Tag Archives: Andrew Sarris

And . . . Action! Kathryn Bigelow as Heir Apparent to Raoul Walsh or: Why the Contemporary Hollywood Action Movie Sucks

“I know what eats a man who has endured the tension of war for years. It’s like a drug. A man can’t live without it.”
They Died with Their Boots On

“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
The Hurt Locker

Even though I thought highly of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker when it was first released in Chicago in 2009, it has only continued to rise in my esteem over the last three years. Prior to its Best Picture Oscar win, I found myself relentlessly championing it to skeptical friends, mostly by comparing it to classic Hollywood movies by John Ford and Howard Hawks. It does, after all, examine group dynamics and the theme of “professionalism” a la Hawks. And, in its unforgettable lead character of Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), it also arguably provides contemporary audiences with a 21st century equivalent of The Searchers‘ Ethan Edwards: a tragic hero whose “virtues” are ironically what prevent him from becoming a productive member of the very society that he is ostensibly helping to save and thus allowing to perpetuate. (I firmly believe that the film’s controversial and ambiguous ending is an illustration that James will never be a good husband or father.) Now, after going on a binge of watching movies by the great Raoul Walsh, I realize that my analogy was a little off; it is Walsh that Bigelow resembles more closely than his contemporaries Ford or Hawks.

Andrew Sarris (RIP!) aptly, and famously, summed up the heroes of Raoul Walsh by contrasting them with the heroes of Ford and Hawks: “If the heroes of Ford are sustained by tradition, and the heroes of Hawks by professionalism, the heroes of Walsh are sustained by nothing more than a feeling of adventure. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, never too sure what he will find there.” In other words, Walsh’s heroes, like Walsh himself, were “adrenaline junkies,” a phrase that has also been used to describe Bigelow’s characters. The adventurousness of Walsh’s heroes, whether they are gangsters, cavalrymen, prizefighters or western outlaws, was explicitly mirrored by Walsh himself, who captured their stories through an adventurous brand of filmmaking – usually by shooting on location in exotic locales and favoring sequences involving elaborately choreographed action over dialogue-based scenes. It is precisely this “feeling of adventure,” filmmaking as athleticism, that binds Bigelow and Walsh and that makes the Hurt Locker helmer the old master’s true heir apparent.

The question then arises: why has The Hurt Locker been treated like an “art film” instead of the Walshian action film that it is? This can only be answered by looking at how the action genre has evolved over the last century. It is a sad reality that the American action movie has suffered more than any other single genre since the decline of the old studio system. The very phrase “action film,” as utilized by a great critic like Manny Farber, used to be synonymous with a movie that was made cheaply, quickly and on a small scale. (It now seems incredible but Farber used the phrase “underground film” to essentially mean action movie.) No more. While good unpretentious action films are still churned out on a regular basis by various Asian filmmakers (Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Na Hong-jin, etc.), Hollywood has all but doomed the genre by consigning it to the fate of the bloated, CGI-laden spectacle. The contemporary Hollywood action movie, as exemplified by Michael Bay and his alarming number of imitators, typically clocks in at over two and a half hours, does not exceed the PG-13 rating and has a budget of over 100 million dollars (traits that are all, depressingly, interrelated). What does it say that a film like the original Die Hard, a Hollywood action juggernaut that still probably stands as the finest of the 1980s, now looks both relatively modest and adult by comparison?

I hasten to add that the real problem with Bay and his ilk has nothing to do with money spent nor technology used. The biggest problem is that the filmmaking is simply inept (e.g., the axis-of-action rule is mindlessly disregarded, hyperkinetic editing is employed less to complement the action than to keep the viewer in a state of perpetual agitation, etc.). Money and technology do not automatically have to take the place of craftsmanship, as David Fincher’s ingenious and seamless use of CGI proves, and yet the best technology and the worst art frequently do go hand in hand. My first thought upon seeing the relatively lo-fi Hurt Locker (it was shot partly on 16mm and partly on digital), after getting over its initial heart-stopping, visceral impact, was to marvel at just how damn well made it is. I’ll never forget watching, for the first time, the firefight scene with the mercenaries in the desert and having this strange feeling come over me; it seemed almost novel to be watching a new American film involving characters shooting at each other over a long distance where the spatial and temporal relationships between them made perfect sense. More than anything else, I believe it was respect for Bigelow’s craftsmanship that lay at the heart of The Hurt Locker‘s critical love. Sadly, while Raoul Walsh used to direct action set pieces better than anyone, he has still not gotten his critical due and was never even nominated for an Oscar. In the golden age of Hollywood, his basic skills as a director weren’t considered unusual.


Eating (and Drinking and Sleeping) Raoul

“Your idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse.”
– Jack Pickford to Raoul Walsh

Does any major director from Hollywood’s studio system era remain as unjustly neglected as Raoul Walsh? In spite of the fact that I’ve loved a few of his movies forever (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat), the lack of critical writing about Walsh in comparison to some of his contemporaries, as well as the difficulty of seeing a lot of his best work, has tended to make him something of an admirable but shadowy figure for me. Until recently. Following a rare 35mm screening of Walsh’s excellent pre-Code comedy Sailor’s Luck in Chicago last year, I have made it a priority to see as many of his films as possible. The journey I have undertaken to get a fuller picture of Walsh’s career has led me to rent VHS tapes, purchase DVD-Rs from Warner Archives’ “burn on demand” program, watch entire movies on YouTube and even do a little illegal downloading. The result of my findings is that I have no qualms about calling Walsh one of the all-time great Hollywood directors — right up there with the likes of John Ford, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.

Like all American directors who started in the silent era and whose careers lasted into the latter half of the twentieth century, Walsh was a prolific director who worked for many different studios (though his best loved work was done for Warner Brothers). He also had to adapt to many technological changes in the industry including the coming of sound, widescreen, color and even 3-D. Nonetheless, there are many stylistic and thematic consistencies across his vast body of work. Some of these I will attempt to outline here.

1. His movies are filled with a singularly wild energy.

Raoul Walsh is most often described as a “master of action,” yet precious few critics and scholars have taken the time to elaborate on exactly what this means. Perhaps Andrew Sarris came the closest when he wrote in The American Cinema: “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging ahead into the unknown and he is never too sure what he will find there.” This is a concise description of the propulsive, action-oriented heroes of Walsh’s best known work, many of whom have dangerous jobs: John Wayne’s western explorer in The Big Trail, Douglas Fairbanks’ title character in The Thief of Bagdad, Cagney’s gangsters in The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, the long-haul truck drivers played by Humphrey Bogart and George Raft in They Drive By Night. What most impresses about Walsh though is his untamed sense of control in capturing the action: the violent movements of his heroes, which tend to occur in spasmodic, occasionally explosive bursts, are perfectly complemented by Walsh’s crisp editing and swift camera movements. This is true not only of action-based genres like the aforementioned gangster and western movies but of Walsh’s comedies and melodramas as well. In a savagely funny scene from Sailor’s Luck, James Dunn tears apart lingerie, newly purchased for his girlfriend, with his bare hands. In the anarchic comedy The Bowery, a bunch of old women destroy a bar with umbrellas. In the serio-comic The Strawberry Blonde, James Cagney resembles a pit bull in his attempts to launch himself over a fence to engage his college-student neighbors in a brawl. In the musical melodrama The Man I Love, Ida Lupino repeatedly slaps a male character in the face in a desperate attempt to talk him out of committing murder. The kineticism to be found in these and many other scenes, the feeling that anything could happen at any given moment, arises primarily from the intersection between the choreography of Walsh’s performers and the choreography of his camera, and renders his films 100% purely cinematic.

2. His characters tended to be beautiful losers.

The Walshian hero, “the lost child in the big world” in Sarris’ indelible phrase, tends to be a sympathetic loser. His most memorable characters are ordinary men and women — the blue collar, the downtrodden, the quietly desperate, the past-their-prime and the habitually passed-over: Cagney’s low-rent dentist Biff Grimes, always playing second fiddle to his best friend in The Strawberry Blonde, the ex-prisoners played by Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, trying to make one last score, in Colorado Territory and High Sierra respectively, Gladys George’s aging, sad-eyed bootlegger in The Roaring Twenties, Robert Mitchum as a rancher who is the target of assassination attempts and he doesn’t know why in Pursued, and the hard-luck dames ferociously incarnated by Ida Lupino in They Drive By Night, High Sierra and The Man I Love. Manny Farber sensed Walsh’s identification with his characters when he called the director someone “whose feel for small-time, scrappy wage earners possibly came from his own cooperative, energetic function in the movie industry . . . Walsh, who wrote some scripts as bald copies of hit films he directed, and probably entered each new project with ‘Christ, it’s not bad. It reminds me of my last movie,’ never fights his material, playing directly into the staleness. He is like his volatile, instinctive, not-too-smart characters, who when they are at their most genuine, are unreclaimable, terrifying loners, perhaps past their peak and going nowhere.”

3. His use of depth-staging was unparalleled.

In 1930, Raoul Walsh directed the cowboy epic The Big Trail in 70mm. In doing so, he achieved the landmarks of having cast John Wayne in his first leading role and, as Dave Kehr has noted, effectively inventing “the widescreen aesthetic, all at once and all by himself.” The film’s commercial failure meant that it would be another 20+ years before audiences would be able to enjoy widescreen movies again but The Big Trail, as Fox’s new blu-ray attests, remains breathtaking for its incredible panoramic compositions of the American West. Perhaps more importantly, he took the lessons that he learned from staging in deep focus and then immediately applied them to the Fox comedies he soon made after in the standard “academy ratio” (Sailor’s Luck, The Bowery, Me and My Gal). In particular, check out the swimming pool scene and the climactic dance hall fight in Sailor’s Luck to see how Walsh always has something interesting happening in the background as well as the foreground of the frame. Kehr has said that Walsh gives the impression that if he had moved his camera closer to the background extras, there would be a whole new and just as interesting movie going on. The use of depth-staging continued throughout Walsh’s career and is perhaps most brilliantly realized in the cosmic long shots of the title location that serve as the climax of his masterpiece Colorado Territory.

4. He had a terrific understanding of women.

It is well known that Walsh directed many iconic male movie stars in some of their most memorable, star-making or persona-defining roles (especially Fairbanks, Cagney, Bogart and Wayne for the performances already cited above). What’s too-little commented on is that Walsh “the man’s man” likewise directed many of the best Hollywood actresses in important roles. My god, just look at this list: Anna Q. Nilsson in Regeneration, Theda Bara in Carmen, Mary Pickford in Rosita, Anna Mae Wong in The Thief of Bagdad, Pola Negri in East of Suez, Dolores del Rio in What Price Glory?, Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson, Janet Gaynor in The Man Who Came Back, Joan Bennett in Me and My Gal, Fay Wray in The Bowery, Mae West in Klondike Annie, Claire Trevor in Dark Command, Marlene Dietrich in Manpower, Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde, Olivia de Havilland in They Died with Their Boots On, Dorothy Malone in Colorado Territory, Virginia Mayo in White Heat and Jane Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover. And Ida Lupino? Raoul Walsh was Ida Lupino. This is a far more impressive roster of female talent than what Howard Hawks or John Ford worked with in careers spanning roughly the same time frame. I once read a quote by Ford where he said he thought Walsh was a bit like him, only “more appealing to women.” At first I thought he meant that Walsh’s movies were more appealing to women because they focused more on romance (which is typically marketed more towards women). But I’ve come to realize that what Ford meant was that Walsh was more interested in exploring the feelings of his female characters. Unlike the Hawksian woman, who proves her worth by acting just like a man (only with breasts — but not too big) and the women of Ford, who tend to be desexualized mother-figures, Walsh was interested in women as women. See again the remarkable The Roaring Twenties, which is a Cagney vehicle that achieves its genuinely tragic quality primarily because of the poignant performances of Priscilla Lane and Gladys George – as the women who are too good for Cagney and not good enough for him, respectively. As is often the case with Walsh, the women make the film.

And now, for my edification as well as yours, dear reader, here is a countdown of my top 20 personal favorite Raoul Walsh movies in order of preference:

20. They Died with Their Boots On (1941)
19. Regeneration (1915)
18. The Enforcer (1951)
17. What Price Glory? (1926)
16. Sadie Thompson (1928)
15. The Big Trail (Grandeur Version, 1930)
14. They Drive By Night (1940)
13. The Bowery (1933)
12. The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
11. Me and My Gal (1932)
10. Pursued (1947)
9. Sailor’s Luck (1933)
8. The Man I Love (1947)
7. The Thief of Bagdad (1925)
6. High Sierra (1941)
5. Gentleman Jim (1942)
4. The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
3. White Heat (1949)
2. Colorado Territory (1949)
1. The Roaring Twenties (1939)


Crazy About Psycho

“Hitchcock requires a situation of normality, however dull it may seem on the surface, to emphasize the evil abnormality that lurks beneath the surface. Hitchcock understands, as his detractors do not, the crucial function of counterpoint in the cinema. You cannot commit a murder in a haunted house or dark alley, and make a meaningful statement to the audience. The spectators simply withdraw from these bizarre settings, and let the decor dictate the action. It is not Us up there on the screen but some play actors trying to be sinister. However, when murder is committed in a gleamingly sanitary motel bathroom during a cleansing shower, the incursion of evil into our well-laundered existence becomes intolerable.”

– Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which turns 50 years old(!) this year, will be screening at the Music Box theater in a new print in October, immediately followed by a release on Blu-ray, making it only the third Hitchcock film to get the HD treatment on home video (after The 39 Steps and North By Northwest). I first saw Psycho on basic television, commercials and all, when I was around ten years old, an ideal age for one to start watching Hitchcock, and even then I already knew the film’s “secret.” Psycho is so ingrained in the American consciousness, it has been referenced and parodied and ripped off so many times, that it has become one of those works of art, like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” that viewers may feel they were born knowing.

So what is it about Psycho that makes it so special? How exactly did it single-handedly inaugurate our modern era of horror and why has it been so influential over the past half-century? As its title would imply, Psycho is part of the subgenre known as psychological horror. Although the subgenre has been around since the silent era, as anyone who’s seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can attest, Psycho kicked off a particularly modern cycle of psychological horror that, as Sarris notes, is rooted in the most banal aspects of contemporary American life. This, combined with Psycho‘s graphic violence, helped to pave the way for the physical horror movies (“slashers”) that became increasingly prevalent from the 1960s through the present day.

It is important to remember that Hitchcock was in an extraordinarily privileged position when he made the film. Indeed, he was perhaps the only director working in America at the time who was even capable of making such taboo-busting and groundbreaking genre fare (in addition to its “graphic” violence, which of course looks tame today, Psycho also features the first onscreen toilet flush in a Hollywood movie). Hitchcock was privileged primarily because of his long track record of making movies that had been commercially successful. But, even then, in order to quell the anxieties of Universal executives, he had to shoot the film quickly and cheaply using a crew from his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This meant foregoing the widescreen format and Technicolor process of his previous few movies. In exchange for keeping costs down, Hitchcock did not have a lot of people looking over his shoulder and telling him what to do. Consequently, he was able to make a highly personal film utilizing the resources of Hollywood in which his obsessions were writ large on the big screen.

At the time of making Psycho, Hitchcock had been in the business for thirty-five years. Starting out in England and Germany in the silent era, then in America beginning in 1940, Hitchcock had honed his filmmaking craft on a series of thrillers that had achieved an unparalleled visual and thematic complexity by the late 1950s. Interestingly, Psycho consciously builds on what Hitchcock had been doing specifically during the previous decade and is sometimes referred to as the third part of a loose “trilogy of voyeurism,” following Rear Window in 1954 and Vertigo in 1958. In these movies, Hitchcock demonstrated the power of cutting a scene together by alternating subjective and objective points-of-view, having the audience see the world through a character’s eyes, usually with the purpose of making us identify with the darker side of human nature. In Psycho, Hitchcock took this technique to its logical, disturbing limit.

In the trilogy of voyeurism, Hitchcock’s treatment of the theme starts off as relatively lighthearted in Rear Window and then becomes progressively darker with each subsequent film. The consequences of voyeurism also became more disastrous for the characters in each film, culminating in Psycho’s shower murder, which can be seen as Norman Bates’ only means of sexual release after arousing himself through the act of spying. The interplay of subjective and objective points-of-view is particularly disturbing here as the viewer is asked to assume Norman’s perspective not only during the murder but also during his meticulous cleaning up of the bathroom in its aftermath. The hypnotic, silent, clean-up scene, in which we watch Norman wash away and mop up every trace of blood spatter in the porcelain and tile-lined bathroom, goes on far longer than it needs to for any narrative purpose and is arguably the most compelling sequence in the film. By assuming Norman’s point-of-view, we feel, against our better judgement, a wish for him to succeed in his efforts of covering up the crime.

Our identification with Norman reaches its apex in the following scene when he attempts to get rid of Marion’s car by pushing it into the swamp behind the Bates Motel. By alternating between objective shots of Norman’s anguished face with subjective point-of-view shots of the car as it temporarily stalls while only half-submerged in the swamp, Hitchcock has the audience identify with Norman’s desire to see Marion’s car continue its downward trajectory. No matter who you are or how many times you’ve seen the film, at that moment you want the car to sink! That is a testament to how well-constructed Hitchcock’s best sequences are. That is the genius of Hitchcock.

Another reason Psycho continues to be an object of fascination fifty years after its release is what I would term its treatment of the “doppelgänger motif.” Hitchcock had always been interested in the duality of human nature, the belief that good and evil co-exist side by side in the human heart. In his earlier Hollywood films, he illustrated this by having two different characters represent two different sides of a single personality. This is most obvious in Shadow of a Doubt (where parallels are constantly drawn between Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie and Theresa Wright’s Young Charlie) and Strangers on a Train (where Robert Walker’s Bruno is depicted not so much a fully rounded character as he is the murderous id of Farley Granger’s Guy). By the time he made Psycho, Hitchcock was also ready to push the concept of the psychological double to its logical limit by having two distinct personalities housed within a single character, a disturbing idea never before seen in a Hollywood movie. This concept is visually represented by the ordinary looking Bates Motel with the gloomy Victorian mansion lying incongruously on the hill just behind it.

The above-mentioned aspects of Psycho are just some of the reasons it has become one of the most cherished films in the history of cinema. In the span of fifty years, there have been three Psycho sequels, one made-for-TV movie spinoff, a remake and literally hundreds of imitations both in America and abroad. Yet I don’t believe anything compares to the original, which still has the power to shock and entertain and to draw us into its nightmarish world time and time again. I have seen Psycho twice in 35mm prints. I have seen it on television, video and DVD. Shortly after October 19th, just in time for Halloween, I will watch it on Blu-ray for the first time. And I know I will still want to see Marion Crane’s car sink, I will still jump when Detective Arbogast gets it at the top of the stairs and I will still get goosebumps when Mrs. Bates tells us that she couldn’t even hurt a fly.

Happy Birthday, Norman.


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