Friday, September 29, 2017

Walsh draws kings

One of the reasons films still carry a lot of punch on television is that we can sense a great physical energy in them. Not the stalling frenzy of TV series where, exhausted by all the zoom shots, we no longer know if the actors have moved within the frame, or if our optic nerve is on orbit. Not the repressed anxiety of the half bodies that read world news or announce continuity between shows. Nothing like that, but instead the sense that one must have been young and healthy to make these old films. It's one of the least proclaimed truth of cinema: nervous impulse and resistance to tiredness are irreplaceable*. Of all the art forms, cinema remains the one that requires to be 'in good form'. Otherwise, one couldn't explain the impressive number of first films that will remain the best of their authors. 
One of the reasons the unexpected re-discovery of Raoul Walsh's The King and Four Queens is a great surprise, is that you can see tiredness in it. In 1956, Walsh had been making films for forty-three years and Gable for thirty-two. And Jo Fleet might only be thirty-seven years old but her role as the MacDaid widow implies that she's at least twenty years older. The least fit in the group is Clarke Gable, who will die four years later. And it's around a slow and flickering King that Raoul Walsh organised his mise-en-scène. Stripped down, minimal, and very refined: a real 'lesson' in mise-en-scène. That being said, the film was never considered a great one. It's perhaps inferior to the other film Walsh directed in 1956, the little known The Revolt of Mamie Stover with Jane Russell, which the author of these lines must confess he secretly worships. The King and Four Queens is the type of entertainment that cinema pioneers could allow themselves to make at the dawn of their long career. 
This reminder is not to move the reader to pity. Walsh's laziness and the fatigue in King are one thing, ours is another. When seasoned veterans start working 'economically', it's because they can afford it. They have accumulated enough experience to signify the energy (and, in Walsh's case, a kind of geometric rage) that begins to lack, in order to fulfil their contract with dignity. The advantage of the now decried 'politique des auteurs' was to provide the loyal cinephile with precise information on the state of natural wear and tear of a material used for a long time. Wear and tear of the actors, of the stories, of the landscapes. But it also showed how what was lost in wild energy was regained in elegance and speed. 
The script of The King and Four Queens is more than clever; like all of Walsh's scripts, it is structured as a Freudian rebus, topped up with the charm of an equation reduced to its essential parts. A woman, mother of four bad boys who are all dead but one, is surrounded by four young widows while waiting for the survivor (nobody knows which of the four he is) to come collect the treasure she has buried somewhere. The Bible under her arm, dressed in grey, her round face distorted by a childish and distrustful rictus, Jo Van Fleet is the most beautiful character of the film and her concluding lines are grandiose: 'after that, I wash my hands.' The four women are torn apart between their desire for money and for the man that will come and free them. Sabrinao, Oralia, Ruby and Birdie swoop on the mysterious Kehoe (Gable) who has come to resolve the equation that makes their heart melt.  
In this film with no fights and where people talk a lot, Gable, thanks to two or three winks and movements of a zen turtle, practices a real psychoanalytic listening (a rather short version of it). Each woman produces for him some symptoms, totally obvious but instructive. Walsh only lays them out like coloured spots in a ball scene. With a beautiful simplicity and this art to quickly reach the essential, he has fun connecting scenes where any spontaneous gestures has been banished. That's ok, since what matters is to let the repressed desires return.  
Dan Kehoe leaves with the treasure and one of the daughters. A very relative happy ending since he must return (almost all) the money to the sheriff. A very Walshian happy ending since the great Raoul never had any other message: he who can do more, can do less.
* It's perhaps one of the fundamental differences with traditional arts. No filmmaker can have the energy of Titian or Picasso when reaching old age. One exception: the great Manoel de Oliveira. 

First published in Libération on 9 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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