BAMcinématek is in the middle of a fascinating film series which spotlights the films of Martin Scorsese, with which you are most likely extremely familiar, and those of Raoul Walsh, who at this point in time is probably much more obscure of a name. He isn’t even as well-remembered as Howard Hawks, a contemporary who also worked in a broad range of genres, generally centering around action and adventure. Walsh made dozens of pictures, all of them superior entertainments and non-pretentious showcases for craft. Some of them are even recognized as classics by the kind of people who get to declare such things — I’m not one, but I agree with them in this case — including THE ROARING TWENTIES, DARK COMMAND, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, HIGH SIERRA, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, and most famously, WHITE HEAT.
Along with John Huston, Michael Curtiz, and the aforementioned Howard Hawks, Walsh was instrumental in the career of Humphrey Bogart, having directed the star in many of his earlier (and best) films. Like so many of the top-flight directors of the studio system era, Walsh worked with the biggest stars of the day, such as Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Mae West, Gregory Peck, Ida Lupino, Laurence Olivier, and Olivia de Havilland. Walsh made a handful of key films with James Cagney but in WHITE HEAT, he gave Cagney many of his most immortal and viciously iconic moments. The oft-misquoted line “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” comes from that film, and oh boy, if you haven’t already you should really see the scene from whence it came.
My personal favorite Walsh films, if that matters any, are the doom-laden Western romance COLORADO TERRITORY(a remake of Walsh’s own HIGH SIERRA), starring the stalwart Joel McCrea and a never-more-glorious Virginia Mayo, and in particular, PURSUED, starring Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright. I wrote a little bit about that one here. It’s a Western that looks drenched in ink, with Mitchum bringing noir in with him and Wright providing sweetness and light as a tonic to all that dire darkness. It’s one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films.
As Dave Kehr indicated in a typically tremendous article on Walsh, and as this film series at BAM delves deeply into, the collective work of Raoul Walsh is a major inspiration upon that of Martin Scorsese. Both filmmakers are arguably best known for their gangster pictures, but both are genre polyglots who fully invest their full energies and talents into their films, whatever the categorization. One could make the claim that Walsh more often had to work for hire than Scorsese does, as Scorsese is perhaps the most eminent and adored director still working today, but that’s avoiding the fact that of course Scorsese has occasionally picked projects heavily influenced by commercial reasons. They can’t all be labors of love, not even for a director as well-regarded as Scorsese. THE COLOR OF MONEY, CAPE FEAR, THE AVIATOR, THE DEPARTED, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET — none of these projects originated with Scorsese. That said, once he took them on he attacked them all with relish, often using the opportunity to experiment stylistically. By contrast, Walsh was less formally audacious, but the commitment to storytelling and craft and movie-making is similar. There is no such thing as hackwork with these two directors. Some films are more successful than others but all are worth looking at and studying.
Additionally, Walsh and Scorsese are both directors with experience in front of the camera. Scorsese has done multiple cameos in his own films, most notably his extended cameo as a virulent racist in TAXI DRIVER. Six decades earlier, Walsh played the role of John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s historically essential but idealistically problematic THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Walsh was an AD on that film — his first feature credit as director was 1915’s REGENERATION, one of the (if not the) first crime film(s). REGENERATION was filmed in New York City, centers around Irish gangsters, and includes a character named “Jim Conway.” There are no coincidences.
Here is the full schedule for the program, with showtimes and ticket information. And now, here is a poster gallery of all the films featured so far.
MEAN STREETS (1973)
RAGING BULL (1980)
GENTLEMAN JIM (1942)
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
WHITE HEAT (1949)
THE MAN I LOVE (1946)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977)
THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939)
THE BOWERY (1933)
GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)
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