Raoul Walsh, the action director’s action director, ran away to sea as a young man, worked as a cowhand, then entered films in 1912 as an actor and assistant for D.W. Griffith. Regeneration (1915), the first movie he directed for Fox, seems to be the first full-length gangster film ever made; Walsh would return to the genre with increasing success. His most notable silent picture was The Thief of Bagdad (1924), a visually breathtaking vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks at the height of the actor’s athletic prowess.
Much of Walsh’s early sound work is formulaic, with the exception of the breezy oddball comedy Me and My Gal (1932), in which dockside cop Spencer Tracy and saucy hash-slinger Joan Bennett exchange wisecracks. Nutty and full of verve, this warm, free-wheeling portrait of working-class life in Depression-era New York is irresistible.
Walsh hit his stride in 1939 when he became a contract director for Warners, where he did his best work on westerns, war films, crime dramas, and nostalgic period pieces. These outstanding films went a long way toward crystalizing the personae of their stars—Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Errol Flynn.
This phase kicked off with The Roaring Twenties (1939), an epic poem of a gangster flick, in which ex-doughboy Cagney is the good gangster, ruined by the excesses of the times. High Sierra (1941) gave Bogie his first chance to project a three-dimensional character. His sympathetic portrayal of “Mad Dog” Earle, a lonely ex-con driven toward destruction, made him a star. And in the brutal, complex White Heat (1949), Cagney couldn’t be badder—here he’s a snarling paranoid gang leader with a mother fixation. Primal and flamboyant, it’s one of the toughest crime films ever made—actor and director go the limit at the climax with the apocalyptic “top of the world” scene. Often categorized as a noir, it’s more properly the last great Hollywood gangster flick. This retro includes 23 of Walsh’s more than one hundred features—fully enough to demonstrate that his work has retained a greater vitality than that of many more celebrated directors.