Wednesday 18 January 2017

Raoul Walsh - Noel Bjorndahl has a rethink about the Great Man's Top Ten

Seeing so many illustrious entries on favourite Raoul Walsh films, I’d like to change my mind and offer ten Walsh titles that I cannot live without - in chronological order they are (in bold italic):

The Big Trail (1930) is the first really important “A” Western from the sound period and John Wayne’s first significant role. John Ford only realized Wayne’s potential  after Stagecoach in 1939. Walsh continued to make pleasant entertainments throughout the 1930s, like Baby Face Harrington (1935) and Big Brown Eyes (1936), but the film that re-introduced film goers to his punchy, dynamic story-telling style was The Roaring Twenties (1939) where his film-making energies were equalled by James Cagney’s dynamism. By 1940, Walsh’s virile and explosive narratives were in full swing. High Sierra (1941) showed how canny he was with potentially great performers like Humphrey Bogart to whom he handed a star-making role as the doomed killer “Mad Dog” Earle opposite Ida Lupino (also excellent), and spunky Joan Leslie who brings him undone. Walsh proved a dab hand with comedy in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), a splendid turn of the 19th century  tale with a powerhouse performance by Cagney as a barber who gets done in by Jack Carson. The strawberry blonde was a young Rita Hayworth whom initially Cagney fancied and Olivia de Havilland the woman whom he (initially reluctantly) married. 

They Died with their Boots On (1941) was a superlative Western,  Hollywood style, in which Walsh printed the legend, without too much adherence to the historical facts. Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland generated palpable chemistry (Flynn’s final words to his wife before he goes off to meet his fate have been much quoted and make me shiver – “walking through life with you ma’am, has been a very gracious thing”.  Gentleman Jim (1942), again with Errol Flynn in the title role, confirmed the chemistry that bonded this director and his frequent actor. It’s a wonderfully colourful tale of the fighting game around the turn of the 19th century (again). Ward Bond delivers a rich, colourful performance as the  masterful  champ, John L Sullivan.

Pursued (1947), a grim psychological tale  stunningly photographed by James Wong Howe in an oppressively noir style, hands Robert Mitchum one of his first impressive roles as the deeply troubled orphan raised by Judith Anderson. The complex plot involves Mitchum’s attraction to his foster sister, Teresa Wright, and his killing in self-defence of Wright’s brother. The one-eyed Walsh’s ability to create the moody visual atmospherics makes my jaw drop in admiration. Colorado Territory (1949), a remake of High Sierra, is every bit equal to the powerful original. The towering landscapes dominate this time around; Joel McCrea is a gentler protagonist than Bogart, but no less stubbornly effective. Virginia Mayo is a ve
ry spirited companion who plays well with the material whose tragic trajectory it documents against the extraordinary surrounds. At the tragic climax, there is an amazing shot that appears to have been shot with a zoom lens, unique I suspect at the time.

White Heat, (also 1949), was Walsh’s last great gangster film-and the best. Cagney’s mother fixation was played out strongly and Cagney’s obsessive behaviour was intense, encompassing a range of scenes that were deeply disturbing, both in the jail incitement and spectacularly in his fiery finale  (“Top of the world, Ma”). Another fine Western, The Tall Men (1955), was his best 1950s film with an exceptionally strong cast (Gable. Jane Russell, Robert Ryan and Cameron Mitchell). There were other good 50s films like the The King and Four Queens, and Band of Angels, but I’ll stop here.

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