-box on street, TV broadcasters: Fourteen Hours,
tape recorder used by hero: 23 Paces to Baker Street,
water construction at prospecting site: North to Alaska)
- Authority figures who exploit people (DA Brian Donlevy: Kiss of Death,
Army Intelligence colonel Stephen McNally: Diplomatic Courier)
- Embittered heroes helped by women (Johnny Apollo, The Dark Corner,
kind Jean Peters tries to help Joseph Cotten: Niagara,
23 Paces to Baker Street)
- Class conflicts (working class private eye vs upper-crust villain: The Dark Corner,
brothers: The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Characters in hiding who slink around (purportedly dead husband: Niagara,
brother after prison escape: The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Tense situations at home in the middle of the night (responding to murder in hero's apartment: The Dark Corner,
Kiss of Death, The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Men separated from their children by prison (Kiss of Death, Call Northside 777, The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Ranchers (Joseph Cotton as failed modern-day sheep rancher: Niagara,
modern-day ranch community in Arizona: The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Drinks from refrigerator (orange juice: Niagara,
milk versus beer: The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Milk (heroine gets milk from milkman, provides to hero: The Dark Corner,
milk versus beer: The Bottom of the Bottle)
Henry Hathaway: Structure and Story Telling
- Diegetic music: music as part of the on-screen story (music heard in hero's apartment on murder night: The Dark Corner,
piano lessons in orphanage: Kiss of Death,
Camptown Races in different arrangements at varied locales: The Clarion Call,
tunes played on carillon used as signals: Niagara)
- Wordless openings (ordinary life in New York hotel: Fourteen Hours)
Henry Hathaway: Visual Style
- Mirrors (one-way mirror demonstrated by FBI, on door to spies' room: The House on 92nd Street,
hero's office, kiss in hero's apartment, villain's home: The Dark Corner,
in back of elevator: Kiss of Death,
two mirrors in hotel room: The Clarion Call,
motel office near phone, hospital room: Niagara)
- Reflection (hero reflected in jewel case during robbery: Kiss of Death)
Architecture and Heights:
- Glass doors, often with letters or designs (through letters and lines on FBI door: The House on 92nd Street,
hero's office: The Dark Corner,
office in hotel lobby, revolving door: Fourteen Hours,
glass doors of Mexican dancehall at start: The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Linear (through tower stairs: Niagara)
- Grill work (art gallery cellar, William Bendix on fire escape: The Dark Corner,
fence across from tunnel building: Niagara,
living room, front gate outdoors: The Bottom of the Bottle,
London park: 23 Paces to Baker Street)
- Mist and fluid (tear gas in finale: The House on 92nd Street,
mist at finale: Kiss of Death,
mist on outdoor stairs at falls, water pouring over boat at finale: Niagara,
London fog: 23 Paces to Baker Street)
Geometry and Architecture:
- Suspense sequences set in open heights, from which someone may fall (fire escape in finale: The House on 92nd Street,
high-rise window: The Dark Corner,
stairs: Kiss of Death,
skyscraper ledge: Fourteen Hours,
amphitheater: Diplomatic Courier,
outdoor staircase, the Falls: Niagara,
half-bombed building, staircase: 23 Paces to Baker Street)
- Mezzanines or inside balconies (carillon tower on lower floors: Niagara)
- Elevators (Jardine's apartment: The Dark Corner,
robbery: Kiss of Death,
building where mother works: Call Northside 777,
hotel: Fourteen Hours,
at falls: Niagara)
- Old buildings of several stories (house: The House on 92nd Street,
city morgue: Niagara)
- Bridges (near taxi garage: The Dark Corner,
Triborough and Hell Gate in background in hero's street in Astoria Queens: Kiss of Death,
Niagara Falls: Niagara, shoot-out at bridge: The Sons of Katie Elder)
- Water landscapes seen through windows (motel room: Niagara, 23 Paces to Baker Street)
- Suspense sequences at falls (Niagara, The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Circular architecture (circular panels on art gallery vault: The Dark Corner,
prison cells: Call Northside 777,
revolving door: Fourteen Hours,
ruins of a Roman amphitheater: Diplomatic Courier,
platform at falls: Niagara,
bar in living room: The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Circular windows or doors (windows in warden's office, stained glass window on orphanage porch: Kiss of Death,
huge arched door in living room: The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Checkerboard patterns (red and white design on chairs: Niagara)
- Pans following character through environments (hero moves through Chrysler Building to elevators, Widmark walks through Rizzo hallway to stairs: Kiss of Death,
opening shot of Paul Douglas walking on deserted streets, hotel lobby after Douglas first shows up: Fourteen Hours,
hero drives to train station: Diplomatic Courier)
- Tracks following character through environments (couple move through nightclub, hero moves through street towards body: The Dark Corner)
- Slickers (Niagara, The Bottom of the Bottle)
- Elaborate coats for men (diplomat hero in quasi trench coat: Diplomatic Courier,
raincoats on officers guarding flooded river road at start: The Bottom of the Bottle)
By 1952, the semi-documentary cycle had clearly run its course.
Diplomatic Courier (1952) is one of the last semi-docs
from a major studio. Diplomatic Courier is odd, in that
the beginning of the film is a semi-documentary in form and content,
while the later parts of the film are thriller-like, with few
The Semi-documentary beginning
Diplomatic Courier starts out like one of Henry Hathaway's semi-docs,
then changes its mind, and turns into a spy thriller. Its lead
character is a US State Department courier (Tyrone Power). During
the first half hour, it concentrates on Powers' work as a courier,
and is constructed in a fashion similar to Hathaway's earlier
semi-docs. Like other semi-docs, it involves a US Government institution.
Here the film opens with an inside look at the State Department,
as a narrator intones in the approved semi-doc manner.
Semi-docs typically focus on the high technology used by the government
agency. Here we see the coded teletypes used by the Department
to transmit secret messages. The coding machine is fascinating,
looking much like a large early computer. We are also sent to
a projection room, where messages to and from Europe to Washington
are projected on a screen during their process of being sent.
Henry Hathaway had previously focused on the high tech long-distance
transmission of information in the finale of Call Northside
777 (1948), which depicted the sending of photographs over
telephone lines. It shows the technological progress that has
been made since 1952, to realize that everyone today has the capability
to send and encrypt e-mail, using facilities far more elaborate
than these Government agents had back then.
I have never seen the inside of the US State Department in any
other film. It is unclear whether this movie was shot on location,
or whether the studio built sets depicting these offices. They
are far more workaday, being filled with technological devices,
than I had imagined. They are not at all ornate. They actually
look a bit like the technology departments of a film studio, and
one wonders if they were actually shot somewhere on the Fox lot.
After this, we see Tyrone Power sent on his courier mission, and
learn a little bit about how such couriers operate.
Unfortunately, at this point Power's mission is sabotaged by spies.
Power is soon working with US Army Intelligence officers, and
the film turns into a spy thriller. The semi-doc aspects of the
film stop cold. We never see anything more about Power's courier
work or the US State Department again. The narration stops too.
So do most of the semi-doc style efforts to location shoot in
Characters in the spy part of the film
The spy melodrama in the later part of Diplomatic Courier
is not very good. None of the characters is remotely believable,
although Karl Malden's Army Sergeant is in there trying. Malden's
performance is a cut above his confreres here.
Power is one of Hathaway's refined, sensitive heroes, thrown in
among a bunch of much rougher characters, both the villains, and
such Army tough guys as Malden.
Power's tough treatment by Army Intelligence colonel Stephen McNally
recalls Victor Mature's mistreatment by DA Brian Donlevy in Kiss
of Death. In both cases, we are meeting a social authority
figure of dubious ethics, a man who is far more concerned about
meeting his objectives, than about how the human beings he is
exploiting might get hurt. McNally's character is willing to send
Power to his death, if it will just smoke out Soviet spies and
help recover the lost coded message. These authority figures are
Hildegarde Neff repeatedly talks in the film about how much Tyrone
Power and his murdered friend had loved each other. The two had
been Navy buddies, and had shared their lives. Such elegies for
a murdered friend recall John Cromwell's
Dead Reckoning (1947), where Humphrey Bogart is concerned
over his lost partner.
The plot involves a coded message about Stalin's proposed invasion
of Yugoslavia. This is a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, the film makers
do little with it, treating it instead as a MacGuffin driving forward a
routine spy plot.
Much of the film takes place in Trieste. The best location scenes in Trieste involve
a chase through what seems to be the ruins of a Roman amphitheater.
This is some of the circular architecture Hathaway likes.
Power falls over the edge of a high platform here, one of many sequences
in Hathaway involving falling from a height. He is realistically
knocked out, and the event is quite scary looking.
The hero goes to a train station.
This is the sort of large, official looking building Hathaway liked in his semi-docs.
In Europe, the hero wears a snazzy coat. It has features recalling a trench coat,
including a belt and elaborate double-breasted lapels. Trench coats often symbolized
international intrigue. But the hero's coat is not quite a trench coat,
instead having features that suggest an upper crust man's dress coat.
This symbolizes the fact the the hero is a diplomat, and hence dressed
in a prestigious manner.
O. Henry's Full House: The Clarion Call
O. Henry's Full House (1952) is a multi-episode film. Each episode is a separate story
with different characters, actors, writers and directors. Henry Hathaway directed one of the
five episodes, The Clarion Call. Like the other episodes, The Clarion Call
is set in the early 1900's, the era in which O. Henry lived and wrote.
A Crime Film / Costume Drama Fusion
The Clarion Call tells the story of a policeman's hunt for a professional criminal.
It is thus a full-fledged crime film. It often feels like Hathaway's crime films
set in contemporary times.
However The Clarion Call is different in being set in the past. The sets emphasize
their "New York City 1900" feel, being full of period detail.
The Clarion Call is thus a fusion of the crime drama and the historical costume drama.
The Clarion Call has a playful, tongue-in-cheek quality. It seems to know
that it is bending and fusing genres, and has fun doing so. It is like a comic riff
on the "serious" crime films Hathaway had spent much of the last seven years making.
Richard Widmark's criminal is similar in manner and voice to his notorious villain in
Hathaway's Kiss of Death. In Kiss of Death this character was terrifying.
In The Clarion Call, he seems to be played for laughs, though he still is rotten to the core and with an edge.
This revival of a previous character has a playful, comic quality.
Not Quite a Semi-documentary
The Clarion Call is hardly a conventional semi-documentary. Differences:
Because of these differences it is hard to classify The Clarion Call as a semi-documentary.
Still, it often has the "feel" of Hathaway's genuine semi-docs set in modern times.
- It has little location filming, being shot on historical period sets.
- It focuses on one policeman rather than a whole team, although we do see some of his colleagues and their precinct office.
This is not an "elite team", unlike many true semi-docs.
- There is little use of technology.
- The finale is not in an industrial area or major construction (such as a bridge or dock). Instead it is on a train.
However, the train does share one property with the industrial sites of the semi-docs: is a technological locale.
There are some police procedural aspects to The Clarion Call.
We learn about the policeman hero's previous case, a counterfeiting job.
I particularly liked the "Barney Miller board" used by the cops to sign in and out of the office.
Such boards later became associated with the TV cop series Barney Miller.
The scene in the crook's hotel room has two elaborate mirror shots. These use two different mirrors.
Mirror shots are a key approach found in much of film noir.
Once again, these shots have a playful quality. It is as the film is saying,
"we're making a fun fusion of the crime and costume films, so let's put in some exuberant mirror shots."
The way there are two mirrors and two mirror shots, right in one room, suggests a playful spirit at work.
There is an unusual creative use of music. The cop hero searches through a large number of locales for the crook:
one of the long searches for information that run through Henry Hathaway films. At each place,
we hear a different arrangement of Camptown Races being sung. This differing music gives
audible variety to the search.
Niagara (1953) is a suspense thriller, set at Niagara Falls.
Niagara is a thriller about "ordinary" people, not a typical
semi-documentary film with police heroes.
Yet is has several features in common with the true semi-docs:
In real life the Buffalo - Niagara Falls region was indeed a major center of cereal manufacturing.
This is brought out again in a fine documentary film shot in Buffalo,
Decade for Decision (Jay Bonafield, 1957).
- It has extensive location filming, at public, official areas.
- Semi-docs often have a big finale, at a technical or industrial area.
In Niagara, we go to a technical location for a major sequence:
the bell tower at the falls, and get a good view of the bell machinery.
This is not the finale of Niagara, however.
- Technology (boats and a helicopter) also play a major role in the finale.
So does a stunning photogenic location.
- While the police are not protagonists, we do get a view of the police as
an institution. We see a hospital and morgue. There are brief
glimpses of semi-militarized government boat and helicopter personnel in the finale.
- There is a view of modern society as technological: the hero works for
a factory that makes shredded wheat. The heroine uses a first aid kit.
A portable phonograph is at the party.
Staircases: Noir Imagery
Staircases play a major role - as they do in much film noir:
As in film noir in general, the staircases are elaborately shot.
- There are the spectacular outdoor staircases at the Falls.
- And indoor staircases at the bell tower.
Early on, the heroine gets her picture taken, while standing on a semi-circular platform
at the falls. This is an example of the circular architecture than sometimes appears in Henry Hathaway.
A Fifties Party
The young people at the cabin have an outdoors party. It is both
innocuous and lively, with dancing and loud music. It anticipates
the opening party in The Bottom of the Bottle.
Both gatherings have a "mid-50's feel", with people determined to have
a good time at a simple gathering.
Both men and women wear long slickers at the falls. The men are in shiny black,
the women in yellow. This links color to gender.
The men's slickers have bullet shaped heads. These seem distinctly phallic.
The Bottom of the Bottle
The Bottom of the Bottle (1956) is a combination thriller and melodrama
about personal relationships.
As in other Hathaway films, there is some good location shooting. A Mission church is especially
well photographed. The Southwestern landscapes are also good.
Links to Kiss of Death
As in Kiss of Death, the hero is a loving dad, separated from his children by prison.
In both films, the hero is a gentle, easily confused man who makes a lot of stupid decisions,
rather than being a hardened criminal. In both films, there is what seems to me
to be special pleading for these characters. We are supposed to be sympathetic to their bad
decisions to commit felonies. One can muster a bit of sympathy - but most adults know that
committing crimes is always a bad idea!
Both films show characters at home at night in bed clothes, in situations that
mix suspense and thrashing out personal decisions.
Links to Niagara
There are several links to Henry Hathaway's previous thriller Niagara:
- The Bottom of the Bottle has a lot of river scenes, like Niagara.
The finale of The Bottom of the Bottle seems modeled directly on that of
Niagara. Both take place on raging rivers, just before the characters are about to go over falls.
- Both films feature uniformed government personnel: in The Bottom of the Bottle,
the Border Patrol.
- Both films contain men in slickers.
- Both films feature Joseph Cotten.
23 Paces to Baker Street
This is a well done mystery story. It is part suspense, part detection.
Despite its title, 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) has
nothing to do with the Sherlock Holmes stories. Instead, it is
an adaptation of Philip MacDonald's
mystery novel, Warrant For X (1938).
Although Henry Hathaway was a pioneer of film noir, 23 Paces to Baker
Street probably can't be classified as such. The hero is a
successful playwright, and his surroundings of secure, middle
class gentility do not qualify as noir. The hero is played by
Van Johnson, the perennial nice guy of MGM flicks, and he does
not come across as the sort of obsessed, alienated man that Alain
Silver has identified as the essential noir protagonist. Furthermore
the film is in color. The film instead should be seen as a part
of a long tradition of screen mysteries and whodunits, a genre
associated more with the 1930's and early 40's than the 1950's.
Similarities to other Henry Hathaway Films
MacDonald's story has been adapted in ways that bring it into
line with Henry Hathaway's previous films:
Suspense sequences in Hathaway often involve height, open
heights from which someone might fall:
- The identity of the villain, who is famously never actually
seen in MacDonald's novel, has been changed. There is now an ingenious
plot twist recalling Hathaway's The House on 92nd Street
(1945). The story of that film was written by Charles G. Booth.
- MacDonald's book is filled with amateur detection. The film
version has been scripted to make the detection look like the
lengthy search through the laundries of New York in Hathaway's
The Dark Corner (1945), one of the best sequences in that
film. In 23 Paces to Baker Street the hero searches first
through groups of nobles living on a certain street, later through
a passenger list.
- The hero is an embittered, wounded man aided by a loving supportive
heroine, who used to be his secretary; this is also like the hero
and heroine of The Dark Corner.
- The villains are thoroughly vicious, stalking the streets
of London and bumping off people left and right; this is like
the menacing bad guys of Hathaway's Kiss of Death (1947).
These are suspense sequences,
little islands of thriller material embedded in the whodunit plot.
- In Niagara, there is the climb on the open staircase outside the Falls,
as well as Niagara Falls itself;
- In Kiss of Death, the stairs sequence;
- In Fourteen Hours, the whole movie is on a skyscraper ledge;
- In 23 Paces to Baker Street the suspense centers
around an open half-bombed building, and later around a staircase
leading to the apartment.
Fog, Mist and Water
The many fog scenes are appropriate for a London thriller; they
also recall the mists at the end of Kiss of Death.
Niagara and 23 Paces to Baker Street both have scenes
in which the characters get wet - the walk under the spraying
falls in Niagara, the scene where the butler follows a
suspect in the rain in 23 Paces to Baker Street. Hathaway
likes misty, wet or foggy weather.
The visuals in 23 Paces to Baker Street resemble those
in Niagara. In both films, we frequently see spectacular
water landscapes through open windows: in 23 Paces to Baker
Street, a view of the Thames through the hero's apartment
balcony. This underlines the location filming approach: even in
interiors, Hathaway is shooting on real locations. It emphasizes
the semi-documentary nature of the films.
Frontal staging and use of architecture
There is much London location photography in 23 Paces to Baker
Street. Stylistically, it recalls Hathaway's mid 1940's location
filmed semi-documentaries. Even the title has a number in it,
"23", recalling Hathaway semi-docs.
The most beautiful scene in the film is shot in a London park.
Here Hathaway shows his fondness for ornamental grill work, something
that appears in almost all of his location shot films.
Hathaway tends to shoot the locations frontally, with a building,
doorway or piece of grillwork exactly parallel to the plane of
the screen. This makes the background extremely easy to see and
understand. The characters are often framed by doors or windows.
There is a geometric quality to these - each character has their
own background region of rectilinear space.
23 Paces to Baker Street and later films
23 Paces to Baker Street anticipated some dramatic works
that came after it. It looks a lot like Midnight Lace (1960),
the Doris Day thriller in which she is menaced in the London fog,
and in an apartment much like Van Johnson's in the previous film,
several stories above a London street. Both films have disbelieving
Scotland Yard inspectors, and both have suspense sequences involving
dangerous heights in half constructed buildings.
The blind hero of 23 Paces to Baker Street also anticipates
that of Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark (1966), as does
the film's final sequence.