February 9, 2010

raoul walsh

The top image is from High Sierra (1941), of Humphrey Bogart slugging Alan Curtis in the jaw with his pistol. The bottom image is from the same scene in its remake, Colorado Territory (1949), of Joel McCrea knocking out James Mitchell with a meaty right hand. Both films were directed by Raoul Walsh – the first a gangster movie, the second a Western. Historically speaking, High Sierra is more important for its crystallization of the Humphrey Bogart persona: mulish, bitter, doomed. His good-bad guy Roy Earle was originally slated to be played by both Paul Muni and George Raft, until their queasiness with the script paved Bogart’s way to stardom. And so, it receives a fine DVD transfer and continuous play on TV and at repertory theaters.  Colorado Territory has no such claim to history, except as a superior piece of genre filmmaking, so it receives a beat-up, fuzzy transfer in the Warner Archive. So it goes.

It’s fascinating to compare the two films in how they approach narrative, set-design, and performance. Let’s get the basic story out of the way (spoilers!) before I chart some of the divergences: a feared heist-artist gets out of jail, and is hired for one more big job by his aging, sickly boss. On the way to his target, he falls in love with a fresh-faced gamine, who eventually rejects him for a younger guy back home. Taking up with the salty dance-hall girl who loved him all along, he tries to escape with his latest haul, but gets chased into the mountains and gunned down from afar.

The shift in time-period (from contemporary to turn-of-the-century) completely changes Walsh’s visual palette. Most of High Sierra takes place in bland indoor spaces: a cabin hideaway, a grubby motel room, a swank hotel lobby. These are spaces of transit, areas that Earle can abandon at a moment’s notice. The only semi-permanent space is the suburban home where his club-footed teenage crush resides (played with sickly sweet naivete by Joan Leslie), where a rather unendurable stretch of doe-eyed sentiment lands, running completely counter to Bogart’s cynical demeanor in the rest of the film. It is not one of screenwriter John Huston’s finer moments, and drags down the film for me as a whole. The author of the novel, W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar), was brought on for rewrites to satisfy Paul Muni, but I think most of the blame for the clunky structure can be placed on Huston. This section excepted, however, the sets emphasize impermanence, banality, and lassitude, which Bogart slides into with ashen brutality. It’s an incandescent performance, but the film doesn’t hold up around him.

Colorado Territory is the inverse. McCrea is a competent, but much less nuanced performer, so Walsh invests Bogart’s menace in the set design, compresses the storyline to emphasize his athleticism, and opens up the visual space for more propulsive action. He builds around him – and creates a much more complete work of art. McCrea’s Wes McQueen is truly defined by the landscape here, where in High Sierra Bogart is left adrift in a sea of John Huston’s exposition.

The main settings in Colorado Territory are a  decrepit Spanish mission town, a moving train, and a more extended stay in the mountains (shot in and around Gallup, New Mexico). The mission town is abandoned, just a complex latticework of collapsed roofs, beams and crosses (the art direction was by Ted Smith, the set decoration by Fred M. MacLean). It’s a far denser space than Earle’s cabin hideaway, and potently expresses the sense of imminent destruction that High Sierra mainly locates in Bogart’s brilliant broken down mutterings. And where Bogart’s heist takes place in static medium shots for a hotel safe-cracking, McCrea’s occurs in a thrilling moving train takedown – a hurtling sequence that pushes the pace forward through the end of the film. It telescopes Earle/McQueen’s crush on the young girl into a few sparkling scenes (moved along by Dorothy Malone’s more mature, flirtatious performance), introduces a melancholic backstory with a few well-placed lines (the memory of a lover’s face), and emphasizes his physicality with a gruesome bullet-plucking scene. Virginia Mayo rips it out with suspicious skill, a clever way to fill in her previous life with nary a word spoken. Her dance hall gal  is conflicted and fiery throughout, unlike High Sierra’s Ida Lupino, who switches from bad girl to agreeable wife material with one slice of the editor’s guillotine.

Wes McQueen is thoroughly subjugated to the nature around him, a speck on the locomotive at his successful heist and a dot in the valley before he’s gunned down. High Sierra pulls a similar comparison, but with less narrative compression. There are detours into a city park as he moonily stares at the sky, and to his old family farm where he talks catfish with a young boy – excess scenes that exist merely to fill in backstory. In Colorado Territory, Walsh finds a way to squeeze in these details in the midst of the action – making for a spring-loaded, densely told tale, crisply shot by Sid Hickox, who Walsh called “the best and fastest cameraman of them all.” (and who also shot White Heat the same year). Walsh valued speed above all, having directed near 140 films in his astonishingly varied career.

This post has been mainly about contrasts – but I’ll end with similarities. These films were shot 8 years apart, but Walsh uses some of the same setups to remarkable effect. First there is the introduction of the respective dance-hall girls – who are first shown obscured. Ida Lupino is hidden behind a tree, and then Walsh cuts to a shot of her feet before panning up to her suspicious face. Virginia Mayo is also introduced seated, her head down as she musses her hair, before another dramatic head-raiser, eyes blazing.

raoul walsh2

Then there is the final shoot-outs, which are both remarkable for their extreme long shots from the killer’s POV, emphasizing the distance and ease with which the deed is carried out. Their murder is impersonal, enacted by a stranger, almost as if the land was reclaiming them for itself. The top two are from High Sierra, the bottom two are from Colorado Territory:

raoul walsh3raoul walsh4


March 10, 2009

me-and-my-gal-1932-foxMy heart flutters as I begin my first week here at Movie Morlocks. I’ll need time to settle into my new Tuesday digs before I can work out any cinephilic kinks, so please forgive my youthful enthusiasms and wild hyperbole. I’ll settle down eventually, but not quite yet.

Let’s get the introduction out of the way. By general life expectancy standards, I’m young, so the current economic crisis hasn’t destroyed my non-existent wealth. Any previous possibility of easy living was scuttled by my decision to attend NYU to study cinema. Bad move! Now destitute, my only solace is the moving image and the multifarious pleasures it brings. That’s what I’ll be writing about here, hopefully in a lucid and engaging manner.

Speaking of economic devastation, Film Forum in NYC has recently concluded a wonderful series of Depression-era films entitled “Breadlines & Champagne.” An eclectic mix of social-realist dramas, high-society screwball comedies, and gangster operatics, it was a revelatory peek into the incredible richness and diversity of the films from that early sound, pre-code period. I received the greatest kick from Raoul Walsh’s unclassifiable 1932 experimental gangster- romantic comedy, Me and My Gal.

I initially sought it out because it was a particular favorite of Manny Farber, the brilliant painter and film critic who passed away last year. He has an essay on Raoul Walsh in his invaluable collection, Negative Space, in which he names Me and My Gal as his favorite Walsh film:

“The movie has a double nature, looking exactly like 1931 just after the invention of sound, and one that has queer passages that pop out of the storyline, foreshadowing the technical effects of 60′s films. These quirky inclusions, the unconscious oddities of a director with an unquestioning belief in genre who keeps breaking out of its boundaries, seem timeless and suggest a five-cent movie with mysterious depth.”

It is this “breaking out” that makes Gal so remarkable, a mash-up of styles and attitudes that never condescends to its material but wrings every possible variation out of it. The plot follows Spencer Tracy’s police officer, Danny Dolan, on the beat at New York’s Pier 13, as he woos waitress Helen Riley (Joan Bennett) while searching for escaped mobster Duke Castenega (George Walsh, Raoul’s brother). Duke is holed up with Helen’s sister Kate, and Dolan attempts to bring him in without destroying the family. It’s a fairly routine plot, lifted from a segment of the 1920 Fox film While New York Sleeps. The project went through a variety of hands before it landed with Walsh, having been previously attached to William K. Howard, Alfred Werker, and Marcel Varnel. According to the AFI reference book “Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films 1911 – 1960″, Walsh shot the film in a scant nineteen days, and he doesn’t even mention it in his rakish autobiography, Each Man In His Time.

Perhaps it’s the speed of the schedule that led to its inventive, magpie spirit. Plenty of material needed to be created on the spot (there was obviously little pre-production time), and the film is flooded with ideas (some borrowed, some new) – ideas for pratfalls, camera movements, parodies. The movie contains direct addresses to the camera (by a tight J. Farrell MacDonald), self-reflexive voice-overs, and endless bits of comic business, from Will Stanton’s drunk act to the stinging bon mots flung from Bennett to Tracy.

This was cinematographer Arthur Miller’s first job at Fox, which would eventually lead to his magnificent work with John Ford. In an interview with Leonard Maltin, he discusses a trick shot composed during a robbery sequence:

I had the camera on a rubber-tire dolly, and just hit it. Now, this wasn’t original, because I had seen the earthquake picture over at the Chinese theater, and I saw what effect it gave. That’s what they did all through it; you’d hear the rumble first, everything would start to shimmy, and then it would hit. They rolled their dolly.

It’s this kind of innovative spirit, repurposing industrial tricks on a smaller, what Manny Farber would call a “termite” level, that animates this consistently surprising film. Another techniqe Walsh borrows is the interior monologue, which was used extensively in Robert Z. Leonard’s 1932 adaptation of Eugene O’ Neill’s Strange Interlude, in which the majority of the drama was enacted in voice-over. A curiosity and a flop, it made for rich parodic material. The scene that elicited the biggest laughs at the screening I attended (big, roiling guffaws), was a priceless ironic take on this technique. Dolan is on his first date with Helen, and they end up alone at her apartment, after she winks away her eager-to-please dad (MacDonald). Dolan mentions a film he’s seen, “Strange Inner Tube”, and caddishly lays his head on her lap. They slide down next to each other on the couch when the voice-overs start, each reflecting on their seduction techniques while uttering only banalities to each other. Eventually Dolan psyches himself up to go for the lips, and dives in for a kiss. He receives a smack in return, and their combative courting process proceeds apace.

It’s a wonderfully funny sequence, playfully mocking the staid “prestige” pictures that would receive the big studio push this cinematic mutt would not. What truly makes it sing, though, are the performances from Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. Bennett is saucily obstinate, pursing her bow-tie lips before unleashing a cataract of insults. As for Tracy, well, he’s sublime, as is the rest of the cast, who spout a symphony of lower East Side argot that Walsh orchestrates with speed and brio. That’s one of the film’s major pleasures – it’s sense of place, which is another aspect Farber loved about it. He gets the last word:

It is only fleetingly a gangster film, not quite outrightly comic: it is really a portrait of a neighborhood, the feeling of human bonds in a guileless community, a lyrical approximation of Lower East Side and its uneducated, spirited stevedore-clerk-shopkeeper cast. There is psychological rightness in the scale relationships of actors to locale, and this, coupled with liberated acting, make an exhilarating poetry about a brash-cocky-exuberant provincial. Walsh, in this lunatically original, festive dance, is nothing less than a poet of the American immigrant.