“What a way to make a living.”
Howard Hawks was an avid racing fan, driving in amateur contests as a teenager and achieving one of his earliest successes with the 1932 James Cagney-staring race picture, The Crowd Roars. Away from the track, Hawks had a fondness for thrilling exploits generally, and especially for those occurring in male-centric environments. Given this personal predilection, a film like his 1965 release, Red Line 7000, would seem tailor-made for the estimable Hollywood icon. Unfortunately, while this much-maligned feature has traces of Hawks’ inspired passions, notably in the racing footage and the driver camaraderie, it falters in most other areas, making it a curious entry in the prodigious director’s filmography and one of his least polished late-career productions.
A number of characters will periodically appear in this ensemble piece, among them Pat Kazarian (Norman Alden), the owner of a team led by Mike Marsh (James Caan) and Jim Loomis (Anthony Rogers). Loomis is quickly killed off in a devastating crash, leaving a void in the lineup and setting up the awkward situation where his ostensible fiancée, Holly (Gail Hire), arrives in Florida with little money, nowhere to go, and suddenly no betrothed. She ingratiates herself in the community, finding solace and employment with Lindy (Charlene Holt), the matron of a local night spot. Other new arrivals assemble: another young driver named Ned Arp (John Robert Crawford), who soon joins Pat’s team; Pat’s sister, Julie (Laura Devon), who falls for Ned; the international hotshot racer Dan McCall (Skip Ward); his enticing French girlfriend Gabrielle Queneau (Marianna Hill); and, in a pre-Star Trek appearance, George Takei shows up as mechanic Kato. Mixing and mingling, this speedway crew engages in a melodramatic series of romances and feuds, not all of them related to racing, and not all of them of much interest.
Red Line 7000 is at its best when Hawks and company are flaunting the rush of the on-track action and observing the peculiarities of the racing lifestyle. Second unit material is a death-defying mosaic of squealing tires, careening vehicles, and high-impact collisions, often with a flaming finale. Cameras mounted in and on actual cars give an up-close view of hurtling automobiles and the intensity of the competition. With largely unexceptional cinematography by seven-time Oscar nominee Milton Krasner (a winner for 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain), Hawks simply lingers around the film’s insular motorsports haven, settings like a modish Holiday Inn hub where most everyone seems to reside, and Lindy’s restaurant, which most everyone seems to frequent (that venue is adorned with car posters and an electric track right inside the door). On the plus side, it’s solid Hawks territory, where the men are regularly out to prove themselves in bouts of communal contention, while the women must also cope with this occupational obsession; Lindy, for one, has seen multiple past mates fall to the hazards of the race, lamenting she “fell in love with the wrong profession.”
What sets Red Line 7000 back a few paces is that this sporting celebration is ultimately an undersized portion of the complete picture. Hawks may have had an affinity for youth and a keen awareness of popular culture, but this fascination failed to translate itself into a compelling narrative. Aside from an absolutely dreadful musical routine (presumably added “for the kids”), the amorous entanglements are absurdly realized. A strong Hawksian woman was nothing new by this point, but here, the girls are marginal and clichéd, and the resulting moments of intimacy range from the bizarre and uncomfortable (a strange scene of post-coital chatter between Ned and Julie, the former having earlier chastised the latter for “acting like a female”) to the comically displaced (Gabrielle orgasmically driving on the track with Mike, saying she feels something she never felt before: “I wasn’t driving a car. I was taming a lion”). Even when the conflicts intensify toward the end, these relationships weaken what was already an uneven film, moving along in low gear with no urgent direction, a clunky heap of chauvinistic young men and one-dimensional young women.
Most of those featured in Red Line 7000, many of whom were unknown at the time, went on to undistinguished careers, if they ever worked again. One such example is former model Gail Hire. Given her tragic introduction, and the prevailing belief she is a jinx to any man she is involved with, Hire’s Holly is frequently victim to overblown emotions grated by a forced, raspy inflection (upon Hawks’ instruction). When she doesn’t have to try so hard, she emerges as one of the film’s appealing surprises, better as an unaffected charmer than a convincing damsel in distress. Hers isn’t much of a performance, but her presence is most memorable (sadly, her second and last acting credit would be in two episodes of the 1966 Batman television series). Of course, the famous face is James Caan. Then in his mid-twenties and coming off four years of television work, stardom had been just within reach for some time. Though Hawks saw enough in Caan to cast him in his immediate follow-up, El Dorado (1967), the delayed release and subsequent failure of Red Line 7000 only frustrated his rise. In any event, to his credit, Caan gives Mike more personality than this film calls for, at first as a cool, reserved, essentially decent loner with a reticent hang-up about anything second-hand (including women), then, after disappearing from the film for a curiously extended period of time, returning for a moody, violent outburst where his rage finds its way onto the track with disastrous results.
Written with George Kirgo, whose daughter, Julie Kirgo, joins fellow historian Nick Redman for an informative commentary on the new Kino Lorber disc of the film, Red Line 7000 was a bitter disappointment for Howard Hawks. His attempt to branch out to something more modern flopped on almost every front, leaving audiences to literally break out in laughter during a sneak preview. That seems a little harsh. For all of its faults, and though it certainly pales in comparison to Hawks’ remaining two features, the more familiar and obviously more assured Westerns El Dorado and Rio Lobo (1970), this movie has its moments. Whereas Hawks thought the final film was “awful” and “lousy,” the illustrious critic and Hawks buff Robin Wood considered the picture the “most underestimated film of the sixties.” A more accurate verdict of Red Line 7000 is somewhere in the middle: an intermittently interesting misstep from an otherwise great filmmaker.