December 8, 2015

Screenshot (102)

Under Pressure is a swarthy, bellowing beast of a movie, burrowing its testosterone underneath the East River. Directed by Raoul Walsh in 1935, it depicts a race between two teams of self-described “Sand Hogs” who are digging a tunnel to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is an insanely dangerous job, as they contend with fires, flooding, and the compressed air underground, which gives them the bends, or what they call “the itch”. The itch gives the teams a convenient excuse to act like gambling degenerates, so Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe revive their clashing brawn and brain routine from What Price Glory (’26), only this time shirtless and covered in river sludge.  Directed with swagger by Raoul Walsh, the camera keeps pushing in, in, in – until there’s a sock to the noggin’ or a natural disaster. Previously unavailable on home video, 20th Century Fox has added it in HD to iTunes, part of their 100th Anniversary initiative to release more of their library to digital platforms (I previously reviewed their iTunes release of John Ford’s The Black Watch here). 


Under Pressure was based on the novel Sand Hog by Frank G. Fowler and Edward J. Doherty, first published serially in Argosy magazine. Fowler helped dig the Holland Tunnel, and adapted his experiences into the book.  Once Sand Hog was optioned by Fox, Fowler changed his name to Borden Chase (after the milk and the bank) and went on to a prolific career as a Western screenwriter (Red River, Winchester ’73, Vera Cruz). But Chase received his first script credit on Under Pressure, along with co-writers Noel Pierce and Lester Cole (and an uncredited polish job by Billy Wilder).

Screenshot (107)

The story follows Jumbo (McLaglen) and Shocker (Lowe) as they lead the Brooklyn team in a tunnel digging race against the Manhattan scalawags fronted by Nipper Moran (Charles Bickford). Whoever fights their way into the opposite team’s tunnel wins $500. Newspaper gal Pat (Florence Rice) is sick of covering horse shows, so ditches the society pages and attempts to report on the feats and follies of the Sand Hogs. Her first pitch is denied by an uppity Manhattan editor, who says, right before firing her: “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those rural editors over in Brooklyn didn’t fall for your yarn.” They did, and Pat gets the cover story she so desired. The Sand Hogs’ violent, brutish and short lives make for good circulation, but Pat starts to become part of their family. The mother would be Amelia Hardcastle, the owner of the favored Sand Hogs bar, and the one who keeps the peace in the hot-headed profession. But even she can’t heal the macho head games played by Jumbo and Shocker, who butt heads over the leadership of the Brooklyn Sand Hogs as well as the affections of Pat.

Screenshot (103)

Instead of confessing their feelings they go back to their dark holes and dig, or else they are stuck in the decompression chamber which eases them back into the above ground oxygen flow. Their whole job is enclosed, trapped and controlled.  One of the central images is the bubbling of water that indicates a healthy oxygen flow underneath. Amelia can read this bubbling like a novel, she can tell when there’s a fire or a containment leak based on the shape and intensity of the burble. This bubble is far more expressive than Jumbo and Shocker, who prefer to express themselves in grimaces and put-downs.

Screenshot (100)

The first thing Walsh shows before panning down some miniatures into the dank tunnel set (“a huge tube, nearly 500 feet long and seventeen feet in diameter, an exact replica of a vehicle tunnel during construction, was copied as a set from the Fulton Street tunnel in New York, which connects Brooklyn and Manhattan” – AFI Catalog), made up of wrought iron and glistening torsos . The biggest torso belongs to Jumbo, and Vincent McLaglen plays him with his usual aw shucks bravado, a gentle giant who bellows out of insecurity, he’s puffed up mainly with hot air. Walsh had previously worked with McLaglen on What Price Glory, and in his autobiography described McLaglen as “a great broth of a man and a fine actor who once fought Jack Johnson.” Edmund Lowe was “a matinee-idol type who was unpredictably able to transform himself”. He has an arch tone to his theatrical voice that fits the character of a know-it-all, while McLaglen bellows like a cow being led to the slaughter. Both men need each other to get through this job alive, as they provide a balance, one that keeps the Brooklyn Sand Hogs’ tunnel from collapsing.

Walsh finished shooting the film in under a month, finishing in October of 1934. But according to the notes in the AFI Catalog, re-shoots were ordered from December 3rd – 31st, with Walsh replaced by Irving Cummings. These were extensive and expensive, costing Fox an additional $200,000. Pat was originally played by Grace Bradley in the version Walsh shot, but her footage was cut and she was replaced by Florence Rice. So all of the scenes with the Pat character were replaced. It is unclear why Bradley provoked such an extreme reaction from Fox, but it means the surviving Under Pressure is only half of a Walsh movie. But it remains 100% a McLaglen and Lowe film, and their affectionate bravado and bluster carry through the movie.

Screenshot (105)

The movie was dismissed as another McLaglen-Lowe programmer, with the New York Times writing, “vehicles which the studio litterateurs arrange for the hulking needs of Victor McLaglen & Edmund Lowe are never notable for their IQ count.” Contemporary sources like Walsh’s biographer Marilyn Ann Moss dismiss it as “undistinguished”. But this film has a raw energy and a raging visual libido, an extended metaphor for sexual repression, with those energies only released when the two competing tunnel shafts touch in the middle and the Jumbo-Moran fistfight commences. Howard Hawks often said that A Girl in Every Port was a love story between two men, and the same applies to Under Pressure. Jumbo and Shocker care for each other, but they can only express it in the depths underneath the city.


December 3, 2013


For Jack Benny The Horn Blows at Midnight was a punchline, the crowning clunker in his failed movie career. He made it the object of self-deprecating scorn on his radio and TV shows, and as late as 1957 on The Jack Benny Program he staged a slow burning sketch that ended with a security guard spotting Benny on a studio lot: “-Jack Benny? -Yes. -The one that starred in The Horn Blows at Midnight? -Yes, yes. I made that for Warner Brothers years ago. Did you see it? -See it? I directed it!” As his last feature in a starring role, Benny kept the film alive as a joke, but as the recent Warner Archive DVD release shows, it’s worthy of more than his deadpan putdowns.

A true oddity that seeped through the Warner Brothers studio filter, it depicts heaven as a corporate bureaucracy in which Jack Benny is just another angelic cog, a variation of which Albert Brooks used in Defending Your Life. Earth is an anonymous planet slated for destruction by harried middle manager Guy Kibbee, who sends Benny to do the deed. After a series of mortal mishaps, Benny gets stuck in NYC, and cultivates a liking for the finer things in flesh-bound life. The script is a pileup of increasingly improbable gags, which director Raoul Walsh speeds through with verve and a definite lack of religious deference. Aided by the kaleidoscopic special effects of Lawrence Butler, the celestial choir is turned into a faceless mass of cardboard cutouts, making life in the swing clubs and ballrooms all the more desirable.


The Horn Blows at Midnight avoided accusations of blasphemy in the Production Code era by framing the story as Benny’s dream, after he zonks out on stage during rehearsals for a dreary radio program sponsored by “Paradise Coffee”.  The movie was briefly banned in England, but no serious objections were raised in the States that I could find. The bonkers story idea came from Aubrey Wisberg, previously known for his WWII propaganda programmers like They Came to Blow Up America and Betrayal From the East. Raoul Walsh had just completed a trio of dark thrillers with Errol Flynn (Desperate Journey (’42), Northern Pursuit (’43) and Uncertain Glory (’44)), and this lighter assignment must have come as a surprise. Actor Richard Erdman recalled that the production was “the talk of the Warner Brothers lot” but that it was “considered ruined because Walsh was the wrong director for the light-footed comedy.” But Walsh had excelled in knockabout hijinks in his silent smash What Price Glory (’27) through his 1930s masterpieces like The Bowery and Me and My Gal. While Horn is not on their gut busting level, it still exhibits Walsh’s interest in framing gags.


The most elaborate occurs in the finale, when Benny is draped over the edge of a skyscraper and tumbles into a giant mechanical Paradise Coffee logo, complete with milk and sugar. Working with effects man Lawrence Butler, Walsh cuts between sets, miniatures and mattes to create a dizzying sense of verticality on a budget. The complex matte paintings of the city were made by the uncredited Charley Bonestell, who included moving cars with headlights in his creations. Walsh balances all of these crafts into a delirious whole, as he depicts the city’s advertisements about to devour Benny. Neither fascistic heaven nor capitalist Earth is safe for a good man like Benny – he’s either lost in a crowd or ground into bits by a sugar spoon. Before the town eats him up though, he is inducted into the many sensorial pleasure of urban life as a grounded angel.


Benny, as the angel Athanael, deploys his patented slow-burn reactions to the marvels of modern Earth-city life. The movie is split into a series of fish-out-of-water sketches, many of which seemed improvised on the spot. Walsh biographer Marilyn Ann Moss reports that the script (by Sam Hellman and James V. Kern) was not completed by the time shooting started. Used to filming on the fly from his silent days, it’s likely scenarios were conceived on the set. And while Benny never held the film in high regard, he felt fondly towards Walsh. One of the irascible director’s prized possessions was a silver cigarette case that Benny gave him, engraved with, “Dear Raoul, This case is for cigarettes so that you don’t have to roll your own.”

The sketches seem to arise from necessity, churning jokes out of whatever location is available. They got a diner, so one sequence finds Benny eating everything in stock in revolting combinations. He doesn’t have an Earth-bound palate, you see. Pickles and ice cream slink down his gullet, similar to Will Ferrell’s creative eater in Elf. As on so many SNL sketches though, it takes one joke and extends it into infinity. By the time Benny unwittingly skips out on the tab, the laughs are but a memory. More lasting is a clever bit at a nightclub. In need of quick cash to pay off his meal, this former member of the biggest band sits in on a “hot” jazz group at a local dance hall. Coming from the regimented sight-reading of the heavenly choir, he is totally adrift at this manic improvisation. When it’s his turn to solo for a few bars, he stands and repeats the same facile phrases over and over. He gets fired before he can finish, the ill-tempered jitterbuggers ready to riot over this square’s lack of rhythm. Heaven, it turns out, does not get jazz.


Audiences did not get The Horn Blows at Midnight. While not the gigantic flop that Jack Benny implies (his biographer claims it made back its money), it was still perceived as a failure. In a 1948 editorial in The Screen Writer, the trade publication of the Screen Writers Guild, Collier Young responds to criticisms of studio “story experts”: “Mr. Taylor’s article does generally presuppose that the writer…is total master of his craft. Thus it follows that all ‘story experts’ are heavy-handed louts who wander about the studio with stray pages from The Horn Blows at Midnight sticking between their toes.” But rather than the toejam of ignorant studio flacks, The Horn Blows at Midnight is yet another example of the genius of the Hollywood system. A group of craftsmen were left to their own devices and created an anarchic absurdity.


August 13, 2013


Going Hollywood (1933) was a gambit by William Randolph Heart to rejuvenate his lover Marion Davies’ career, but instead it accelerated the rise of Bing Crosby. By the end of 1933 Crosby was a top-ten box office attraction, while Marion Davies would be out of movies altogether a few years later. Like their careers, the whole movie is pulled in different directions, as its patchwork backstage musical romantic comedy plot lunges from lavish Busby Berkeley style spectacles to a filmed radio show.   Even the box office receipts are schizophrenic, with a cost of $914,000 and total revenues of $962,000 it was a money-maker that barely broke even. Though immensely talented, the actors perform at cross-purposes, with Crosby at his most louche and Davies in a perpetual panic. That Going Hollywood holds together at all can be credited to ace songwriting duo Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, as well as director Raoul Walsh, who had just managed the controlled chaos of his turn of the century NYC comedy The Bowery (1933). Going Hollywoodis out now in a handsome DVD from the Warner Archive.

Through his Cosmopolitan Production company, Hearst optioned “Paid to Laugh” by Frances Marion, who had provided many stories for other Davies films in the recent silent days. He handed the adaptation to Donald Ogden Stewart, a playwright and budding screenwriter who would go on to pen such knee-buckling classics as Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). In his magisterial Bing Crosby biography, Gary Giddins relates that it was MGM lyricist Arthur Freed who requested that Bing Crosby be hired as the lead. Crosby was the only singer, Freed felt, who could “put over” his doomed lust song “Temptation”, written with his partner Nacio Herb Brown. Before he became ingrained in American consciousness as the singing priest from Going My Way (1944), Crosby had a reputation as a hard partier. Hearst was wary of casting him because of his womanizing, but relented when Davies also pushed to hire the crooner.

It was only after the film was ready to shoot that Walsh was hired. Walsh recalled how the Cosmopolitan rep made the offer: “The Chief wants you to direct a picture”, spoken like a royal decree. He had seen Crosby perform at the Coconut Grove, and was pleased to work with him. He also didn’t buy the prevailing narrative regarding Marion Davies, saying, “The catty whispers that Hearst alone was responsible for keeping her in the public eye were forgotten as soon as one watched her in action.” He had clearly seen Davies in King Vidor’s Show People, which is the superior model for their scattershot production.

Hearst gathered the whole cast and crew at his San Simeon estate for a week, where they rehearsed and rubbed shoulders, reportedly with a nonplussed Winston Churchill. During this period Marion Davies asked Walsh if he had ever been to Rockaway Beach as a child, and when he said yes, she dubbed him “Rockaway Raoul”, a nickname which stuck for the duration of the production. Bing Crosby even wrote a song called “Rollicking Rockaway Raoul”, a biting little ditty about the Going Hollywood production. The last lines: “And now that we’re through/MGM can go screw/Says Rollicking Rockaway Raoul”, enraged MGM to the point where Walsh says he and Bing were banned from the studio lot. A party recording of the song was released on the bootleg “Both Sides of Bing Crosby” (if anyone knows where I can find a copy please let me know).

The movie itself seems tame in comparison, but it has its compensatory pleasures. Marion Davies plays Sylvia, a free-spirited boarding house French teacher who “seems to go about in a dream.” When she hears Bill Williams (Crosby) croon sweet nothings on the radio, she packs up and moves to Hollywood. She works her way up from extra to featured player, and even catches the eye of Bill, who is otherwise in the clutches of French bon-bon Lili (Fifi D’orsay). He has to choose between booze and Lili or clean living and Sylvia.

The Freed/Brown score is superb, and there is an inventive staging of “Beautiful Girl”, a tune which would later re-appear in Singin’ in the Rain. In this equally mocking version Crosby is cutting a single as he circles through his morning routine, putting on his pants and pouring his alka seltzer, the poor sound man struggling to keep up with his circlings. The slapstick on-screen is in direct inverse with the saccharine beauty pouring out of the speaker – though the two meet up when he sings the last lines, “I forgot the words…so that will have to do.” Crosby plays Bill as a consummate actor, this scene suggesting there might not be an authentic personality underneath his pipes.

Sylvia is desperate to find out, and follows him on his train ride west, impersonating a French maid along the way. Davies was famous for her impressions, and Walsh lets her loose with one of her friend Fifi D’orsay, an exuberant foot-stomping routine mocking D’orsay’s thick accent and narcissistic persona. Davies’ love of mimics may explain the presence of an inexplicably long sequence of the three “Radio Rogues” plying their wares on the air, with imitations of Kate Smith and Rudy Vallee among others. There is also a hair-raising scene of Davies masquerading in blackface, speaking in Hollywood’s made-up “mammy” dialect. These disconnected vignettes give the film a sketch comedy feel – although some of these never should have made it past dress rehearsal.

It is clear that Freed and Brown tailored their songs for Crosby, with “Temptation” the infernal highlight, bringing out a dissolute side to his perfect pitch. Set in a dingy night club, Crosby sits with a bright cocktail, his hair ever slightly mussed. Fifi D’orsay is seated to his left. Walsh frames him in profile from the knees up, staring at her. He sings, “You came/I was alone”. Then he cuts in closer, from his head to his cocktail. “I should have known/you were temptation.” Then there is a jarring cut, to D’orsay in an extreme close-up, staring straight into the camera, bringing a glass to her lips. The spatial relations are all off from the classical style. She should be gazing screen right, to match Crosby. But then Walsh inserts chiaroscuro shots of the dance floor, the revelers shuffling like zombies. With the camera too close for faces to be distinguishable, it’s clear the film has entered some kind of nightmare. Crosby begins gazing upwards, his eyes brimming with tears. He stops acknowledging Fifi’s presence, as she’s as much inside his head and his body as she is sitting on the seat next to him. The sequence ends with him finally taking a sip of his drink, furthering his intoxication, and cementing his status as a star.



March 19, 2013


I am a man of few principles, but when a Raoul Walsh film comes out on home video I am duty-bound to write about it. The Warner Archive has been a blessing for Walsh enthusiasts, and their latest gift is a handsomely restored DVD of his Western Cheyenne (1947). It is somewhat of a neglected film in his career, having been released in the same year as the highly regarded  The Man I Love and Pursued. Then its TV syndication title was changed to The Wyoming Kid, to stop people from confusing it with the long running series Cheyenne, and it’s road to oblivion was almost complete. It’s appropriate the film had its own case of mistaken identity, since that’s what the whole plot hinges on – a twisting thicket of shifting identities, doublings and double entendres. Walsh had vocal problems with the screenplay, which veers from bawdy sex farce to a violent adventure, and only seems fully engaged with the brutally efficient open air action sequences shot in Arizona. This friction gives the film an appropriately schizophrenic feel, from frothy banter to frothingly mad violence.

Walsh had been interested in the story since January 1945, having written to Jack Warner in a memo that: “I told Bogart the Cheyenne story the other night and he wants to do it. The girl’s part is a natural for [Ann] Sheridan and we might get [Errol] Flynn go play the bandit.” As biographer Marilyn Ann Moss reported, John Huston had agreed to write the script, but the project never coalesced, and Walsh went on vacation for a few months before embarking on The Man I Love with Ida Lupino in the fall. While that was shooting he pitched the idea again, and this time it got the green light. It was based on a story by Paul Wellman (Apache, The Comancheros) which had been brought to WB’s attention by novelist and screenwriter Alan Le May, who would later write the source novel for The Searchers.

cheyenne still2

The story circles around card sharp Wylie, who under threat of arrest is forced into tracking down the enigmatic heist artist The Poet, who had been knocking over Wells Fargo carriages across the Wyoming Territory. With The Poet’s identity a secret, even among outlaws, Wylie impersonates the robber in the hopes of finding his whereabouts. The Poet’s estranged wife Ann Kincaid agrees to help him in the ruse, although her ultimate loyalties remain unclear.

By the time the project got off the ground, none of Walsh’s original cast choices were available. So he went to work with the relatively low wattage Dennis Morgan (Wylie), Jane Wyman (Ann Kincaid) and Bruce Bennett (The Poet) instead of the charismatic triumverate he had envisioned. He also wasn’t happy with the script, sending Jack Warner a memo with suggestions for a new plot outline. Producer Robert Buckner reacted as if Walsh were hijacking his movie, responding that, “it should be remembered that I have done a great many more Westerns than Walsh and that I should certainly be consulted before Walsh’s changes are forced into the script. …I do not look forward to going into production on it with him.” Walsh raised no more objections, so with reservations on both ends, the film went ahead with a final script attributed to Le May and Thames Williamson.

Wylie is not a traditional self-destructively heroic Walsh hero, but a self-interested triangulator trying to please all sides while keeping himself alive. The plot is therefore busier than Walsh’s usual material, a cataract of double and triple crosses that muddies the clarity of his preferred “map movie” mode, as Dave Kehr has termed his penchant for “get from A to B” stories. Walsh doesn’t battle the script as much as resign himself to it, but while it is not one of his more personal works, it the theme of doubling and identity shifting is elegantly laid out by Le May and Williamson, while Walsh wrings every bit of tension out of the little traveling his characters embark upon.

The script is an endless series of reversals. It opens with a secondary gang led by Sundance (a snarling Arthur Kennedy) running down a carriage only to find one of The Poet’s singsong rhymes instead of the booty. Then before Wylie leaves Laramie for Cheyenne he mistakenly flirts with showgirl Emily Carson (a suggestively salacious Janis Paige), thinking she’s Ann. The trio then share a carriage ride, each putting on facades they shuffle among themselves as the movie goes on. Ann, presenting herself as prim and proper, turns out to be the morally compromised wife of a wanted criminal. Emily starts as a party girl and ends monogamous, while Wylie begins cheating at cards and concludes by helping the law.

Even when disengaged Walsh knew who to wring the most tension out of the material. Assistant Director Reggie Callow told Rudy Behlmer that, “he had a way, an absolute knack of placing his camera in the right position to get the greatest effect out of the stunt.” In one emblematic POV shot The Poet has Wylie in his gun sight, only before he can pull the trigger the cowardly Sherriff (the always welcome Alan Hale) jabs his own gun at Wylie, thinking he’s The Poet. Wylie is doomed and then saved by his own duplicity, stuck in a violent circle of his own design. Each character is stuck in a similar loop until they return to the carriage where they started their journey, where they reluctantly reveal their true selves, and the circle straightens into a line out of town.



June 5, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 12.21.55 PM

Later this summer Sight & Sound magazine will unveil the results of their once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time. In 2002 they queried 145 critics, writers and academics, who placed Citizen Kane #1, the same place it’s been since 1962.  Re-affirming the greatness of Citizen Kane, and ranking in general, tends to inflame Manichean arguments taking the form of “this over that”. Is Citizen Kane “better” than Tokyo Storyor Vertigo? This attitude treats movies like sporting events, where one film is the clear “winner”.  These lists are intended to start conversations, but instead they end them (I find it’s far more fun to look at individual lists, where personal idiosyncracies shine through, as with James Tobacks’s selection of Jimmy Hollywood in the Director’s Poll). Part of the issue is seeing the same titles every time, embalming them in a canon of good taste, historical artifacts rather than living works of art. This ends up reducing the films the poll set out to glorify. So I am presenting an Alternate All Time Top Ten,  composed of films and directors that have never been represented on the Sight and Sound poll before. These aren’t better or worse than the films that will land on the S&S poll, just different, and hopefully will spark new conversations. I encourage you to post your own alternate lists in the comments.

The list is presented in alphabetical order.

Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis

When I saw this at the Market Arcade theater in Buffalo, probably in 2000, I was introduced to a new world of movie-making, one of sensuous power that proceeded by a logic of images rather words. An erotic reverie that transposes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the French Foreign Legion in Africa, it builds tension through the arch of bodies and the glint of hard sun on sand. A transformative moment for me, although my Dad didn’t like it.


The Clock (1945)directed by Vincente Minnelli

Minnelli’s first non-musical is still impeccably choreographed, as Judy Garland and Robert Walker meet-cute in NYC and fall into a whirlwind romance. Walker plays an earnest midwesterner on a two-day leave from the army, who falls instantly in love with Garland’s sophisticated urbanite. Compressing the entire wooing process into two nights, Minnelli heightens the tension of together-separate with big boom shots which pick the lovers out of the crowd, and then lose them in it.


Coeur Fidele(Faithful Heart, 1925), directed by Jean Epstein

The current Jean Epstein retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York City has been my first exposure to this feverish stylist, and my goodness are they sensual viewing experiences (as much as Beau Travail, say). This one, available on UK DVD/Blu, is about a foundling girl (Gina Manes) whose cheap adoptive parents marry her off to an evil bastard named Little Paul (Edmond Von Daele). She’s in love with sensitive guy Jean (Leon Mathot), who seems to spend most of his time staring at the sea (as do most Epstein characters). Filled with looming close-ups, dreamy super-impositions and sequences of fast-cutting that would make Tony Scott blush, it’s an experimental melodrama that floored me with its earnest audacity.


Duck Amuck (1953), directed by Chuck Jones

Where Daffy Duck meets his maker. This modernist masterpiece finds the titular mallard go ballistic when the animator keeps changing the backgrounds to his scenes. A Three Musketeers pastiche all of a sudden becomes a folksy farm routine and then a mountain skiing escapade. Eventually Daffy goes ballistic, yelling at the screen, until the hand of Jones comes in with his eraser… One of the funniest films ever made, which also just happens to be a wittily self-reflexive essay on the author as sadist (or as Bugs Bunny, which amounts to the same thing).


Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), directed by Robert Bresson

The funniest Bresson is also now my new favorite. Jacques (Guillaume des Forets) is an ascetic young painter enraptured by Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten), who attempts suicide after her boyfriend cuts off contact. Jacques promises to act as a go-between between Marthe and her man, as a way to get closer to her. They start strolling along the Seine most nights, zombies in unrequited love, hypnotized by a glass pleasure boat that sails down its waters, trailing its bossa nova tune.


The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert,1986), directed by Eric Rohmer

The perfect summer movie! The wispy Marie Riviere plays Delphine, a neurotic young professional whose friend backs out of a trip to the Greek isles two weeks before departure. Already bummed out by her sometime (mostly never) boyfriend, she wanders from beaches to the mountains in a depressive state, forcing relaxation upon herself, but only ending up in tears. Riviere is a bewitchingly annoying presence, her sulkiness matched by her hectoring lectures on vegetarianism. She is an open wound, cringing at every touch. The healing process begins through another meet-cute in a train station (Rohmer must be a Clockfan!), and the intervention of a Jules Verne short story. There magic in books and sky, so Delphine finally chokes down her pain begins emerging into the world outside her head.


Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper have lost their house, and depend on the kindness of their children to take them in. It doesn’t work out that way in McCarey’s devastating drama of aging and loss, which was the model for S&S poll mainstay Tokyo Story. Orson Welles famously said it could make a stone cry. It is so affecting because it is so clear-eyed and unsentimental, with no last act redemptions. It is simply a story of two people in love whose lives fall apart.


Me and My Gal (1931), directed by Raoul Walsh

The first movie I wrote about here at Movie Morlocks, and one of the most energetic every made. Each frame pops with invention, whether it’s Spencer Tracy’s slangy NYC argot, trick shots or parodies of popular movies of the day, there’s something happening every frame. The whole production seems drunk, from Walsh on down to the gaffer, tossing around ideas and shooting the bull until the shooting day ended. The result is chaotic, messy and joyful – filled with the most life per square inch of film stock in history.


Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), directed by Raul Ruiz

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable. I’m rather anxious to see the 6-hour TV version. Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


When A Woman Ascends the Stairs(1960), directed by Mikio Naruse

Hideko Takamine’s face is one of the great monuments of cinema, and here she gives a performance of shuddering uncertainty. She plays Keiko, a fiercely independent bar hostess in Ginza forced intent on opening her own place. But the world of men keeps throwing up obstacles to her self-actualization, her impassive expressions intimating only hints of the roiling uncertainty inside.


May 17, 2011

Screen Shot 2020-01-29 at 4.10.08 PM

One of Sam Fuller’s most personal films, Park Row (1952), has been released on DVD through MGM’s burn-on-demand service, the “Limited Edition Collection” (available through Amazon and other retailers). Inspired by his time as a copy-boy for Hearst’s New York Journal and as a crime reporter for the New York Graphic, it is an impassioned paean to American journalism, opening with a scroll of the 1,772 active daily papers at the time (in 2009 the numbers were down to 1,387).  I can confirm that the listed Waukesha Daily Freeman is still running, with reasonable subscription rates. Fuller’s artistic temperament was formed in his ink-stained years, as he wanted his films to have the visceral impact and clarity of a 100 point size headline. Park Row is his gift to the business that made him. MGM’s DVD is presented in a solid if unspectacular transfer, with strong contrast. It includes a trailer.

In his raucously entertaining autobiography A Third Face, Fuller writes:

In 1952, I got an opportunity to make a film about the origins of American journalism and the passion for a free press. Park Row was the only film I’d ever produce with my own dough. But I had to make it, if for no other reason than to pay homage to the memories of my youth on that street I loved.

And an homage it is, a sweet love letter to the profession that gave him his start. It stars  Gene Evans and his clipped cadences as Phineas Mitchell, a born newsman floundering as a writer for the New York Star. When an enterprising printer pitches him on editing a new paper, The Globe is born, a muckraking start-up published on butcher paper that electrifies the city. Mitchell quickly riles up the Star’s owner, Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), and a circulation war flares and turns violent.

As Fuller notes, he used his own money to produce the film. He originally wanted to make it after his success with The Steel Helmet (1951), but Darryl Zanuck nixed the idea, since Richard Brooks was already directing a newspaper picture for 20th Century Fox, Deadline-USA (1952). Instead, he made another remarkable Korean War film in Fixed Bayonets. Fuller came back to Zanuck again with Park Row, and this time Zanuck agreed, but only if Fuller would turn it into a CinemaScope musical starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. So he “decided that the only way to make Park Row was to put up my own dough and produce it myself. Two hundred grand, to be exact. To hell with Zanuck and Fox! Fuck the entire studio system!”

With limited funds, the film takes place entirely on one small city street set, that included the two newspaper offices and a bar. Every shot feels insular and cramped, with Fuller grouping his small cast in tight formations in the foreground of the frame. He doesn’t have the space to execute many tracking shots (although there are a few doozies, including a brawl that ends at the feet of Benjamin Franklin), which gives the film an unusual tension. The dialogue crackles but the characters are static, prompting Manny Farber to complain about its, “absence of fluidity – two huge faces usually dominate the screen.” While there are more group shots than Farber remembers, it is definitely a movie of close-ups, Fuller’s attempt inscribe these invented faces into history – they become monuments to his memory of being a newsman. This is established in the opening of the film with shots of three statues resting on the Park Row street set: of Gutenberg, Benjamin Franklin and Horace Greeley.

His personal investment becomes most touching in the character of  Rusty (Dee Pollock), the young kid who Phineas hires to become the “printer’s devil”, who has to re-organize the used typefaces. He is clearly the incarnation of Fuller when he was at the Journal, soaking up the atmosphere and strange argot (guideline, key-line, point, pull, stick, stone) that holds the mystery of an undiscovered country. There is a lot of talk about journalistic ethics, but the first story the Globe publishes is one they help construct. Phineas tells Bowery Street legend Steve Brodie that he’ll print a story about him if he jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge. What starts as a joke becomes front page news as Brodie and Phineas soon see the publicity potential in such a stunt. The story fuels the Globe’s opening week surge, and renders Phineas’ ethical issues at the Star moot. Clearly his biggest complaint was not ethics but entertainment. The Star’s corruption had simply become boring, and Phineas simply wanted to bring ballyhoo back to the printed page.

Fuller adapted some real events into the story to fuel Phineas’ Globe. Steve Brodie was a real Bowery legend, who became famous for jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, even if it is now likely to be considered a hoax. In Luc Sante’s history of NYC shysters, Low Life, he writes that Brodie “had inconspicuous beginnings as a newsboy and bootblack, staking out the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge as his territory immediately after the 1883 opening. A few years later he began announcing to friends that, as a sort of dare, he planned to jump off the bridge. One of his friends was a printer named Tom Brennan, who had numerous connections in the newspaper world, and so word spread fast.” The line between “news” and “stories” is immediately blurred in Park Row, with Phineas becoming the hero over Charity only because his stories are more entertaining, if not more true.

It’s interesting to compare Fuller’s depiction of Brodie with Raoul Walsh’s, who filmed a version of the story with The Bowery in 1933. There is a difference in budget and approach. Fuller is working with no money, using the threadbare spaces to invest his film with a sense of monumentality, and a highly conscious nostalgia. Walsh was working with a big studio budget, and his frames are dense with people and action, evoking a sense of history-as-present. Even the basic conversational two-shot has drunkards and con-men gyrating in the background (he used his recollections of the real Bowery to construct his scenes, where he shot for Regeneration in 1915). These stylistic choices were made possible by their respective budgets, but they also fit each directors’ interests. Fuller is an idea man who uses images as rhythmic blunt force objects to get his concept across – working from the outside-in. Walsh prefers to go inside-out, building incidents and bits of business until patterns emerge of their own accord, a crafter of moments. Watch them both.


April 5, 2011

Screen Shot 2020-01-29 at 3.10.44 PM

It’s taken as long as the caravan journey in The Big Trail, but we finally have a collection of film criticism from Dave Kehr, who currently writes the essential DVD and Blu-Ray column at the NY Times.  When Movies Mattered (University of Chicago Press) gathers his work from his period at the Chicago Reader, from 1974 – 1986. For years I’ve consulted his capsule reviews to guide my viewing habits, still available at the Reader website, but his long-form pieces have long been out of circulation. So this is a cause for celebration, although the resulting party would drive other critics to drink out of jealousy rather than selflessness. His prose is patient and lucid, laying bare stylistic and thematic mechanisms with the graceful invisible style of one of his favored Hollywood auteurs.

I was able to sit down with Mr. Kehr to talk about some of his favorite directors, as well as those not given much critical attention. So we range from Raoul Walsh to Godard and from Eastwood to Paul W.S. Anderson. Something for everyone! And it should be noted that the University of Chicago Press is doing an incredible job, releasing not just Kehr’s book, but also the most recent writings of Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson.

RES:  It’s easy to get caught up in Raoul Walsh’s energy, but it’s hard to pin down his specific style. Could you break it down?

DK:  Well, he goes through a few different periods. If you’ve seen Regeneration, from 1915, the longest feature that survives, he’s really doing Griffith.  There are standard set-ups, moving into close-ups for moments of emotional intensity or alienation. And then we don’t have anything until 1922, something called Kindred of the Dust which is at the Eastman House. In that one he’s already doing wider angles, longer takes, and more staging of action in depth. He’s doing a lot less cutting. He’s moved in a different direction than Griffith at that point. That becomes very obvious in Thief of Baghdad (1924) and What Price Glory(1926). He becomes more about bodies moving through space and less about shots following shots.

The Big Trail (1930) is a huge breakthrough for him. The effect of working in what was essentially CinemaScope in 1930 makes him reconsider everything. Suddenly he’s got this equipment that will give him dead sharp focus over a range of like 5 miles. And he sees the possibilities instantly, which is what I find so fascinating. It has these incredible deep focus compositions, so you can see every aspect of a shot unfolding in the same image. There is a shot of the wagons being lowered down the mountains in the background, and people approaching in the foreground. Conceptually it’s incredible; multiple planes, multiple focal points. A lot of the stuff people think Welles and Tati invented is already pretty much there in The Big Trail. The other thing he finds there is this sense of background motion which becomes really important for him. He’ll have static figures having a conversation in the foreground, but have a lot of crossing in the background, with isolated pockets of action. You get the feeling these extras could star in their own movie. He develops that in a lot of different ways  in the early ‘30s.

RES: How did he carry the lessons of framing for widescreen back to Academy ratio after The Big Trail?

DK: Well, then he starts working on the deep focus. He works with James Wong Howe on Yellow Ticket (1931) which is a really fascinating film, and I wish Fox would make a print of it. They don’t quite have lenses that are fast enough, and they don’t have enough light, but conceptually they are 100% in Gregg Toland, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles land. They’ve got it all figured out. There are shots in that movie that could have come straight out of Citizen Kane.

RES: Did Andre Bazin ever write anything about Walsh?

DK: Not to my knowledge. These films were pretty hard to see. The Fox stuff dropped out of circulation after the studio fire.  I don’t think people were looking at these movies.

RES: When Walsh began making widescreen films again later in his career, do you see any shift in style from The Big Trail?

DK: It’s like he picks up where he left off. Even before that, when he makes his 3D movie, Gun Fury (1953). He had been making movies in 3D all the time. The irony being that he was blind in one eye. He doesn’t do anything differently in Gun Fury than the way he was staging stuff in The Lawless Breed which comes out the same year. He has that natural sense of depth. He identified cues of perspective and how to nestle characters within a space. It works brilliantly in 3D when you see it projected.

RES: How would you characterize his handling of actors?

DK: Well he likes a very distinctive kind of performer. He didn’t do a lot with Douglas Fairbanks, but he was at the same studio, Triangle, for five years. But when he finally does get to direct him there’s an immediate chemistry: this is the man in action. This is the Walsh hero. He carries this over in different forms. With Fairbanks it’s all light and jolly and weightless. It’s the same with James Dunn in Sailor’s Luck. There’s always something that kicks these people into action, and it can be a conventional goal, or it could be this animal sense of, “I have to keep moving.” And in the case of Sailor’s Luck I think it’s sex. The sexual attraction between those two characters is staggering. Obviously a year later you couldn’t do anything remotely like it. They just have to get together.

Then you get to Errol Flynn, who kind of picks up the Fairbanks stuff, but it’s a little darker, a little nuttier. He’s kind of angry and violent. In Flynn’s first few films he’s juvenile in an irresponsible way, taking unnecessary chances that’ll get him in trouble. And as he works with Walsh, from They Died With Their Boots On (1941) through Operation Burma (1945), that character grows up in really interesting ways.

Flynn achieves manhood for Walsh’s heroes in Operation Burma, and then you get those baroque variations from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Most famously, White Heat (1949), where the character is plainly psychotic. He’s no longer just dangerous, he’s fucking crazy. That performance is so gutsy. It seems so modern to this day. Chewing on a chicken leg as he walks over to the trunk to shoot the guy….

RES: Even in something like The Strawberry Blonde, Cagney is a little insane.

DK: It’s got that Walsh energy, but it’s more coiled and manic than Flynn, and certainly more than Victor McGlaglen. There’s always the sense that something is pushing these guys forward. It could be something as benign as that spirit of adventure of Fairbanks, or as psychotic as what Cagney does.

RES:  I heard you will be writing a new regular column for Film Comment starting a few issues from now. Will it be about directors like Walsh, who have not been written about much?

DK: Yes. For some reason research on American directors stopped with Andrew Sarris. Probably something to do with the fact that theory came swooping in around that same time, and we all had to pretend there was no such thing as authors for a few years. In the meantime directors are dying left and right and prints are dropping out of circulation. The older I get the more amazed I am by the size of the classical Hollywood cinema, how many interesting people there were, and how many films. It’s gigantic. I don’t think any writer has gotten their head around the enormity of this thing.

RES: Have you selected some filmmakers you’ll discuss?

DK: Two of the people I was planning on writing about… One was a guy who worked at Republic in the 30s and 40s named John H. Auer. And another guy named William Nigh who started at Warners in the teens, worked at MGM and ended up on Poverty Row in the 30s and 40s. He had an interesting late career. I thought I would call the column “The Auer is Nigh”, but they didn’t like it…[laughs]

RES: Are there any unpretentious action directors working today worth paying attention to?

DK:  Yeah. Paul W.S. Anderson I think is pretty talented. I always enjoy his films. I’m not sure he’s any kind of thematic auteur, but he certainly knows how to shoot action. And David Twohy, who did Pitch Black (2000) and A Perfect Getaway (2009). This is a sad example. The guy has directed four movies in the last eleven years . How many films would Raoul Walsh have made in that time? You just don’t have the chance to get good anymore.

RES: I’m happy you named Paul W.S. Anderson, who I get a lot of shit for liking. He’s always attracted to constrained spaces…

DK: Yeah, he’s kind of Langian. He loves these underground chambers. In every movie there’s people penetrating a gigantic spaceship [Event Horizon (1997)] or the bowels of the corporate headquarters in the Resident Evil movies. His first film just came out on DVD, Shopping, which is an art film compared to what came later.

RES: You devote a whole section to Jean-Luc Godard in your book, who at that time (the early-to-mid 80s) was re-engaging with, and questioning, narrative. You wrote that he was “concerned with breaking through a media poisoned world to something clear, clean and transcendent.” How would you contrast that with his recent work, which seems like a return to more experimental formal structures, interested in layering images and ideas rather than “breaking through”?

DK: Passion (1982) is probably my favorite of the late Godards. That one almost seems like a Dreyer film, completely spiritual. It’s all about the transcendent, how do we get out of here, what’s in the next room if there is one. After that he falls back into the argumentative mode.

Film Socialism (2010), which is in three parts, seems to correspond to three stages of his career. You get the opening sequence, which is the big beautiful and lyrical piece, of the stunning images he was doing in the 80s and 90s. Then you get the up close and personal family interaction stuff that he was doing in Numero deux (1975) and the films from the 70s that nobody sees anymore. And then it ends up with an essay-ish section which is very much like the Histoire(s) du Cinema. So he seems to be conscious of playing with his different manners. A retrospective film.

RES: Another of your pieces that struck me was your review of Sudden Impact (1983), and Eastwood in that period. I assume he was not taken seriously as a director at that time. Could you talk about Eastwood’s place in relationship to the New Hollywood, whom you often seem to be reacting against?

DK:  I was somewhat alienated from the whole Bob Rafelson, Easy Rider thing. I don’t think I would write those things as negatively now as I did then. It was a polemical moment.  I liked Clint because of his association with Don Siegel. I thought his first film showed an awful lot of personal investment, and particularly in the way he was looking at himself as an object. It’s a theme that continues, consistently imagining his own disappearance, his own death, obsessively. Sudden Impact is the best of the Dirty Harrys because it gives him such a powerful, other form, a Dirty Harriet, which it was often called at the time. He more than meets his match. Directed masculine energy meets undirected female anger.

RES:  The way Eastwood pares away any affect in his performances, I think you even called it “Bressonian” in your review, really stands out in Firefox (1982) in which he barely emotes, like one of Bresson’s models.

DK: I know, and that’s a great example of him imagining his own disappearance. Because at the end of the movie he flies off away from the camera into this little dot.

RES: Another interesting aspect is how, as a secret agent in Firefox, he’s supposed to be a good actor, but he keeps screwing up. He’s portraying himself as a bad actor.

DK:  Which is what I loved about Pink Cadillac (1989). That was a movie I got a lot of crap for liking, but this is a movie about why Clint likes acting, and why he’s not very good at it.

RES: His movies are so rich because of how he interrogates his own persona…

DK: Yeah, once he stops doing that, his work really dries up for me. His last great film was Gran Torino (2008), which is the summation of that theme, a film I found emotionally devastating. Literally handing over the keys to the new generation. Again he’s imagining his own death and irrelevance, but this time something comes after that.

RES: Could you talk a bit more about his work post-Gran Torino? It seems the craft is still there but not the same level of personal involvement.

DK: I don’t find them very personal at all. It seems like he’s taking whatever hot, Oscar-ish script of the moment is. He’s getting people like Brian Grazer to make his movies, and they’re prestige oriented stuff.

RES: What about the WWII diptych, which I felt was very strong.

DK: Yeah, the first one I thought was good, the second was really good. In Flags of Our Fathers (2006) he was aiming a little too hard for social significance – it didn’t feel like an Eastwood film. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is just the opposite .

RES: You felt the same about Invictus (2009) and Hereafter (2010)…

DK: Invictus I just couldn’t get into at all and Hereafter I thought was actually bad. Very disappointing. We’ll see about J. Edgar. Sounds like another Oscar candidate.

RES: Another director you devote two pieces to is Blake Edwards…

DK: Edwards was important because he was a full-fledged studio auteur who was still working at a peak level when I was writing those pieces. Just the perfect example of someone was could make very personal films in a very commercial context.

RES: Would you put him with Eastwood as the last of that breed?

DK: I suppose. I don’t want to sound all apocalyptic or anything. Joe Dante is still in there plugging. And John Carpenter…he’s a real independent. He released through studios but made maybe one studio produced film,The Thing (1982) through Universal. He has that studio ethic without being a studio guy. He fought to keep his independence so he could make movies as if he were working for an old studio.

RES: I wonder when we’ll get to see Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)…

DK: It’s played all over Europe. And Monte Hellman’s got a new picture with no distribution [UPDATE: Monterey Media has acquired Hellman’s ROAD TO NOWHERE]. And Joe’s last picture [The Hole (2010)] never got distribution.

RES: Was The Hole’s fate decided because studios booked all the 3D screens?

DK: He explained it to me. The problem selling it was it wasn’t scary enough for teenagers and it was too scary for twelve year olds. A tweener.

RES: Continuing with more recent work, you wrote that great piece on The Cable Guy (1996) recently, so could you expand your thoughts on Apatow’s output? He has his champions.

DK: He does, but I don’t think he’s that innovative. He’s never done anything as far out as The Cable Guy again. He wrote a lot of it and didn’t put his name on it, but he learned his lesson on that one. Keep it friendly, keep it nice.

RES: Funny People (2009) did seem very personal…

DK: It did, but not in such great ways. It kind of gets preachy on you. I didn’t like how he was layering the characters where the people at the center were these three dimensional, psychologically complex types, but the further you got from them the more grotesque and cheap sitcom-y they got. When they finally meet the husband, he’s this total cartoon. He’s no real competition, there’s no real drama between those two guys. The guy’s a joke. It was an easy way out of that dramatic situation. I generally find the Farrelly’s more interesting, although they kind of ran out of steam. They’re not as funny as they used to be.

RES: I’m a big Stuck on You (2003) partisan.

DK: Yeah, I like that. And Kingpin (1996), I just love it.

RES: Is is their anarchic qualities you admire?

DK: That’s where the real energy is now. Comedy and horror is where you can break the rules. You don’t have people breathing down your neck because executives don’t care about these genre things, they don’t watch them half the time.

RES: That’s why I’m a big fan of the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay comedies, especially Step Brothers (2008), which becomes incredibly anarchic.

DK: Yeah, I have to see that. Ferrell, I can’t quite figure him out. There’s something a little condescending in what he does. It’s not mean spirited, he just likes playing stupid people. He lets you know he’s smarter than they are all the time. Something about that bothers me. You can see him working down, where you could never see Stan Laurel working down.

RES: Step Brothers takes that as its subject. They are literally overgrown children, these men in their 40s, so I think it takes on that criticism. By the end of the film the narrative totally dissipates, into a series of non-sequitur gags. The Other Guys (2010) is more conventional…

DK: I saw that. It was a buddy cop movie that kept telling you, “this is a parody of a buddy cop movie.” But it was doing all the things a buddy cop movie does.

RES: It got caught up in the plot for some reason…

DK: Isn’t this a great parody?  No, it’s just like everything else.

RES: There was a flare-up recently in your blog’s lively comments section recently, this time about Tony Scott, who also has his critical defenders.

DK: I guess so. I was kind of amazed to discover that all of the Lisandro Alonso fans also like Tony Scott. I can’t reconcile this. Looks like the same guy to me who made Top Gun (1986). Just run and gun, shoot, shoot shoot, and maybe we can massage this into something that makes sense but we’ll worry about it later.

RES: So you didn’t find any coherent visual scheme.

DK:  I couldn’t find a pattern in what Pat Graham was talking about in Unstoppable (2010), supposedly mirrored, up and down panning shots. If they’re there, I totally missed it. One little trick for getting a quick sense of a director’s visual style is to fast forward through the movie.

RES: Do you do that often?

DK: Not often, but once in a while. So you’re not distracted by the trivialities of plot and character and acting [laughs]. But a quick fast-forward through and you get a good sense of the visual vocabulary. I just ran Unstoppable, the ten minute version, and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly organized about it. He takes these really banal screenplays and embroiders them with these big effects, which is what everybody does. He’s a little more creative technically, he’s willing to go the extra mile of bringing in the helicopter.

RES: I admit I’ve enjoyed his last few movies. I’d say he’s the main exponent of Bordwell’s “intensified continuity”. He’s able to take this style and pare it down where it moves and still makes sense, even if there is no overarching visual structure.

DK: But there are those push-ins at the end of close-ups, for no effect. It doesn’t mean anything. He uses it here but doesn’t use it there. It’s what someone called “refreshing the screen”. It’s just to keep something happening to keep kids from getting bored. Stimulating the optic nerves to keep people interested.

RES: I can’t argue that. But I also think he’s an efficient storyteller.

DK: That’s the kind of filmmaking I value. I just don’t get him, or “the working class metaphysics.”

RES: That quote from Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope (read here) really got under your skin.

DK: That phrase stuck in my craw. It’s too easy. What’s working class about that movie? It’s not about the Hawksian pleasures of doing your job or the Walshian pleasures of community. It’s your typical Hollywood heroes acting in complete isolation. The thematic is tired old therapy stuff. By stopping this train we’ll become better husbands and fathers.

RES: Let’s talk about your blog, and the great community you’ve created there.

DK: I don’t think I created anything. It’s just there aren’t that many places where you can discuss these issues without having the same tired argument over and over again, “is the director the author of the film?” I’m too old, I don’t want to talk about that anymore.

RES: The discussions get intense sometimes. Do you think it recreates the polemical atmosphere of the Kael-Sarris period of your writing, of “When Movies Mattered”?

DK: I hope so. The thing about Tony Scott was a pretty good example of that. I really enjoyed that, it got tense.

RES: In the blog you mentioned that I Saw the Devil (2010) is the natural endpoint of the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino. Could you elaborate on that?

DK: It’s just hard to imagine things going any further. It’s the old gag where the cop is as crazy as the criminal, but in this case the competition is about who can cause the other greater pain. The pain is registered with such force and originality, it really shook me up. He’s not nearly the craftsman that Park Chan-wook is, but his color sense is magnificent in that great opening shot of the face created in the rear view mirror.  You don’t know whose point of view it is until a half-hour into the movie. It has that old-fashioned craftsmanship that cares about composition and texture and color. You see it in the Korean films coming out now, which I guess is inspired by Park Chan-wook. It’s not happening in many other places now.

RES: Is there anywhere else?

DK: Well, we seem to be living in this post-mise-en-scene world, with a few pockets of it remaining. Johnnie To mainly, the couple guys in Korea, David Fincher, David Twohy, and I’m sure a few others but not that many. Now it’s all about acting and framing the performance. Most mise-en-scene is just finding some way to separate the actor from the background. And that’s all they’re thinking about, how to isolate this face. I was sitting through Sucker Punch (2011) last week, and I thought, what am I doing here? I could have watched three Allan Dwan films in the time it took me to watch it!


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.


August 24, 2010


My  hopscotching education in Raoul Walsh skitters on this week, with five gut-punching thrillers. I’m jumping through his career haphazardly, watching whatever I can easily acquire. Last week led me from 1930 to 1955, but today I’m mired in the 1940s, thanks to the Warner Bros.-TCM box set, Errol Flynn Adventures (feel free to ignore this post if you think the TCM branding compromises my objectivity).  Along with Lewis Milestone’s Edge of Darkness, it includes the Walsh-directed Desperate Journey (1942), Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory (1944) and Objective, Burma! (1945). I supplemented these with the Warner Archive disc of Manpower (1941).

The images at the top present two communities of wisecracking men, and Marlene Dietrich, sending off one of their own. They are from Manpower and Desperate Journey, two mournful studies of male camaraderie. Manpower takes the love triangle (and Edward G. Robinson) from Howard Hawks’ Tiger Shark (1932) and moves it from a fishing village to the road crew for a power company. It’s there that Robinson and buddy George Raft tell tall tales about their amorous accomplishments with fellow boozers Alan Hale, Ward Bond and a group of other grinning mugs. Walsh packs the frame with group shots, of leering, laughing and impulsive men. They gather in semi-circles to trade quips, and end the film in the same group formations saying their final goodbyes.

Marlene Dietrich spends the time in between wisecracks sullenly vamping around Raft and Robinson, in love with the former and married to the latter. She is arresting in the luxurious slowness of her movements, a Josef Von Sternberg-taught dreaminess that seems out of place in the blunt realism and speed of Walsh’s world. The men are in constant overdrive, scampering up transformers to fix high voltage lines in shots of dizzying verticality. Even their diner’s waiter gets amped up, translating their orders into his own intricate lingo. He changes “a bottle of sherry” into “grapes of wrath in a sport jacket”, directly addressing the camera. It is Walsh reveling in working class argot, which he also privileged in Me and My Gal, where J. Farrell MacDonald faced the camera. Instead of this unique (male) mastery, at her wedding Dietrich is framed in between the two fake power grids on the cake, pinned and isolated in her seat.  She is entirely alone. In the top-most photo, Dietrich’s face glows under Ernest Haller’s cinematography, but Robinson’s gaze is irrevocably drawn to Raft’s. It is, as Hawks referred to A Girl in Every Port, a love story between two men.

Raoul Walsh described Desperate Journey in his autobiography as, “a war comedy spiced with enough tragedy to give it reality.” He seems to have it backwards. Shot with low-key lighting by Bert Glennon, it is a relentlessly grim-looking film that its characters face with disconcerting joviality. Errol Flynn is the rakish Flight Lt. Terry Forbes, who crash lands in Germany with a crew that includes Officer Johnny Hammond (Ronald Reagan), Sgt. Kirk Edwards (Alan Hale) and Officer Jed Forest (Arthur Kennedy). They are the former Robin Hood’s merry band of saboteurs, with Hale playing Little John as he did next to Flynn in 1938. He spits seeds at a Nazi prison guard and bellows his way through the epic chase scene that makes up the rest of the film.

The banter that lit up Manpower seems brittle here, forced. It papers over the “1 in 10,000 chance we get out of here”, as Forbes admits. Officer Forest is the realist who refuses to participate in the general raillery. He is, he tells Forbes, just there to do a job and get out, which is later echoed by a female resistance fighter. The male group is no longer a community, but a collection of individuals trying to survive a war, and the film tracks Forbes’ growing realization of this fact.  He begins as a traditional Errol Flynn hero, dashing blithely into danger and improvising a way out. But larger stakes are on the line, and Forrest’s pragmatism begins to infect Forbes, and in turn alters Flynn’s persona in his next few films with Walsh.

In Northern Pursuit, set in the snow white Northwest Territories of Canada, Flynn operates his undercover operation completely alone. He still maintains the dapper moustache while infiltrating a Nazi spy ring, but he’s otherwise cold and calculated. The narrative doesn’t have the normal oomph of a Walsh production, getting bogged down in exposition and failing to take full advantage of the spectacular snow-capped landscapes. Walsh placed Northern and Uncertain Glory along with Background to Danger as “three quickies” he knocked off after completing Gentleman Jim (1941).

Uncertain Glory has more than a passing interest, however. Here Flynn plays his most disreputable character, a thief and murderer in wartime Paris unconcerned with the fate of his countrymen. Arrested by a famed inspector played by Paul Lukas, he’s headed for the guillotine. The Nazis plan on executing 100 Frenchman, however, if a resistance fighter does not turn himself in. Flynn, doomed regardless, proposes to impersonate the saboteur for the preferable death by rifle fire. Filmed in suffocating close-ups and two shots, it’s an earnest, troubled bit of propaganda, in which Flynn offers various shades of guilt and self-absorption. A quickie, but a haunting one.

The Warner Bros. set closes with the monumental Objective, Burma!, an implacably brutal war procedural in which Walsh unleashes all of his plastic gifts. It follows an Army platoon as they are marooned in Burma following a successful demolition job. Hemmed in by Japanese forces, there is no way for them to escape except for a long, grueling hike. With the great lensman James Wong Howe, Walsh is constantly panning the camera, a visual roll call for each soldier. They are given thumbnail characterizations through brief physical tics, whether it’s fastidious nail clipping or a penchant for napping. There are no longer any attempts at the egalitarian community of Manpower – Errol Flynn’s Captain Nelson is more of a haggard motivational speaker, cajoling and halfheartedly inspiring his exhausted men into action.

But character is the least of the film’s concerns, it is interested mainly with process, how a parachute jump is executed, or a supply drop is triangulated. In this emphasis on the mechanics of labor, it finds many points of contact with The Big Trail. The attention to operational detail recalls the intricate way in which the covered wagons were winched down a sheer cliff face or forded across a river in his 1930 Western.

The metronomic regularity of the camera movement emphasizes the men who have been lost from its countdown. The shots grow shorter as the group is picked off one by one, culminating in a night-time shootout where the half-starved, dug-in troops look like gaunt prairie dogs. This final battle takes place in darkness, where an inadvertant rustle can equal death. A dissipating flare offers a few seconds of traditional battle (a similar sequence is found in Johnnie To’s recent Vengeance, where the moonlight hides behind the clouds and shrouds the fight in darkness), but then the enemy returns to being myth and rumor. It is, as Jean-Pierre Coursodon writes, “an awesome achievement”, Walsh at the peak of his technical mastery, and at his most resignedly individualist.

Postscript: In an unnecessary aside, I have to throw in one of my favorite quotes from Walsh’s unreliable but hugely entertaining autobiography, Each Man In His Time. Hanging out with Errol Flynn on the press tour for Objective, Burma!, Walsh relates that, “[Flynn] once told me that when he bought perfume for a present, he always inquired for Chanel number 10. ‘I don’t like my women to be only half sure.’”


August 17, 2010

Screen Shot 2020-01-24 at 5.17.16 PM

Raoul Walsh was nothing if not adaptable. As a teenager, he tagged along with his uncle on a trading mission to Cuba and Mexico. The schooner was damaged in a storm and had a long layover in Vera Cruz. It was there, Walsh claimed, that he learned roping from a man he only knew as Ramirez, whom he paid in Cuban rum. He stayed ashore when the ship returned to NYC, and was soon hired as a cowboy to drive cattle into Texas. His accidentally gained expertise landed him a horse riding gig on Broadway (in a version of THE CLANSMAN, later filmed by D.W. Griffith as THE BIRTH OF A NATION, in which Walsh played John Wilkes Booth), and later got him hired at the Pathe Film Studios, who also needed a horseman. Once he was primed to break out as a leading man in IN OLD ARIZONA, a jackrabbit flew through his windshield, and the glass shards gouged out an eye (he was replaced by Warner Baxter). Hence his eyepatch, and his practically-minded move behind the camera.

Dave Kehr commented on on his blog, relating to his NY Times piece on the Errol Flynn Adventures box set that TCM released with Warner Bros., that “for me Walsh belongs with Ford and Hawks as one of the Big Three American directors, but there has been surprisingly little of substance written about him in English or in French.”  I felt I should be as practical as the director and take this as a sign to dig further into Walsh’s work. There was further discussion of how little he’s esteemed in the under-30 crowd, of which I’m a member for the next few months. And it’s undeniably true. I’ve never had a conversation about Walsh with anyone of my own age group.  So until I hit that magic number in February, I’ll be assessing and re-assessing his work, to find my way through Walsh’s massive filmography and hopefully spark further discussion about this major figure in film history.

Kehr’s erudite readers also took up the challenge, especially Blake Lucas, who wrote an essay-long breakdown of Walsh’s career. Spring 2011 promises a flood of material, with an essay on Walsh in Kehr’s eagerly awaited collection When Movies Mattered, and a forthcoming biography, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director(University Press of Kentucky), by Marilyn Ann Moss. I’m adding my rather undigested thoughts here, and will contribute more in the coming weeks the more I see. I watched The Big Trail  (1930), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Battle Cry (1955), and The Tall Men (1955) in quick succession with comment below, and my bits on Me and My Gal (1932) and Colorado Territory (1949) are here and here.

Walsh’s dynamic visual sense was as equally pragmatic as his upbringing. The stills above are from films 27 years apart, but his mastery of widescreen composition remains, whether in the 70mm Fox Grandeur format of The Big Trail, or the CinemaScope of The Tall Men. He composed in depth in arcing lines, framing his images to fit the horizontals of the format, instead of the more vertically oriented Academy Ratio that preceded and followed the box office failure of The Big Trail. The vertiginous conclusions of White Heat, High Sierra and Colorado Territory attest to his expertise in the latter. But when he had wide aspect ratios to deal with, he adapted: in his ‘Scope films his people die sideways. This might seem intuitive, but the clunky framings of early Scope experiments like The Robe, made 23 years after his commandingly wide Big Trail, shows how ahead of his time, and downright experimental his creatively practical approach was. These are images of beauty but also of narrative tension. John Wayne traverses the middle ground in the top image from Trail, caught as he is between his Native American friends and the covered wagon train he’s leading to Oregon. The crowds look like massed armies, and the centered mountain provides an ominous roadblock. But Wayne’s bright beige buckskin outfit cuts a deal and a way through.

The image from The Tall Men is less dramatic, a minor aside before the big drive to Montana. The group of vaqueros that Clark Gable hired takes a moment to pray as the cattle nap in the background. If Walsh’s heroes are “sustained by nothing more than a feeling for adventure”, as Sarris claimed, or what Kehr calls “runaway individualism”, this shot displays what this recklessness and freedom has put at stake: the lives of these pious men are on the line for these indolent cows. It is a tossed off moment of nobility for these nameless workers, whom Gable leads on an impossibly dangerous journey through Oglala Sioux territory. His Civil War colonel turned stick-up artist is once again a leader of men, and it brings riches and death.

Walsh’s men are truculently free spirits, and look for women of similar combativeness. For romantic relationships are as central to Walsh’s world as reckless  individuality. The tension between the two motors most of his work, echoing a quote from Johannes Brahms: “It is my misfortune still to be unmarried, thank God!”  The Strawberry Blonde and Battle Cry are almost exclusively concerned with this dilemma. James Cagney gives another irascible fireplug performance as Biff Grimes, a dentist and perpetual black-eye wearer. Giving remarkable detail to the speech (“that’s just the kind of hairpin I am”), clothes and bearing of lower middle-class immigrant strivers in the gay ’90s (the only richer milieu Walsh created was the 30s lower East Side of Me and My Gal), Walsh presents Biff as an all-American loser, and is one of his (and Cagney’s) most beautiful creations. Biff is quick to fight and quicker to hold a grudge, a mulish sap who contains deep reserves of dignity. He loves his lusty father, but falls hard for the measurable charms of Rita Hayworth’s social climber. Roped into being a wingman for his huckster-entrepeneur friend Hugo, he’s hooked into a date with Amy (Olivia de Havilland) instead, a budding suffragette who talks women’s rights on the first date, and who prefers to get just as frisky as the men. They are both odd fits for society, two weirdos who love running their mouths, getting into scrapes, nursing, and dentistry. So the most romantic scene in the film concludes in a tooth pull without anesthetic. It’s a hilarious, vengeful moment against Hugo, but also an inadvertent revelation of his own happiness with Amy. Love is laughter and the restraint of murderous impulses. I now place it alongside Me and My Gal as my favorite Walsh film.

Battle Cry is a war film that’s almost entirely about love affairs. Walsh keep eliding battles in order to return to town where Aldo Ray and Tab Hunter get entangled with conflicted ladies in San Diego and Wellington, New Zealand. It is a very strange film, a big-budget spectacular that eschews spectacle for moments in-between the fights. There are more shots of men sitting than shooting. It’s a case study for what Jean-Pierre Coursodon has called his “basically leisurely approach to filmmaking.” He slackens the normal pace of this WWII propaganda picture, made with the support of the U.S. Marines, to dig into one-night stands and poignant love affairs. Coursodon continues in his “American Directors” essay:

“when confronted with a war picture, and therefore a predominantly male cast, Walsh uses the flimsiest pretexts to sneak in as many women as possible. Most of Battle Cry’s 149 minutes’ running time is devoted to the likes of Mona Freeman, Nancy  Olson, Dorothy Malone, and Anne Francis pleasantly cavorting with their boyfriends in blissful oblivion of whatever is meant by the film’s title.”

It’s a film about raucous canteens, maudlin bars, and the chatter that fills it up. James Whitmore’s Captain complains that he couldn’t read Hamlet, because “he reminds me of an uncle of mine in Dayton.” Then there are the mournful wives, girlfriends, mothers and one-night stands who populate their off-hours, replacing the ghosts of their sons and lovers with the lonely, eager visages of new recruits. Some live and some die, there are break-ups and weddings, and Walsh doesn’t linger on any of it.

“The great traffic cop of the movies”, as Manny Farber called him, kept things moving, as the world went ahead without them. One of the most expressive shots for me was in The Big Trail, in which a covered wagon gets ripped downstream as it tries to ford a river.  There are no close-ups or dramatic music swells or star actors, just a family losing all they own. Then there’s a cut, and our hero must move on.