I’d long wanted to see more Raoul Walsh movies. Renowned as an action specialist and he-man director without peer, Walsh made every kind of adventure film—war, western, swashbuckler, gangster, fantasy (the Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Baghdad), naval, bandit (Carmen twice!), even biblical—during his 51-year career.
The restless son of a successful immigrant Anglo-Irish clothier in New York, Walsh as a teenager was a salt sailor and a cowboy before joining D. W. Griffith’s film company. In 1914, Griffith dispatched him to film Pancho Villa’s guerrillas in action for a feature (now, unfortunately, lost) in which, upon his return from Mexico, Walsh himself played the young Villa. In 1915, while an assistant director of it, Walsh played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation, injuring his ankle like Booth (though not as badly) in leaping from the presidential box of Ford’s Theatre. Later that year, he directed what seems to be the first feature-length gangster film, Regeneration.
There’s probably no such thing as a dull Raoul Walsh film, nor an obviously stylish one, either. Every shot in one couldn’t be better, yet Walsh doesn’t use a set of compositional, perspectival, lighting, cutting, or moving-camera effects such as many other fine filmmakers habitually do and for which I’m a sucker. I mean, I’ll swoon over a John Ford or Josef von Sternberg flick regardless of whether I like it.
Movie historian Tag Gallagher (at sensesofcinema.com) opened up Walsh for me. He says Walsh’s cinema, like Griffith’s, is based on faces and that, more than Griffith, Walsh emphasizes eyes as the medium of interaction between a film’s main characters and between them and us. Exemplifying from Regeneration, Gallagher adds that Walsh may have invented the point-of-view shot and that of the face looking at the camera—practically (i.e., the camera is in the actor’s sightline) more than directly. Moreover, Walsh is so intent on showing eyes that he’ll violate the axis of orientation within the frame, making a shot “feel” off-kilter, to show a meaningful look.
I encountered Gallagher’s remarks as my chronological traversal of the movies I’ve always wanted to see (or, sometimes, re-see) reached the three films of Walsh’s peak year, 1941—High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde, and They Died with Their Boots On.
They Died with Their Boots On profusely illustrates Gallagher’s point. It’s the story of George Armstrong Custer as he should have been—the ideal American hero, a small-town scion who’s handsome and strong, charming and daring, a bit of a rogue and nothing of a grind, every woman’s delight and every man’s envy, and brimful of honor. Errol Flynn as Custer nearly always looks toward the camera, especially in his scenes with Olivia de Havilland as Libby, his belle, his wife, and his tireless cheerleader. Her eyes, too, while focused on him, seldom turn from the camera. She is worshipful of him, as he is of her, spiritually as much as carnally (though definitely that, too). Invited as well as informed by their gazes, we unreservedly sympathize and admire these heroic lovers. The movie’s something more, however, than an exercise in hero-worship; I’ll get to that.
The protagonist of Walsh’s earliest 1941 film, High Sierra, is almost Custer’s polar opposite. Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is a convicted murderer whose pardon is wangled so he can pull off one more big heist for his erstwhile criminal boss. Still hard as nails but become ruefully nostalgic about his farm-boy roots during his time in stir, Earle craves human connection but is practically incapable of it—a condition Walsh points up by desperately trying to have the camera catch his eyes, especially in his interactions with Marie (Ida Lupino), the not-rotten-yet dance-hall floozy the two young gunsels he’s supposed to supervise have with them when Roy arrives at the tourist cabins where they await the green light to rob a pricey mountain resort. Marie falls for Roy, who resists until it’s really too late. Meanwhile, when they’re together, her eyes are shown yearning for his, but his turn away. Or when they finally do look one another in the eye, we see them in profile, sparring more than engaging. Roy is devastatingly alienated, from Marie and from us. When his gaze does include the camera, it’s a glare of anger at the gunsels or suspicion of inquisitive or friendly strangers.
The middle member of Walsh’s 1941 triptych, The Strawberry Blonde, presents Biff Grimes (James Cagney), a dentist in New York, circa 1906, who’s just got out of jail. His story, relayed primarily in one long flashback, is that of a middling sort of man—good with his fists, though—who doesn’t figure out who he is and what he’s got until the very end of the movie. But forget middling. He’s quite a dumbbell, really, carrying a torch for social-climbing, strawberry-blonde Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth) and failing to appreciate lovely, devoted Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland), whom he weds in reaction to Virginia's marriage to his bounder of a buddy, Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), the guy responsible for his jail term. When he comes to his senses, something that Walsh builds towards with—you guessed it!—an ever-increasing number of shots of Biff and Amy looking into each other’s, perforce our, eyes, the movie's done.
There’s much more to each of these movies, not least plenty of the action that makes them so enjoyable by men. The most salient thing they share, though, besides and largely through Walsh’s exploitation of their principals’ eyes, is that each is fundamentally about the relationship of one man and one woman. That’s what all his movies were really about, Walsh reportedly said. No one can make a love story like a he-man!