August 31, 2010
For a man who toiled in the studio system for close to 50 years, cranking out genre quickies and prestige productions with equal aplomb, Raoul Walsh’s work remains astonishingly coherent. My grab-bag syle of viewing has made this resoundingly clear. This week I watched his earliest work, Regeneration (1915) and The Thief of Bagdad (1925) through two films he made in 1953: The Lawless Breed and Gun Fury. The above still is from Along the Great Divide, a spare, Oedipal Western from 1951. All of them, in one guise or another, deals with Walsh’s major concern, the benefits (freedom) and costs (self-absorption, loneliness) of individuality.
In Along the Great Divide (available from the Warner Archive), men are subsumed under vaulting rock formations, isolated and doomed. Kirk Douglas, in his first Western, plays a neurotic U.S. Marshal intent on protecting a cattle rustler accused of murder (Walter Brennan) from his would-be lynchers, and on bringing him to justice. He pushes his deputies as hard as his prisoners, eventually alienating all of them over a harsh drive through the desert. Douglas represses his world-devouring charisma into a bottled-up rage, unleashed only when a bemused, sardonic Brennan starts incessantly humming a tune, “Down In the Valley”, that the Marshal’s Dad used to sing, triggering unwelcome memories.
Filmed in the emptied out High Sierras and the Mojave desert, Walsh shoots his actors in long shots against the alien landscape, reduced to motile dots during shoot-outs. When he comes in close, people are breaking down. The group’s loyalties are in constant flux, and love affairs fall apart on the second half of a shot-countershot. After cooing over a sunset, Virginia Mayo turns a gun on Douglas, eager to save her father (Brennan) from the noose. Everyone acts out of base self-interest, and it is revealed that the Marshal’s obsessive fealty to the law is merely his guilt-ridden reaction to his failure to protect his father. There is a complete interpersonal breakdown, with every man and woman looking after their own interests. As Renoir famously said in the The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons.”
The faces are the landscapes in his debut feature Regeneration (on DVD from Image), a raw urban melodrama of gang life on the lower east side of NYC. Walsh told Peter Bogdanovich:
…I got a thing called Regeneration, a gangster picture, which is right up my alley because I knew all those bloody gangster kids and everybody in in New York. …I went down around the waterfront and around the docks and into the saloons and got all kinds of gangster types, people with terrible faces, hiding in doorways.
In his autobiography he said that, “There were enough bums and winos around to cut down on extras.” Equipped with these authentic visages, Walsh produced a downbeat piece of social realism that runs underneath the stock drama, a mixture of fiction and documentary that is being mined today by international auteurs like Lisandro Alonso and Pedro Costa (Dennis Lim has a fine overview of this contemporary trend). It tells the story of John McCann (the immortally named Rockliffe Fellowes), a kid whose parents abandon him to fend for himself on the poverty-stricken streets. He turns into a brutal young hood, who softens only under the glare of social worker Mamie Rose (Anna Q. Nilsson), who tries to reform him. As a Walshian hero, though, McCann can never entirely be domesticated, the lure of dissolute freedom is too great. For Walsh, it was a natural decision to use “real” people to fill the cast, a cost-cutting maneuver that also allowed him to film those “terrible faces” which attracted him so much.
Previously employed as an actor by D.W. Griffith, as John Wilkes Booth in A Birth of a Nation and a host of Biograph shorts, there is a strong influence in Regeneration from his mentor. Walsh remembers that he learned “not to allow leads to ‘eat up the scenery’ by overacting’ from him, and describes one of the final sequences of the film: “I had the camera move in for a close-up in the best Billy Bitzer style.” The close-ups are extraodinary, intimate portraits that impede the story, unnecessary to the action but essential to understand the time and place. More is revealed in a shot of a tattered t-shirt on McCann’s drunken stepfather than any inter-title could convey. Poverty is portrayed matter-of-factly, without condescension or embellishment, and it is this oppressive sense of reality that lends Regeneration its sizable force.
The Thief of Bagdad (streaming on Netflix Instant)was a mega-production, and while it’s more of a triumph for set designer William Cameron Menzies and Douglas Fairbanks’ chest, it continues Walsh’s interest in outsiders, albeit in a brighter, more rakish tone than Regeneration or even Along the Great Divide. Fairbanks’ thief is a charming rogue, but a solitary one, getting tips from a variety of magical grotesques, but his feats of strength and wit are all accomplished alone.
Walsh made two westerns with Rock Hudson in 1953, which deal with opposing visions of masculinity. In The Lawless Breed (on Wesley Hardin escapes the religious strictures of his father, only to fall into the life of an outlaw. While in Gun Fury (on DVD) Hudson is an upstanding type, a fumbling fiance forced into vengeance when his wife is kidnapped.
The Lawless Breed seems like a dry run for The Tall Men a few years later, as Hardin has a dream of owning a farm and living the quiet life, while his dancehall gal is skeptical. The same dynamic is present between Clark Gable and Jane Russell in the later film, but what they make playful and flirtatious is rendered stolid and melodramatic here. The creaking script makes excuses for all of Hardin’s murders, straining visibly to whitewash his character into a spotless hero. This pushes against Walsh’s instinct to problematize the heroic instinct, and the resulting film is an intriguing failure. The shootouts are crisp and well-staged, but there is no tension or shading in Hardin’s character, with little of the ambivalent violence of Gable, who is a shown as a thief in the opening shot of The Tall Men.
Hudson made Gun Fury with Walsh the same year, which was shot in 3D. It has the most inventive use of 3D technology I’ve seen, mainly in the use of depth effects, which he was already a master at in the lowly 2D format. But here images in the foreground gain a new solidity, with dust kicking up in front of our eyes as a horse cuts through the back third of the frame. There’s a density and volume to the images that is absent from the recent 3D cycle, achieved through the constant interplay between background and foreground that elasticizes the screen space.
Hudson plays Ben Warren, left for dead by a brutal gang who abscond with his wife-to-be Donna Reed. Warren is no fighter, getting gunned down while futzing with a shotgun, and accepts the help of a former member of the gang, and a Native American who had suffered at their hand. The narrative is sleek and focused, pushing Warren forward even when he’d rather not, an accidental hero who’s not very good at his role.
For now, this will be my last post on Walsh, and it’s been nothing less than a revelation for me. His “invisible” style is never less than expressive, from the heights of Manpower to the lengths of the ‘Scope Tall Men, he has an instinctual touch for how to pack his frames for maximum dramatic impact. His heroes are bruised, his women are cynical, but when Walsh alights on a rich vein of dialect (Me and My Gal, Strawberry Blonde), he can be downright hilarious. He’s a shifting target, but I’m in the beginning stages of tracking him down.