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And Some Came Alone… July 1, 2011

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 1 comment so far

Vera Cruz has unexpectedly and happily arrived on Blu-ray disc, courtesy of Fox/MGM in the US. Happily because it’s a film I love, and unexpectedly because it’s a film that has dropped off the radar of many folks, even western fans.

I first wrote about Robert Aldrich’s seminal western some time ago. That was before I was fully conversant with the mechanics of Superscope, and now that I am, it goes a long way to explaining the wildly inconsistent look of the film that I previously noted and which provoked the ire of contemporary critics.

Vera CruzI don’t intend to attempt to dissect the film further than I have already; this brief ‘drive by’ is simply another bid to encourage those that have not done so to seek out what I, and many others, see as an exceptional piece of work, now presented in high definition.

Fans will enjoy, as I did, John McElwee’s 2-part look at the film at his Greenbriar Picture Shows blog; his point regarding the prints, and Aldrich’s unhappiness at the Superscope conversion, makes sense - the cropping isn’t a huge disaster (setting aside the detrimental effect the Superscope process has on the film’s appearance in general), but I’d lay good money on it being framed by the brilliant Ernest Laszlo with a slightly more forgiving 1.85:1 frame in mind, whilst being protected for Academy Ratio*.

Having, like a kid on Christmas morning, only today ripped the cellophane off the case and watched the film through in high definition, I can’t say too much more about Vera Cruz than previously, except that, like a fine Californian Zinfandel, it gets better with age, with each and every viewing. And the barebones Blu-ray presentation (save for a garish 1.85:1 trailer in 1080p - it even lacks a conventional menu; left in the machine it plays on a loop…) is the best it has looked - or is ever likely to look - on home video.

Sourced from a very decent print, Vera Cruz has not been messed around with digitally, it’s clean and as colourful as Superscope allows and it looks like film - not much more you can ask. I’m indebted to McElwee’s blog above for, among many other things, pointing out the pocket Derringer in Duvarre’s hand at the end, which underlines the script problems they were facing. You can hardly see the gun in standard definition but it’s as clear as a bell at 1080p; the wonders of high definition.

I just love discovering something new about works I admire and am familiar with; I come over all Howard Carter standing on the threshold of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Was Duvarre to have taken a pot-shot at Joe? Was Lancaster to have gunned her down, while grinning like Captain Vallo’s evil twin? I’d still prefer a much bleaker ending; I think Aldrich had one in mind but was possibly over-ruled. It was a tough shoot.

Vera Cruz was total improvisation because the script was always finished about five minutes before we shot it, and we’d sit right down and work it out and then shoot it as we went along. I’m not sure that’s the right way to work…”

Robert Aldrich

I’m not altogether convinced (as McElwee says) that Cooper’s playing of Ben Trane was hamstrung by the star simply protecting his image; I think Trane is the ideal counterpoint to Erin, there’s no doubt he’s heavily conflicted - and having two amoral bad asses would not have made much sense. As you see from the contemporary New York Times review linked above, the savagery, the amorality, the bad table manners, didn’t go down well with critics - Aldrich was way ahead of the game in that respect.

Four final links; I have to give enormous credit to Glenn Erikson - not only did he point me at John McElwee’s blog entry, but it was the Savant who, in the first place, unlocked Vera Cruz’s potential for me as a political entity. His Blu-ray review is here. Need further convincing of the link between Aldrich and Leone? Read Roland Caputo’s wonderful essay Aldrich, Leone and Vera Cruz; Style and Substance Over The Border - I’m particularly taken with his examination and analysis of the ‘reveal’, a bravura camera move that is not only reminiscent of Leone in terms of style, but of Peckinpah in actual execution.

Vera CruzBlu-ray screen captures? We don’ do no steenkin’ Blu-ray ‘caps! No, beaten by technology on that front, so I have to point you elsewhere; Blu-ray.com review here and DVD Beaver’s review here. Please, please bear in mind that when it comes to screencaps, they can only be a rough guide to what you will see on your own equipment. Sound is provided by a DTS HD Master Audio mono soundtrack, which is more than good enough and another step up from previous home video incarnations.

As said, I’m far from alone in thinking Vera Cruz is an under-appreciated and influential western that deserves a greater following; punting out quality BD transfers such as this at bargain bin prices can only help do that surely?

By the way, it’s also available in Germany, but no sign, thus far, of it being offered on these shores; both discs are region free, so will play in your Blu-ray machine. No excuses, buy it now…

*2013 edit: Totally untrue according to widescreen guru Bob Furmanek, and if Bob says it’s so, it’s so…

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