Howard Hawks, one of the most versatile, unpretentious and reliably entertaining directors in Hollywood history, died Monday at the age of 81.

The high points of Hawks' 44-year directing career include classic examples of almost every popular movie genre; the marvelous screwball comedies "Twentieth Century," "Bringing Up Baby" and "His Girl Friday," the war melodramas "The Dawn Patrol" and "Sergeant York," the romantic melodramas "To Have and Have Not" and "Only Angels Have Wings," the private eye thriller "The Big Sleep" and the Westerns "Red River" and "Rio Bravo."

According to a family spokesman, the filmmaker died at his Palm Springs, Calif., residence of complications from a concussion he suffered in a fall several weeks ago. Hawks had not made a feature since the 1970 Western "Rio Lobo."

During his most productive and consistent years as a freelancer within the Hollywood factory system, Hawks was probably taken for granted by both colleagues and critics. His only Academy Award nomination came for the 1941 "Sergeant York," which won Gary Cooper, a crony and hunting companion of the director, his first Oscar as best actor.

Academy recognition finally came in April, 1975, when Hawks accepted a special award whose citation read: "To a giant of the American cinema whose pictures, taken as a whole, represent one of the most consistent, vivid and varied bodies of work in world cinema."

As critic Tom Donnelly noted at the time, the term "giant" seemed "maybe a trifle inflationary . . . A whale of a movie director is more like it."

The inflation reflected the growth of a critical school inspired by a postwar generation of French filmmakers and cineastes whose idols were Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. This new wave of appreciation sometimes had the unfortunate effect of equating Hawks' weaker new films, like "Man's Favorite Sport" and "Red Line 7000," with his best.

Several years before American movie buffs caught the French enthusiasm, the maverick film critic Manny Farber had made the definitive case for Hawks, whom he called "the key figure in the male action film because he shows a maximum speed, inner life and view, with the least amount of flat foot . . . Hawks and his group are perfect examples of the anonymous artist, who is seemingly afraid of the polishing, hypocrisy, bragging, fake educating that goes on in serious art. To go at his most expedient gait, the Hawks type must take a withdrawn, almost hidden stance in the industry.

"Thus, his films seem to come from the most neutral, humdrum, monotonous corner of the movie lot. The fascinating thing about these veiled operators is that they are able to spring the leanest, shrewdest, springhtliest notes from material that looks like junk, and from a creative position that on the surface seems totally uncommitted and disinterested."

Hawks was born in Goshen, Ind., on May 30, 1896. His father was a wealthy paper manufacturer who later moved the family to Pasadena, Calif. Hawks attended Pasadena High School, Phillips Exeter Academy and Cornell, where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Between the ages of 16 and 21 he was a professional racing car driver and designer. At the age of 18 he won the United States Junior Tennis Championship.

Hawks had two brothers who also entered the film business: William, whose directing career was terminated by a fatal plane crash in 1929.

Howard Hawks got his first movie job in 1917 as a prop boy at Famous Players-Lasky, which evolved into Paramount a few years later. Following World War I service as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, Hawks returned to Hollywood, where he worked for executive Jesse L. Lasky as an editor, writer and finally story supervisor. At the same time, he helped arrange financing for movies directed by Marshall Neiland and Allan Dwan, among others, and began edging toward his own directorial debut, which came in 1926 with the Fox tearjerker "The Road to Glory."

Hawks' next two pictures, "Fig Leaves" and "The Cradle Snatchers," were comedies, and they proved far more successful with the public. His first talkie, the 1930 production of "The Dawn Patrol," drew on his experiences as an aviator during the war, reflected the code of honor shared by men in dangerous professions, and expressed a mood of unsentimental, fatalistic camaraderie that would typify his action movies.

"Scarface," a sensation of 1932 made for Howard Hughes, was the first of several fruitful collaborations between Hawks and writer Ben Hecht. "Twentieth Century," the first of Hawks' exceptional screwball comedies, and the film credited with launching Carole Lombard's career as a popular movie comedienne, was written by Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Their great newspaper farce, "The Front Page," was transformed into the scintillating romantic comedy "His Girl Friday" by Hawks in 1940. He adapted the Hecht-MacArthur style of overlapping comic dialogue to the screen in a particularly smooth, amusing way.

Describing the illusion of a fast tempo he achieved in talking comedies, Hawks explained that "it isn't done with cutting. It's done by deliberately writing dialogue like real conversation - you're liable to interrupt me and I'm liable to interrupt you - so you write in such a way that you can overlap the dialogue but not lose anything. It's just a trick. It's a trick getting people to do it, too - it takes about 2 or 3 days to get them accustomed to it and then they're off."

Habitually reticent about his themes, techniques and accomplishments, Hawks once remarked that "the people I show don't dramatize crises: they deal with them quietly, as is normal with these kinds of men."

Recalling the convoluted plot that became the pretext for the amusing mixture of ominousness and sexual sparring between Bogart and Bacall in "The Big Sleep," Hawks commented. "All we were trying to do was make every scene entertaining. We didn't know about the story. They asked me who killed such a man - I didn't know. They sent a wire to the author - he didn't know. They sent a wire to the scenario writer - he didn't know. It didn't stop the picture from being very fast and entertaining.

Two years earlier, in 1944, Hawks had brought together his teen-age discovery, Lauren Bacall, and Humphrey Bogart in "To have and Have Not," provoking one of the great romantic matches on and off the screen.Hawks, better known as a man's director despite his satisfying work with such stars as Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck, described the young Bacall as "my type of actress - slow, sardonic, insolent, leaning against something and sizing you up."

Although Hawks did not work with John Wayne until "Red River," begun in 1946 and released 1948, they were associated on four successful movies late in his career, three of them Westerns - "Rio Bravo," "Hatari," "El Dorado" and "Rio Lobo." This collaboration may have left the impression that Hawks was more of a specialist with the Western than he was. The genre attracted him, especially as he grew older, but he lacked the intuitive feeling for it that his friend and colleague John Ford had. Hawks demonstrated a similar intuition with comedies and melodramas about pilots or race car drivers.

Hawks once said he learned the most about his profession from Ford and Cecil B. DeMille: what to do from Ford and what not to do from DeMille.

When he learned of Hawks' death, John Wayne said, "Howard was a wonderfully tempered human being who had great creative talent in the handling of people. . . .I guess Howard had the least kudos for his beautiful talents than anyone else. . . .I, as an actor, loved to work with him as much or more than anyone else I ever worked with."

A noted sportsman and ladies' man throughout his career - Ben Hecht once described him as "a drawling fashion plate, apurr with melodrama" - Hawks was married and divorced three times: to Athol Shearer, the sister of Norma Shearer, to Nancy Gross and Dee Hartford. His survivors include two daughters, two sons and four grandchildren.