Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Signature Shots: Raoul Walsh

One of Raoul Walsh's signature shots is a medium two-shot with the actors cut off around the waist, and favoring a lot of gazing and some occasional bold body language. It's a shot that's continued to assert itself with a shocking amount of personality over and over again in varying contexts throughout my steady diet of Walsh pictures over the last handful of months, and the moment it pops up on screen, there is no doubting the author of the picture being viewed. It's become something of a minor obsession for me lately - the question of what gives this fairly common, simple setup such a unique presence and vitality in the hands of Walsh? I suspect it is connected with the idea of Walsh's cinema being one of the individual, or to be more accurate, runaway individualism. Characters drawing from an endless and unexplainable well of restless, eccentric determination repeatedly populate the Walsh oeuvre, so much so to the point that a great number of conversations that take place in the Walsh world can barely be considered conversations, so littered are they with agendas and selfish motives. Thus, it becomes something of a rarefied mini-event in a Walsh picture when a pair of characters actually engage with each other in an honest and meaningful way through language, instead of simply talking past one another, and the frame of this signature shot seems constructed around this awareness. Additionally, as Tag Gallagher points out in his Senses of Cinema piece on Walsh, "Walsh’s cinema is not presentational like Griffith’s, or self-reflexive like Godard’s. It is interactive." Walsh's actors make a point to cheat their chests out towards the camera during these special scenes, giving the viewer not so much the impression of eavesdropping, but of participating in - or, more accurately, of being asked to participate in - a conversation of which their inclusion seems imminent. The actors consistently seem, through this deliberate blocking strategy, on the verge of turning their gaze towards the camera at any moment to address the viewer. Similar to the sing-a-long at the end of The Strawberry Blonde, or Jackie Cooper firing his slingshot at the camera in The Bowery, these moments are gestures towards the audience, acts of inclusion. An interactive cinema of the individual. In other words, a remarkably generous cinema.

Images from top to bottom: Sailor's Luck (1933); The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945); The Bowery (1933); The Yellow Ticket (1931); Me and My Gal (1932); Under Pressure (1935)


Jeffrey Goodman said...

Very well said, Drew! Walsh seems to have gotten short shrift compared to his contemporaries like Ford and Hawks. But I like his work as much as any.

As a list man myself, I'm curious to know your top ten Walsh flicks. From your post, clearly there are several you've seen that I've yet to see.


Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks, Jeffrey. To be honest, I still feel like I'm only dipping my feet into the Walsh pool at this point; I've seen around 20 of his movies to date, which includes nothing from the 50s or 60s, so I have quite a bit to look forward to. I'm particularly anxious to get to those later decades and his work with 'Scope, stuff like Band of Angels sounds so promising.

Even with my relatively limited viewing, I'm inclined to agree with you that Walsh deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Ford and Hawks. His personal style doesn't quite evince itself as readily as the other major figures, but once you latch on, his voice is as distinct and his command of the medium as masterful as any of them. From what I have seen, my top 10 would look like:

The Big Trail
Sailor's Luck
Colorado Territory
The Yellow Ticket
The Strawberry Blonde
Me and My Gal
White Heat
Under Pressure

The Big Trail is one of my movie discoveries of the year - the 70mm version that is. The ambition of the picture completely bowled me over, and what Walsh was able to do with widescreen composition so early on is staggering. The Yellow Ticket has some of James Wong Howe's best work I think, with some gorgeous chiaroscuro compositions and stunning depth of field shooting. And Regeneration - which I just watched the other day - is a remarkable and remarkably mature silent, proof that Walsh's craft was there from the very beginning.

Jeffrey Goodman said...

Drew, thanks so much for this. I agree with you. I think Walsh definitely has a less noticeable personal style than Ford, and probably even Hawks. But there is a vitality in his work (and maybe just as many worthy films) that rivals anyone of his era.

I look forward to filling in some of these gaps. BAND OF ANGELS is an extremely odd film, but one that I've never quite been able to shake.

Stephen said...

Very well written indeed, Drew.

I'm not sure if I've seen one of his films though I probably have come across one without knowing.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks a lot, Stephen. He did a ton of movies, so there is certainly a chance you've stumbled across one at some point.