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Walsh’s Movers and Boorman’s Walker

Distant Drums (Raoul Walsh, 1951)


Raoul Walsh, whose career spanned half a century, is perhaps the best illustration of Sam Fuller’s famous description of cinema in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou: cinema is like “a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, death. In a word: emotion.”  All of this is true for most of the 100+ movies Walsh directed during his lifetime: as Tag Gallagher notes, for a director famous for his ultra-efficient action movies, there is a surprising undertone of tenderness and genuine emotion, especially in the way Walsh uses faces in close-up. The man was, after all, Irish. But I want to focus here on that aspect of Walsh’s cinema that so endeared him to both Andrew Sarris and the young cinéphiles at Cahiers du Cinéma: the fact that he was most famous for action. In “Le Génie de Howard Hawks,” Jacques Rivette – who might just as well have been speaking about Walsh – summed up those qualities that are most praiseworthy about American cinema:

“Hawks is a director of intelligence and precision, but he is also a bundle of dark forces and strange fascinations; his is a Teutonic spirit, attracted by bouts of ordered madness which give birth to an infinite chain of consequences. The very fact of their continuity is a manifestation of Fate. His heroes demonstrate this not so much in their feelings as in their actions, which he observes meticulously with passion. It is actions that he films, meditating on the power of appearance alone. We are not concerned with John Wayne’s thoughts as he walks toward Montgomery Clift at the end of Red River, or Bogart’s thoughts as he beats somebody up: our attention is directed solely to the precision of each step — the exact rhythm of the walk — of each blow — and to the gradual collapse of the battered body.”

Forget about the “dark forces and strange fascinations” for a minute – although there is a lot of that in Walsh – and you have a pretty good description of Walsh’s action cinema. Rivette goes on:

“Such art demands a basic honesty, and Hawks’ use of time and space bears witness to this — no flashback, no ellipsis; the rule is continuity. No character disappears without us following him, and nothing surprises the hero which doesn’t surprise us at the same time. There seems to be a law behind Hawks’ action and editing, but it is a biological law like that governing any living being: each shot has a functional beauty, like a neck or an ankle. The smooth, orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like the pulsing of blood, and the whole film is like a beautiful body, kept alive by deep, resilient breathing.”

“This obsession with continuity imposes a feeling of monotony on Hawks’ films, the kind often associated with the idea of a journey to be made or a course to be run (Air ForceRed River), because everything is felt to be connected to everything else, time and space and space to time.”

This is certainly true of Hawks, who usually spends very little time on exposition, never uses flashbacks and features his leading actors in about ninety percent of the shots. But it is perhaps even more true of Walsh, whose movies usually start in medias res (a case in point are the madly compressed movie montages that manage to squeeze entire chapters of exposition in a flurry of shots, as in The Roaring Twenties and White Heat), eschew flashbacks, and stay with the hero throughout the picture. Take Distant Drums (1951), a program picture dressed up in Glorious Technicolor featuring great location footage of St. Augustine and the Florida Everglades, but little that gets the pulse racing in terms of that genuine emotion we were talking about. The movie is atypical of Walsh in that it takes its time to set up the story through a Heart of Darkness-like prologue in which Army Lieutenant Tufts (Richard Webb, mostly familiar from his work in film noir) and his scout Monk (Arthur Hunnicut, rehearsing his role as the grizzled scout for Howard Hawks’ more famous The Big Sky from the following year) set out into Florida swampland to look for reclusive former army man Captain Quincy Watts (Gary Cooper in his first and only performance for Walsh). Gary Cooper is certainly not the typical Walsh leading man, relaxed, quiet and understated, mostly lacking the manic energy of Jimmy Cagney (the star of three of Walsh’s best movies), or the roguish, devil-may-care swing of Errol Flynn, who starred in seven Walsh pictures. But once Watts is introduced, we largely forget about Tufts and his voice-over and Coop is in virtually every shot. As Dave Kehr observes in his fine essay on Walsh from When Movies Mattered, Walsh’s “casual, discursive” plots are structured around the hero, “as if his actions alone were determining the direction of the picture.”

Distant Drums is the kind of movie that Pauline Kael was talking about when she dismissed Sarris’ love for directors like Walsh by pointing to the critic’s infantile liking for boy’s own adventure stories. The movie also serves as a perfect test case for one of Kael’s disparaging points about the auteur theory:

“Sarris has noticed that in High Sierra (not a very good movie) Raoul Walsh repeated an uninteresting and obvious device that he had earlier used in a worse movie. And for some inexplicable reason, Sarris concludes that he would not have had this joy of discovery without the auteur theory.”

If repetition of motifs is the criterion by which to judge the true auteur, there are few directors – bar Hawks – working in the classical studio system so repetitive as Walsh. In fact, at least three of his pictures are straight remakes, Walsh switching between genres with the same ease Hawks switched genders: High Sierra (1941), a gangster-on-the-lam picture was remade as a Western, Colorado Territory (1949); Manpower (1941) is a thinly disguised remake of Hawks’ Tiger Shark (1932); Distant Drums is a Western remake of Walsh’s best War picture, Objective, Burma! (1945). There is little surprise in this, and in fact little grist for the auteurist mill, given the fact that Hawks made all of these pictures at Warner Brothers, whose screenwriting department was known at the time as the “echo chamber” where plots were endlessly recycled (Tiger Shark, itself “based on” an earlier Edward G. Robinson picture, A Lady to Love (1930), was also made at Warner’s).

But there is more at stake: Walsh was relentlessly repetitive in the way he structured his movies according to the steady beat of functional continuity (Bazin’s classical order, to which Rivette was referring, amplified). As Dave Kehr observes, the almost manic drive of some of these movies – even in a movie like Distant Drums that takes its rhythm from Cooper – is matched by the obsessive quality of most of its heroes, or vice versa. Although these movies lack plot in a traditional sense, their construction is exceedingly linear, a linearity emphasized by the recurring device of introducing maps to chart the passage from one story location to the other (you know the device from Casablanca and its revisionist usage in post-classical movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark). Dave Kehr divides Walsh’s oeuvre in two über-plots: the rise-and-fall pattern of the biographical movie (Gentleman Jim from 1942 being the classic example here) and what he calls the “map movie”: “The kind of film that opens with a big black X on a map and follows the characters’ progress from point A to point B through a gradually growing dotted line.” Examples of this type include Objective Burma!,  Along the Great Divide (1951), Distant Drums, and Saskatchewan (1954). The heroes of the biographical movies move through time, Kehr perceptively remarks, while those of the map movies move through space. And boy, do they move. In the script – by Niven Busch, who also scripted Walsh’s noir Western, Pursued (1947) – ample room is made for the typical Walsh incentive: “Let’s get goin’!” or “Get a-movin’!” Sometimes it seems, in a Walsh movie, that the continuous movement of the characters on the screen – often discarding screen direction for the pure energy of staying in motion – mirrors the speed with which Walsh made movies: at a fever pitch during the silent era, slowing down to about two or three a year during his forties stint at Warner Brothers, and maintaining that pace pretty much until his retirement in the early sixties. (Walsh loved to tell the anecdote about how the studio used to drop off the script of his next movie on the lawn the day after he had finished shooting the previous one.)  “Let’s get the hell out of here!” he often yelled out on the set when a scene had wrapped. As if he couldn’t stand still, couldn’t wait to get started on the next one. According to his biographer, Marilyn Ann Moss, the reason for Walsh’s restlessness (and that of his characters) was that he wanted to remain in a dream state created by his movies, insulated from real life. I prefer to think that he was just being literal about the medium.

Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)

If Walsh’s movies are instances of manic linearity – horizontal poetry – you could say that John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), the restored version of which screened in open-air at the Piazza Maggiore to great audience acclaim, is the most radical example of a studio movie eschewing linearity and classical order in favor of experimental discontinuity. Point Blank was made at MGM, where Boorman was given virtual carte blanche when star Lee Marvin deferred his right of script and cast approval to the director, and was edited by Henry Berman, who had cut Astaire and Rogers pictures and Gunga Din at RKO. Introducing the movie, John Boorman told the crowd at the Piazza that it was Margaret Booth, eminence grise at MGM and the tough-styled editor of Gone With the Wind, who had took up the movie’s defense when the test screening for the studio execs had – predictably – resulted in a scramble for reshoots and re-edits. Booth had stood up in the back of the screening room and had announced – with an MGM feeling for the grand gesture – that a single frame of the movie would be altered over her dead body. In fact, revisiting Point Blank after not having seen the movie for two decades, I was struck by how linear it actually is. If you discount the jumbled, confusing opening reel and the weird, eerie scene in which Lee Marvin discovers his wife’s dead body after she has committed suicide, only to subsequently discover that her apartment, including her bedroom, is actually empty, there is little in the movie that is hard to follow. This has to do, of course, with the simple, tight storyline Boorman took from Richard Stark’s novel (the script, by neophytes David and Rafe Newhouse having been cast aside, or radically rewritten by Alexander Jacobs). And of course, scrambled temporality is a device that has become almost de rigueur in today’s movies, popularized by those filmmakers – Tarantino, Soderbergh – that have a lot of Point Blank in their DNA. But still, despite Lee Marvin’s star power, a movie like Point Blank would never have been made at MGM if the studio thought audiences weren’t ready for it. Lest we forget, under the regime of Robert Weitman and Robert O’Brien, the studio also released Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey the following year. MGM at the time was close to bankruptcy, its position similar to that of RKO in 1939: its only choice was to gamble big, and the gamble – despite the studio system’s reputation to the contrary – was often on talent. In 1967 the highest weekend debut was for a little movie produced independently, The Graduate, that ended up beating MGM’s big picture of the year, The Dirty Dozen, in total box office tally. Warner’s Bonnie and Clyde – after a false start at the drive-ins, where it was released anonymously – also hit big. MGM, hip to the increasing interest in European art movies, had distributed Antonioni’s “first American” picture, Blow-Up (shot in England) and would again gamble big on both Kubrick and Polanski. So Point Blank, as Margaret Booth perhaps realized, was right for the times: it was cool, disaffected in the mode of what Pauline Kael famously dubbed “Antonioni ennui,” and, perhaps most importantly, anti-establishment (although the crime syndicate Walker takes on singled-handedly in the movie is as much a staple of old Raoul Walsh movies – see The Roaring Twenties – as it is an emblem of corporate capitalism).

Because critical focus has come to concentrate so heavily on the movie’s narrative construction – jumbling flashbacks and flash-forwards in a way that recalls Alain Resnais’s movies from the sixties, especially Muriel (1963) – too little attention has been paid to its cinematography, despite Boorman himself crediting cinematographer Philip Lathrop with much of the movie’s visual invention. Point Blank was Boorman’s first film in scope (Panavision) and his first in color, so it can safely be assumed that many of the choices in terms of framing and color use (like the idea to dress all of the corporate gangsters in green, or the way Angie Dickinson’s bright yellow ensembles are made to match Lee Marvin’s more muted palette of browns and greys through the intermediary of a yellow telescope), like the creative use of long lenses, were inspired by Lathrop, long accustomed to both scope and color through working with Blake Edwards. In fact, Point Blank, in parts, looks a lot like Breakfast at Tiffany’s! The following year, Lathrope shot The Driver for Walter Hill, and introduced the metallic, gleaming look of postmodern urbanism that was later perfected by Michael Mann and was recently revived by Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive.