Lights, camera, Raoul Walsh!

Raoul Walsh (above) directed more than 110 feature films, including (at right, from top) “Objective Burma!” starring Errol Flynn, “Pursued” with Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, “White Heat” starring James Cagney, and “High Sierra” with Humphrey Bogart.
Raoul Walsh directed more than 110 feature films.
Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright in "Pursued," a 1947 film directed by Raoul Walsh.

In his classic study “The American Cinema,” Andrew Sarris says that what sustains the heroes of Raoul Walsh’s films is “a feeling of adventure.” You think?

Consider a sampling of titles from “Action! Action! Action! A Raoul Walsh Retrospective,” which began Friday at the Harvard Film Archive and runs through March 10 (consider the title of the series, too, and all those exclamation marks): “They Drive by Night” (1940), “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), “Objective, Burma!” (1944 — speaking of exclamation marks), “What Price Glory?” (1927), “They Died With Their Boots On” (1942). Even if you knew nothing about those movies, the titles would whet expectations for dash, clash, and bash, and those expectations would be rousingly met.

Walsh (1887-1980) had one of the more excitingly implausible careers in film history. As a young man in New York, he was friendly with the Barrymore family and Virginia O’Hanlon, of “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” fame. He became a stage actor and then made the trek to Hollywood. He did double duty on “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), playing John Wilkes Booth and serving as D.W. Griffith’s assistant director. Walsh had made his own directorial debut two years before, with a short, “The Pseudo Prodigal.” He’d go on to direct more than 110 features. He was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was one of Errol Flynn’s two most simpatico directors (the other being Michael Curtiz — not bad company to be in). Walsh, who directed John Wayne in his first starring role, “The Big Trail” (1930), even looked the part of a great director. He sported — and that is the verb — an elegantly trimmed mustache, swept-back hair, and piratical eye-patch.

Warner Bros.
James Cagney in "White Heat."

Walsh’s abilities weren’t limited to action and adventure. As much social history as gangster picture, “The Roaring Twenties” (1939) brings a sense of sweep to the crime genre that would not be surpassed until “The Godfather” (1972). It’s in the series, as are “Sadie Thompson” (1928), “Manpower” (1941), “The Man I Love” (1947), and “The Revolt of Mamie Stover” (1956). Each of those films boasts a strong woman in a leading role: Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Ida Lupino, and Jane Russell, respectively. Walsh was a man’s man, yes, but he was no misogynist.

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Action for Walsh wasn’t divorced from psychology. That’s one reason he was so good at it. “Pursued” (1947) probably isn’t the ultimate Freudian western; for that dubious distinction it’s hard to top Nicholas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar” (1954). But it was surely the first. “The Outlaw” (1943)? That’s not so much Freudian as perversely polymorphous. As for “White Heat” (1949), it not only gives James Cagney his most literally combustible role. It takes the Oedipus complex to places that Sophocles couldn’t have imagined even if he’d had a regular table at the Warner Bros. commissary. Both films are in the series.

Museum of Modern Art/Film Archives.
Humphrey Bogart in "High Sierra."

Walsh’s greatest contribution to movie history was indirect. He made it possible for Humphrey Bogart to become “Bogie.” Before “High Sierra” (1941) Bogart had played a string of one-dimensional bad guys, as in “Roaring Twenties,” or forgettable nonentities, like his brogue-burdened horse trainer in “Dark Victory” (1939). “High Sierra,” which is in the series, reveals an actor, and persona, unlike any Hollywood had previously seen. Bogart’s ex-con Roy “Mad Dog” Earle is torn between nihilism and nobility. He’s violent and fierce, yet also desperate and tender. There’s a stylization of emotional complexity that in films like “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), “Casablanca” (1942), “To Have and Have Not” (1944), and “The Big Sleep” (1945) would become the stuff of legend. None of them would have been the same — certainly, Bogart wouldn’t have been — without the possibilities indicated by “High Sierra.” Which says as much about Walsh as it does about Bogart. After all, isn’t adventure the vigorous pursuit of possibility?

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Mark Feeney can be reached at