Spawn of the North (1938)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
“Lightly Likeable,” that’s the category American critic Andrew Sarris filed Hathaway under in his influential book The American Cinema. In Sarris’s eyes, Hathaway wasn’t a “pantheon” auteur, but a journeyman with a few good titles to his name. Like with William Wellman a few years ago, critics are now appraising and reappraising Hathaway’s cinema, such as this Bertrand Tavernier-approved NYFF retrospective dedicated to him.
Spawn of the North is a frontier story set in Alaska. In it, salmon trappers and pirates clash in a ramshackle town. Two childhood friends, Jim (Henry Fonda) and Tyler (George Raft), reunite. The trouble is that Jim’s on the right side of the law—inheriting his dad’s cannery business—while Tyler’s on the wrong side. Tyler is in cahoots with a Russian pirate (Akim Tamiroff) who steals salmon traps. But story is beside the point. Hathaway spends his energy on shaping characters and describing place. This is a film that suspends narrative development in order to portray a friendship between two men. Tanner Tafelski (October 12, 6:45pm as part of the Hathaway retrospective within the Retrospective section of the 54th New York Film Festival)