“A good director must be able to inspire whoever he was coaching so that the actor would live the scene. Make-believe must become reality.” — Raoul Walsh

It’s his birthday today.

Raoul Wash directed a number of great films (in a career as vast as his, the names stick out), but one also thinks of the great PERFORMANCES in these great films, often from actors who were just finding their footing, or trying to move from one level to the next: They Drive By Night (with Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Ida Lupino – a star-making unforgettable turn), High Sierra (hugely important in Bogart’s development), Strawberry Blonde (Cagney), with White Heat, almost a decade later. When I think of Walsh, I think of actors. I think of performance. This is not to say that Walsh’s contemporaries – Ford and Hawks and the rest – skimped on the acting. Of course they didn’t. But Walsh’s films are built around performance. White Heat isn’t just a gangster movie. It’s a portrait of psychopathy and a vehicle for Cagney’s genius. I mean, that’s what you really remember. When I interviewed Dan Callahan about his book, The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912-1960, (Volume 1), he said as he was putting it all together, looking at each actors’ career, Raoul Walsh’s name kept coming up, making it clear (if it hadn’t been before) that Raoul Walsh was a very very good actor’s director. This is not something Walsh is really “known for” but it’s clear that he WAS. Many actors – already great actors – gave definitive or star-making performances under his direction.

There are a million stories about the filming of the great prison cafeteria scene in White Heat, when James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett flips out when he gets the news of the death of his mother (psycho killer as Mama’s Boy, a nice touch).

Pretty much anyone who was there on the day of shooting that scene gave their version of it. (It doesn’t really matter what’s the truth: all that matters is what is onscreen).

Legend has it that although, of course it was planned that Cagney was going to flip out in the scene, nobody – probably including Cagney – knew exactly how it would go. You’re only going to do the scene once, probably, and so you have to be ready for it. (This reminds me of Sally Fields’ memory of filming the scene in Norma Rae where Norma Rae is dragged by the cops out of the factory. The only thing director Martin Ritt said to her was, “Do not – under any circumstances – let the cops get you into that car.” But of course the scene required her to be put into the car. The end was a done deal. But Martin Ritt’s gentle reminder of her objective as a character just upped the stakes for Fields in playing it. I mean, look at her. They’re in the process of putting her into the car, they’ve “won,” but she is still playing the objective as hard as she can.)

In re: White Heat, Cagney wanted to make sure that the cameras kept rolling no matter what, because on some level he knew where he was going to go emotionally, and he knew it was going to be huge. Cagney knew his instrument, knew what would happen. He needed to be free to “go there” (of course he already felt free, because that’s the kind of actor he was), but he could only be as free as he needed to be if he trusted that the cameras would catch it.

In the scene, Cody sits in the cafeteria, and he gets the news. There’s a stunned disoriented moment. Then the event starts. Then it goes to the next level. Then it goes to the NEXT level. And then everything goes REALLY bananas. There is no limit to where it is going to go because there is no limit to where Cagney can go. Cagney is truly awe-inspiring. Watch, in particular, the actors around him.

As an extra or bit player, they know the scene is going to be big, they know Cagney is going to flip out. That’s the event. But they’re not sitting around rehearsing it beforehand, they don’t get a glimpse of what it will LOOK like and what it will FEEL like, to be present as it goes down. There’s a feeling of true shock and true fear in those around Cagney.

Raoul Walsh also directed Roaring Twenties, which includes my favorite death scene on film, also performed by Cagney: He is shot, and he stumbles/dances down the sidewalk, before crumbling into the church wall, clutching it. He then stumbles UP the church steps and then staggers and falls back DOWN, allowing gravity to take him down the steps, where he finally ends, lying sprawled out on his back, arms flung to the sides. Talk about awe-inspiring.

Cagney had a dancer’s understanding of how bodies move through space, what his body could do, and Walsh captures it all in one. You can’t make Cagney better than he is, you don’t tell Cagney what to do (not if you want to keep your job.) You as a director are not supposed to “help” Cagney give his performance (this reminder is mostly for director-as-auteur people). The only way you help Cagney is to make sure your camera is ready to capture whatever he does.

And Walsh did that.

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4 Responses to “A good director must be able to inspire whoever he was coaching so that the actor would live the scene. Make-believe must become reality.” — Raoul Walsh

  1. Nancy Murzyn says:

    Thank you for this Sheila. I have always loved Cagney and your comments help me to understand his art at a deeper level. I have also been growing into a deeper appreciation of Walsh over the years and after reading this will go back and watch his movies again and reflect upon his work with a new perspective.

  2. Bill Wolfe says:

    I had the great good fortune to take a class on Raoul Walsh at NYU taught by the great film historian, William K. Everson, way back in 1980. Walsh has been one of my favorite directors ever since. His work with Errol Flynn is exceptional, I think. Flynn is a grossly underrated actor and anyone who thinks otherwise ought to watch his farewell scene with Olivia DeHavilland near the end of They Died with Their Boots On. The delicacy and depth of emotion in both performers is unforgettable.

  3. Scott Abraham says:

    From this post I tracked down Raoul’s memoir and just finished reading it. Lots os good stories, but like Howard Hawks, I wonder about the reliability of the narrator.

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