Mapping Raoul Walsh

A fantastic piece on director Raoul Walsh by my friend Dan Callahan.

I’ve seen many, but not all, of Walsh’s films (the man started in the silents), and Dan’s piece has made me eager to see more.

This entry was posted in Directors and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mapping Raoul Walsh

  1. Phil P says:

    Sheila, I think I like White Heat and High Sierra as much as the next guy. They’re the only Walsh films I’ve seen that approach or achieve greatness. Yes, I like Roaring Twenties too, and I saw Gentleman Jim on TV many years ago and found it entertaining and saw Strawberry Blonde too but don’t remember it as well. I’m afraid your friend’s piece is going to set me off on one of my anti-auteurist rants. If there is any real validity to calling great directors like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks “auteurs,” and I think there is, they should be distinguished from good studio craftsmen, of which there were and are many, who could do a great job with decent material. Why can’t critics recognize what seems to me obvious, that there are many good and entertaining and occasionally even great films that do not have great directors but owe their merits largely to good scripts interpreted by great actors? The difference between the studio craftsmen and great non-writer directors like Hitchcock and Ford is that the latter not only had powerful and individual visual styles but were able to work with writers to realize their own individual concerns. Isn’t that what the auteur theory was supposed to really be about, directors who realize their individual visions? But it quickly degenerated into what I call “vulgar auteurism,” the idea that every director is ex officio solely responsible for the merits of any film he directs.

    I’m not a film scholar and have neither the time nor the inclination to research this, but I suspect that if Walsh had a good run at Warner Brothers, it was because once his talent was recognized (and I don’t deny his talent) he would tend to get better assignments, i.e. better scripts, top stars.

    Incidentally, High Sierra, one of Walsh’s peaks, comes from a novel by W.R. Burnett, a leading writer of crime fiction, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Huston. Burnett also wrote the original novels for Little Caesar and the Asphalt Jungle, two more peaks of the crime movie genre. (I’ve read Asphalt Jungle, by the way. It’s good, though not as good as Dashiell Hammett.) The writers for White Heat are rather obscure, but even average writers can have their moments, just like average directors.

    Look for Walsh films if you like – I’m just not sure that’s the best way of finding obscure but interesting films. Myself, I usually look for actors I like. I often stumble on hidden gems that way. (Should I mention “The Terror” again? Nah!)

  2. sheila says:

    Phil – It’s interesting you bring the auteur theory up – I was just thinking about it last night watching the Kubrick documentary, because, of course, over and over again, it is driven home how much it was his vision that was on the screen, and his alone. How amazing that was for young filmmakers coming up, watching how uncompromising he was, etc.

    I agree with the points you make, especially that it is not the best way to find “obscure and interesting films”. Most certainly true. I find it is a good way, however (or one good way) to organize how I see movies. There’s so much I haven’t seen, things I have overlooked or missed, and going through the films of one director/actor/cinematographer is sometimes a good way to fill in those gaps. I wonder your thoughts on Michael Curtiz. He directed some of my favorite films of all time – but I don’t think his films have a stamp, if you know what I mean. He was a professional, an amazing storyteller, who worked like a bat out of hell to create the EVENTS onscreen. But unlike John Ford, Curtiz’s films don’t look a certain way – I may be missing something, highly possible – I just know that I loved Curtiz’s films before I even knew who the hell Curtiz was, and once I put his whole career together in my mind, it really is amazing.

    I think much of what you say is right on: Talent can be nourished, of course – that does happen in “the business” – but not forever. You have to deliver. Success is respected. Your point is very well taken. Howard Hawks (a guy whose films I feel I would recognize in a dark alley they are so much “his”) never had to fight to get the studios to bend to his will. The horror stories and compromises of others were not his stories. He probably was a pain in the ass, but also: his films made money. That’s always going to be helpful in getting people to let you do what you want to do.

  3. sheila says:

    And speaking of Howard Hawks, and your point about having writers who helped them realize their own personal concerns: I love the story about Howard Hawks’ directing of Come and Get It, based on the book by Edna Ferber – and how Hawks basically hijacked the book to do his own thing: make it a story about male rivalry with a typical Howard Hawks woman at the center of the action (Frances Farmer in a wonderful performance). Hawks was booted from the project and William Wyler took over, and I imagine that I can almost sense when that occurred in the film itself. You can FEEL it when Hawks exits the scene (and the film is poorer for it).

    But that’s an example of a director who had to do HIS thing – he had no interest in the profession otherwise. It was an unstoppable personal obsession: men and women and how they court and relate and mate. But yeah, that’s not what Edna Ferber wrote.

  4. Phil P says:

    Thanks for the anecdote about Hawks, it illustrates my point. My reading about film has doubtless been much less extensive than yours. I know something about Hitchcock from reading the Spoto biography and the Truffaut interview. I know he almost always collaborated with his writers on the treatment. I think that’s more important than the dialogue (not that good dialogue doesn’t help!). It was how he got his personal themes into his films. From what little I have read that’s typical of the true “auteurs,” apart from the ones like Bergman who entirely wrote their own scripts. I was under the impression that Hawks himself was a writer, although he wasn’t credited on any of his films.

    Funny you should mention Curtiz. Some years ago I was watching Casablanca. I had of course seen it many times before. Now for the first time I noticed how well it was directed; every shot, every camera movement seemed just right. I didn’t conclude from this though that it was Curtiz who was responsible for the greatness of the film, although his direction certain made a contribution. Rather I saw it as an example of how many fine craftsmen Hollywood had. Certainly Casablanca is a film that owes most to the writers. I think there are very few directors with really powerful and individual visual styles. One of them is John Ford. One of his films that really impresses me that way is They Were Expendable. It’s perhaps not one of his greatest films; in a way its a commonplace war action movie. But it’s full of wonderful compositions. Ford really could transform a commonplace script, but not many directors can. But there are many, many directors who can execute a good script.

    Auteurists, when challenged, like to point to how great directors make great films with different writers. I think I covered that with my point about Hitchcock. But what about the converse? Once I watched Peter Bogdanovitch hosting TCM’s The Essentials, introducing The Third Man. The last thing he said in his intro was “It’s Reed’s film, and Korda’s.” Korda was the producer! Never once did he mention that obscure novelist who wrote the script. As far as I know Reed made three great films, two of which were scripted by that same obscure novelist. That’s not to deny that he did a magnificent job on The Third Man, as even Graham Greene acknowledged (that was his name!). (And how’s Peter’s career coming?)

    Let me give one more example. The first time I commented on your blog was when I asked about some stills you had posted. You said they came from Gun Crazy. Coincidentally, it came on TCM a few days later, so I watched it. Robert Osborne introduced the film with some remarks about director Joseph Lewis. (Now I’m not picking on Robert. I love Robert!). It’s the only film he’s known for. What’s its famous for is its seminal story, as you pointed out. The story is attributed to MacKinlay Kantor, who’s very little known, except for writing the treatment (in the form of a verse novel!) of one of the greatest American films, The Best Years of Our Lives. The other screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo, who as you know had a very distinguished filmwriting career. In your post you pointed out some very fine directorial touches in the movie. Yes, Lewis was another fine Hollywood craftsman.

    One reason for my animus (I don’t deny it) is that some of my very favorite films, such as All About Eve and Breaker Morant are notable mainly for their scripts and don’t have directors admired by the auteurists, who therefore tend to disrespect such films. I admire good writing and writers and would like to see them get more of the credit they deserve. Many Hollywood screenwriters were no more than good craftsmen, but that’s true of most of the directors too. That’s my point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.