Crisis, Creation, Compulsion

The great genre director Raoul Walsh and his cinema of the individual
by Dave Kehr  posted March 22, 2011
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This essay is reprinted with permission from Dave Kehr's new collection, When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, published by the University of Chicago Press. It originally appeared in the Chicago Reader, January 23, 1981. Kehr will introduce a screening of Raoul Walsh's Sailor's Luck at the Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday, March 26, 2 p.m.

Writing last week of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, I wanted to slip in a few paragraphs about Raoul Walsh, the great genre director who is probably Scorsese's single most important influence, but somehow they didn't fit. Walsh, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 88, deserves more than an aside, though that has been his fate in most of the standard film histories. He made well over a hundred movies in a career that began with D. W. Griffith in the teens (he played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation)—and ended at Warner Bros. in the early 60s, and among them are some of the most energetic, personal, and technically proficient films to come out of Hollywood. Yet, apart from a small, strange cult that crystallized in Paris in the 50s, Walsh was never championed by the critics. His name was always mentioned alongside Hawks and Ford, but somehow his standing never seemed secure: too often, his work was paid lip service—appropriate effusions over its clear, surface virtues—without any further attempt to come to grips with what it was, how it worked, what it meant. I can think of no other case of a filmmaker whose work was so widely, and rightly, perceived as important, but yet received so little intelligent attention.

Perhaps part of the problem with Walsh is that his style and values are bound up so tightly with the genre—action-adventure—in which he worked that it is difficult to tell where the form leaves off and the filmmaker begins. To talk of a Walsh war film is, in a way, to talk of all war films, to talk of a Walsh western of all westerns—in the sense that the main thematic thrust of his films, the redemptive power of action, is also the thematic thrust of his genres in their purest states. But there are important differences between the broad archetypes and their particular embodiments in Walsh's work, differences of character quirks, patterns of action, and internal dynamics that define a personal point of view. Andrew Sarris, in his short notes on Walsh in The American Cinema, speaks of an emotional vulnerability peculiar to Walsh's heroes—he cites James Cagney huddled in his mother's lap in White Heat—but the rare capacity to show pain, dependence, and uncertainty is only the tip of the iceberg. The Walsh hero, much more than those of Ford or Hawks, is a hero in personal crisis. Ford's heroes define themselves by accepting their friends and professional skills, but the Walsh hero has nothing to hang on to. He is a blank page, either without a past or running away from one. His task—it can take the form of a quest or mission, a rise in business or the making of a reputation—is to invent himself. If he is vulnerable, it is because there is something raw, unformed, brash about him. His personality is still fluid, still open to change and influence.

Walsh was famous for his speed: the initial montage of White Heat, which compresses James Cagney's career as a psychotic gangster into a single, slashingly violent train robbery, is perhaps the fastest, poundingest opening in film history, and many of Walsh's movies open in medias res, the exposition deftly dropped among the flurries of action. That same demon speed is shared by many of Walsh's heroes, who often seem driven by the unknown, unholy forces—some, like White Heat's Cody Jarrett, over the edge; others, like Gentleman Jim's James J. Corbett, into personal success and prestige. James Cagney gave his best performances in Walsh films—The Roaring Twenties, Strawberry Blonde, White Heat, A Lion Is in the Streets—where his spring-wound, simmering physicality found its finest visual presentation and most expressive use. Errol Flynn was another Walsh regular (They Died With Their Boots On, Desperate Journey, Gentleman Jim, Northern Pursuit, Uncertain Glory, Objective Burma, Silver River); although his personality was much less complex than Cagney's (in the hands of other directors, he could go unforgivably slack), Flynn still found a striking presence in Walsh's work, where his innate cockiness, his narcissism, could become a part of his character. His drive was different from Cagney's: where Cagney, the rough, slum kid, fought for material success, the smoother, silkier Flynn had more abstract goals in mind: social standing (Gentleman Jim), military glory (They Died With Their Boots On), political success (Silver River). Flynn was the social climber, Cagney was the social scrabbler—but both acted from the same inner compulsion, a compulsion to create themselves through their actions, to wrest an identity from the world. In Walsh, the American myths of success and mobility find a deep psychological, and perhaps existential, resonance: in making it, the Walsh hero is making himself.

If Walsh's films take their tempo, their dynamism, from the inner drives of their central characters, they also allow the hero to dictate their shape and structure. By and large, Walsh is attracted to two types of organization: the "rise and fall of . . ." biographical plot (as in The Roaring Twenties, They Died With Their Boots On, Gentleman Jim, A Lion Is in the Streets), and an even looser, more anecdotal structure that might be called the "map movie"—the kind of film that opens with a big black X on a map and follows the characters' progress from point A to point B through a gradually growing dotted line. Walsh's map movies—the best of them are Objective Burma, Along the Great Divide, Distant Drums, and Saskatchewan—are tales of neither picaresque adventure nor heroic quest: often, as in Burma and the latter half of Distant Drums, the characters are in retreat, running from an enemy through a hostile, primal landscape. They meet, in nature, the same kind of challenges that the heroes of the biographical films confront in social terms: it is always a question of a will imposed on the world, of an environment—urban or wilderness—conquered. The heroes of the biographical films move through time, of the map movies through space, but both are running the same sort of gauntlet—not one of punishment or purgation, but of learning and testing. The characters take something from their confrontations: they grow in strength and identity.

For Ford, the ultimate focus is society, for Hawks it is the group; Walsh's focus, uniquely, is the individual—his experience, his progress, his evolution. (The masculine pronoun doesn't always apply: one of Walsh's most striking protagonists, Jane Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover, is very much a woman.) Walsh's casual, discursive plots create a sense of freedom around the hero, as if his actions alone were determining the direction of the film. Suggestively, Walsh's weakest films, such as the 1943 Eric Ambler adaptation, Background to Danger, are generally those with rigid, well-defined plots; he doesn't seem able to deal with elaborate narrative machinations and the limitations of his heroes that they imply, the sense that the character's fate is not always in his own hands. Walsh is the exact philosophical opposite of Fritz Lang, a "happy pagan," as a French critic called him, to Lang's brooding Catholic, innocent of any sense of doom or foreboding, of any power beyond that of man. Some of Walsh's most entertaining films (though they are far from his best) belong to the series of quick musicals he made for Paramount in the 30s—Going Hollywood, Every Night at Eight, Artists and Models, College Swing, St. Louis Blues. Most are designed as simple showcases for popular entertainers or radio stars; if they have a plot, it exists only to be ignored, and they play out as refreshingly free and easy assemblies of songs, comedy sketches, and character turns, unified only by a pleasant, generous sense of anything goes. Only a director like Walsh, serenely attuned to the rhythms of personality and spirit over those of plot and structure, could have brought them off with such a sense of integrity: they are free without being sloppy, open without being ungainly.

But Walsh's celebration of freedom only goes so far: there is a dark side there too, a sense of anarchy, and many of his best films are concerned with finding the line—the point at which freedom becomes chaos, when the hero's inner drive turns destructive, mad. Often, Walsh gives his heroes a double, an opposite number possessed of the same manic drive but lifted to excess. In the face-offs between James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in The Roaring Twenties, John Wayne and Walter Pidgeon in Dark Command, and Robert Mitchum and Dean Jagger in Pursued, the only difference between hero and heavy is one of relative restraint, the degree to which the character is willing to ride out his inner energy. (Martin Scorsese appropriated this structure, with some suggestive variations, for Mean Streets.) The most remarkable film in this group is They Drive by Night (1940), a movie that begins as a growly social drama about the rise of an independent trucker (George Raft) to the head of a company, but breaks cleanly in the middle to become a courtroom melodrama about a woman (Ida Lupino) who has murdered her husband in order to clear the way for her lover. The transference—between personal energy used for positive ends and sexual energy used for destructive ends—doesn't emerge with enough clarity to work for the audience (as does, say, the similar gambit in Psycho), but it stands as one of Walsh's most audacious moments.

Most of Walsh's early films are lost or unavailable; those few from the 20s that can be seen—The Thief of Baghdad, The Lucky Lady, What Price Glory—are largely in the standard style of the period, dependent on cutting and broad movements within the frame for their sense of tempo. In the early 30s, Walsh can be seen experimenting with deep focus and panning shots (The Bowery, Me and My Gal), through it isn't until 1939, with the beginning of his tenure at Warner Bros., that his visual style reaches its full maturity, with extended compositions in depth and a complete sympathy between the movement of the camera and the movement of the actors. Walsh would have made a much better case for André Bazin's theoretical linkage of deep focus and realism than did his own two chosen examples, William Wyler and Orson Welles. Where Wyler's deep focus tends toward empty, pictorial designs (an extension of lines and angles), and Welles's is concerned with the creative recreation of theatrical space, Walsh's is aimed at placing his characters in a definite physical world. The depth of focus suggests the extension of the world beyond the camera's range, and even behind it: space is captured whole, unsectioned by planes of focus or composition restrictions. There is seldom a sense of "background" in a Walsh shot: the lines of perspective are almost always allowed to extend, explicitly or implicitly, to the horizon line. Space is continuous, solid: it's never the gauzy, transcendent space of a Borzage or the hallucinatory, convoluted space of a Sirk. But still, as in Sirk and Borzage, there is a suggestion of tension between the character and the world he inhabits. Walsh's favorite shot is medium-long, with the actors cut off between waist and knees. Though compositionally the actors are made part of the continuous space, their own hold on it seems tenuous. They are seldom firmly planted, fully there; instead, they inhabit an indefinite foreground, suspended queasily, unsteadily, before the world behind them. When Walsh pans, he is indicating the existence of a world beyond the frame-line—outside the bounds of a single, simple composition—but he is also extending the tension between actor and setting into dynamic terms. He pans with the movement of the hero, giving the actor the apparent power to determine the composition and point of view—again, the sense of freedom—but by panning rather than tracking, he keeps the setting still, static, separate from the actor. In a tracking shot, the décor "moves" with the actor; the space is fluid, changing in response to the actor's movement. In a panning shot, the space retains its integrity: our perspective on it remains constant at the pivot point. Walsh's characters move with freedom through the world, but the world doesn't yield to them: it remains a constant challenge, solid and slightly apart.

Walsh's heroes do battle with the world, defining themselves through the fight. At the climax of his films, the height of the battle, Walsh often shifts literally to a higher plane: the Cagney-Bogart apartment shoot-out in The Roaring Twenties (Scorsese duplicates the spatial plan at the climax of Taxi Driver), Bogart's last battle with the law in (and on) High Sierra, and, most famous, Cagney's mad epiphany atop the flaming gas tank that is about to explode and destroy him, resonates through Walsh's work. "Top of the world, ma! Top of the world!" he screams, posed in short-lived symbolic dominance—the Walsh hero in his moment of ultimate challenge and ultimate danger.

A few years ago, the Museum of Modern Art held an extensive Walsh retrospective; there has never, as far as I know, been an extensive Walsh program in Chicago. Even the individual films seldom play the local societies. Walsh's curse, perhaps, is his prolificity: apart from the handful of famous titles, most of which suffer the contempt of familiarity, who is to choose among the dozens and dozens of films that he made? Like any artist, Walsh was uneven, but I've yet to see a Walsh film, no matter how obscure, that didn't have some of his flair, some of his infectious spirit. Walsh's cinematheque, ultimately, is late-night television. Hardly a week passes without one of his films; at times there are two or three. His work is worth watching for, and worth working with.

© 2011 by Dave Kehr. All rights reserved. 


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March 26–27, 2001 Dave Kehr: When Movies Mattered


Raoul Walsh  |  film criticism  |  Retrospective  |  genre  |  Hollywood  |  Obituary  |  James Cagney  |  Humphrey Bogart


Dave Kehr writes a weekly DVD column for The New York Times. He moved to the Chicago Tribune after leaving the Chicago Reader in 1986, and he was its principal film critic until late 1992, when he moved to New York. His work has appeared regularly in Film Comment, and he is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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