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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Under the Influence—Scorsese / Walsh

by Stephen Bowie

James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in The Roaring Twenties. Photo: Photofest

Raoul Walsh was one of the great action directors of the Hollywood studio era, the swaggering, manly-man artist behind some of the best movies to star James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn. Andrew Sarris positioned Walsh as the third point of a triangle, alongside John Ford and Howard Hawks, and Martin Scorsese remains a staunch enthusiast. “Walsh’s explosive outcast characters were bigger than life,” Scorsese wrote. “Their lust for life was insatiable, even as their actions precipitated their tragic destiny. The world was too small for them.”

Walsh’s films provide a sort of hidden road map through Scorsese’s body of work. If the spectre of Ford’s The Searchers as a thematic blueprint for Taxi Driver (1976), for instance, is better known, Walsh was “probably Scorsese’s single most important influence” (Dave Kehr). This spring, BAMcinématek’s Under the Influence series aligns some of both directors’ key films as a way of illustrating the many homages paid within. Under the Influence: Scorsese/Walsh runs Mar 12—26.

Walsh, a rugged sailor and cowboy and the son of a prominent Irish-born clothier, had little in common biographically with the asthmatic, working-class Italian-American Scorsese. But Scorsese, a child of Little Italy, connected emotionally to Walsh’s authentic evocation of the city’s teeming street life. Walsh shot his early feature Regeneration (1915) in the actual slums of Five Points, a world that Scorsese meticulously recreated on the soundstages of Cinecittà for Gangs of New York (2002).

Though Walsh was a classicist, many of the singular qualities of his cinema resonated with the more self-consciously cinephilic Scorsese: the sheer propulsive force of his stories; the layered compositions, rich in detailed marginal action; and especially the persistent outsider status of Walsh’s heroes. If Ford and Hawks were insistent upon community, Walsh honored individualism; his films were “willing to go with the instincts of their wayward loners” (David Thomson). The phrase applies just as aptly to Scorsese. Often Walsh’s heroes and villains were opposite sides of the same coin, doppelgangers with similar goals but variant levels of morality and violence—much like the characters played by Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in Mean Streets (1973) and De Niro and Joe Pesci in Casino (1995).

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Photo: Photofest

Though Walsh mastered every subgenre of action cinema (Westerns, war movies, film noir), like Scorsese he had a particular affinity for gangsters, and revisited their milieu periodically across a span of decades. Regeneration emphasized social problems; its criminals were lost boys hobbled by poverty and neglect. The Roaring Twenties (1939), to Scorsese a “twisted Horatio Alger story,” offered a sociopolitical take, depicting gangsters as men of promise disenfranchised by World War I and later the Great Depression. White Heat (1949) turned to psychology, fashioning Cody Jarrett (Cagney) as a migraine-addled, mother-fixated psychopath. Scorsese drew from all of them. Taxi Driver’s unhinged vigilante Travis Bickle may have Jarrett’s DNA, but it was the final shootout in The Roaring Twenties that inspired Scorsese’s framing of the climactic showdown between Bickle and the pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel).

Scorsese’s sourcing of Walsh extended beyond the gangster genre. The music-infused film noir The Man I Love (1947) provided the template for New York, New York (1977). Far apart in style, boxing biopics Gentleman Jim (1942) and Raging Bull (1980) both take an acute interest in the ways that class and celebrity, as much as pugilistic prowess, shape the title characters’ lives. And Walsh’s unclassifiable pre-Code wonder The Bowery (1933), though set among the riffraff of the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side, is less a gangster melodrama than a rollicking celebration of anarchy and bad behavior. Scorsese absorbed Walsh’s morbidly funny sequence of competing fire brigades brawling while homes burn into Gangs of New York (2002), which also looks and feels more like something else (a Western or a medieval epic) than a traditional gangster film. Walsh neither ignores the tragic consequences of The Bowery’s antiheroes’ casual racism and hooliganism, nor does he let them interrupt the fun. Walsh was “concerned with finding the line—the point at which freedom becomes chaos” (Kehr). At a moment when Scorsese’s latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, has drawn controversy for its refusal to wag fingers at an unrepentantly larcenous protagonist, Walsh seems all the more useful as a secret touchstone.

Stephen Bowie is a contributor to The A.V. Club and the founder of The Classic TV History Blog.

Reprinted from Feb 2014 BAMbill.

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