Vera Cruz

Posted on April 8th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Robert Aldrich, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper by Colin

Poster

Reputations are a strange thing. They tend to wax and wane as the allegiances of critics shift over time and fashions change. Some directors have seen their stock rise dramatically while others have toppled from once lofty positions. There are those though who never seem to be celebrated excessively nor wholly forgotten, they simply exist in that shadowy periphery where both praise and criticism are always heavily qualified. One such man is Robert Aldrich, a director who made some memorable and stylish films yet continues to be granted only a kind of grudging respect. Vera Cruz (1954) was one of his early efforts and has traditionally been viewed as a good action picture, but that’s about it. It’s also been cited as the inspiration for the following decade’s spaghetti westerns, and I fully agree with that assertion. I see it as occupying an odd place among the westerns of the 50s; it doesn’t probe dark psychology like an Anthony Mann film, and it has none of the sparse leanness of Boetticher’s work. Instead it leaps over all of this and presents, or maybe even glorifies, the kind of amoral characters who would come to populate the western from the mid-60s onwards.

The story takes place in 1866, during the Franco-Mexican war, when the followers of Juarez were struggling to wrest control of their country back from those forces loyal to the puppet Emperor Maximilian. The focus is on two Americans who, as the prologue informs us, are among those who have drifted across the border after the Civil War to sell their services to the highest bidder. These men are Ben Trane (Gary Cooper), a southern gentleman ruined by the war and Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), a reckless adventurer and a stranger to the notion of ethics. The early scenes where Erin sells Trane another man’s stolen horse set the tone for the rest of the picture, where double-crosses, lies, betrayals and greed come thick and fast from every side and no one seems to spare a thought for anybody but himself. When it looks as though Maximilian’s people offer the better chance for profit, both men throw in their lot with them. This sets up a nice sequence at the Imperial palace as Erin’s men show themselves up for the uncouth, rag-tag bunch they are. Of course, the aristocrats that they casually offend and outrage are seen to be no better, displaying no qualms whatsoever as they calmly scheme to dispose of their new employees as soon as their purpose is served. The purpose in question is to escort, and ensure the safe passage of, a French Countess (Denise Darcel) and her coach from Mexico City to the port of Vera Cruz. Finally, it would seem that there’s some honour to be seen. After all, risking one’s neck to ensure a woman is able to travel unmolested through treacherous country infested with Juarista rebels on the rampage is not an unworthy enterprise. However, at no point in this story is anything really as it appears on the surface. The whole mission is nothing but a blind on the part of the monarchists to smuggle a shipment of $3 million in gold out of Mexico to buy military aid and , by extension, some time for the crumbling regime. Naturally, everyone wants the money for themselves - Erin, the Countess, Trane and even the Juaristas in order to further their political aims. The fact is that of all those eyeing the fortune, the only one (barring the Juarista general) who has even a shred of decency motivating them is Trane. He sees the money - or at least as much of it as he can bargain for - as a means of restoring his devastated plantation and those who have grown dependent on it. After a succession of ambushes, broken promises and a desperate assault on the Emperor’s forces, everything comes down to a simple duel between two very different men in a dusty Mexican courtyard.

Who can you trust? Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz.

As I said earlier, I’d have to agree with those who claim that Vera Cruz is a major influence on the spaghetti western. In fact, it’s a virtual template for the flood of Euro westerns that hit cinemas within ten years. The south of the border setting is the first thing that comes to mind, and when you factor in the strife torn political background the parallels become more apparent. The difference of course is that in Aldrich’s movie the politics really only forms a backdrop to facilitate the narrative without impacting directly on it. The film isn’t making any particular ideological point, except perhaps that greed overrides everything and corrupts everyone, but concentrates on entertainment albeit with a cynical twist. The main characters, Erin and Trane, profess to have no interest in anything beyond money when they start out. However, as the story progresses, Trane does exhibit something approaching a conscience. Both Cooper and Lancaster’s roles can be viewed as a blueprint for the upcoming anti-heroes from Europe. In a way, the Italians ended up presenting a kind of hybrid of these two men; a mercenary figure who hasn’t abandoned himself totally to amorality, a taciturn man with a personal code of honour (Cooper) who retains a sort of capricious flamboyance (Lancaster). It’s Lancaster’s grinning, black-clad rogue who has the greatest impact, but Cooper’s steadiness plays a significant part in keeping the film balanced. For all Lancaster’s scene stealing bravado, Cooper still holds the attention - his little grimaces at key points have a great understated quality to them. As for Aldrich’s direction, his handling of the action scenes is exemplary. The climactic assault is a well executed sequence that’s perfectly paced with just enough establishing shots to ensure the geography remains clear throughout. Aside from the big set pieces, he uses the wide screen well and mixes up the long, medium and close shots to good effect. He also throws in a variety of angles, and the final duel between Trane and Erin is yet another example of the film’s influence on the likes of Leone. While the lingering, operatic quality is missing, the basic iconography that would become so familiar is certainly present in the angles and the cutting.

Vera Cruz was shot in 2:1 Superscope and the UK DVD from MGM retains that ratio. The anamorphic transfer is a reasonable one, colours are strong and there’s no serious damage to the print. The only extra provided is the theatrical trailer. The film is due out on BD this coming June and it’s the kind of production that ought to benefit from the upgraded picture quality. As a movie, it’s not exactly a typical 50s western; in tone, it almost bears comparison to a 60s WWII extravaganza - big, brash, colourful and noisy. While it may not have the depth of the best from its decade, it is still an influential piece of work. Moreover, it offers an hour and a half of first class entertainment. I like it a lot and think both the film and its director deserve some renewed attention.

The Westerner

Posted on January 11th, 2009 in 1940s, Westerns, William Wyler, Gary Cooper by Colin

Poster

One of the recurring themes of the western is the conflict between the cattlemen of the open range and the fence-building homesteaders, or sodbusters. In truth, this clash (freedom, as represented by the range, and the slow encroachment of civil society from the east) lies near the very heart of the genre. It is this which forms the framework of The Westerner (1940), but the film really revolves around the relationship between two very different men. As such it eschews action in favour of character development, and slots nicely into the group of more mature westerns that were starting to appear at the time.   

The film’s prologue sets the scene in the years following the Civil War when the westward expansion was in full swing. Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) has established himself as the self-styled “Law West of the Pecos” in his own remote corner of Texas. He is shown dispensing his own brand of justice from his saloon/courtroom in the case of a man accused of committing one of the most serious of all crimes, that of murdering a steer. Having tried, convicted and carried out the sentence personally, he comes face to face with his next defendant. Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is a drifter and saddle tramp who’s had the misfortune of buying a stolen horse. This is another capital crime and the case looks to be an open and shut one. When the jury retires to back room to play cards and down some liquor before delivering the inevitable guilty verdict, Harden takes the only path open to him. Noticing that the saloon has been made up as a virtual shrine to Lily Langtry, Harden claims to have made the acquaintance of the judge’s beloved actress and to have a lock of her hair in his possession. Well, clearly such a man can’t simply be hauled out and hanged so the sentence is suspended and the two men form an uneasy alliance. However, Harden finds himself drawn to Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport), daughter of a local settler, and is soon caught between the two rival factions.

I am the law - Walter Brennan

Gary Cooper was a highly deceptive actor. There are those who would claim that his laconic style was wooden and that he couldn’t act, but to say that is to ignore the subtlety of the man’s craft. There was no expansiveness to Cooper but everything was communicated through his face and small unpretentious gestures. There is a marvellous example of this during the trial scene in this movie where fear, calculation and, ultimately, triumph are all readable just from his eyes. He’s at his best in the scenes he shares with Walter Brennan but, perversely, has every one of those scenes stolen right from under his nose. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that Brennan was the finest character actor American cinema has ever produced. He turned in performances which ranged from fine to excellent in anything I’ve seen him in. His Judge Roy Bean is a multi-layered character who goes from mean and ornery to endearingly childlike and back again. It’s no mean acting feat to make this figure sympathetic, but Brennan managed it and picked up his third Oscar for his troubles. Visually, the film looks great, due in no small part to the photography of Gregg Toland. With all this talent at his disposal, director William Wyler marshals it with his typical professionalism. He offers up some fine cinematic moments, such as the attack on the homesteaders. In the midst of a thanksgiving ceremony, as the camera surveys a rich, tranquil and fertile land to the accompaniment of noble words, the idyll is abruptly shattered by a murderous arson raid. As flames sear the screen, the settlers paradise is transformed in a matter of minutes into a scorched, desolate landscape. Those smouldering, blackened ruins of former homes pointing accusingly towards the heavens are an eloquent reminder of the fickle and dangerous unpredictability of frontier life.

The Westerner was reissued on DVD in R1 late last spring by MGM/Fox and the transfer is a very fine one. I can’t say I noticed any significant damage marks or signs of manipulation, just a crisp, clean B&W image. Previous MGM releases were no more than adequate but the distribution deal with Fox seems to have led to an improvement in quality. The only criticism is the lack of any extra content, but I guess you  can’t have everything. I’d rate The Westerner as a good example of a ’40s oater for grown-ups; it has drama and it’s moving but it also has a vein of sly, dark humour running through it. Recommended.

Garden of Evil

Posted on December 5th, 2007 in 1950s, Westerns, Richard Widmark, Henry Hathaway, Gary Cooper by Colin

Look at her! Taking four men like us to a mountain of gold.

So says Richard Widmark’s Fisk, and in so doing he about sums up the plot of the movie. In a nutshell, a desperate woman (Susan Hayward) hires four men (Widmark, Gary Cooper, Cameron Mitchell and Victor Mendoza), who are all hanging around a dead-end Mexican town, to accompany her into the badlands on a mission of mercy; her husband is lying trapped in a mine deep in Apache country. What follows is an adventure tale that ties in some weighty themes such as, loyalty, greed, lust and infidelity. There are also some fairly explicit religious-moral allusions with the only features visible in a lava covered town being the church steeple and the entrance to the gold mine. Why, there’s even a crucifixion!

However, the film is never heavy-going and there is more than enough action to satisfy genre fans. The climactic chase and battle with the Apache is especially well-handled by veteran director Henry Hathaway. In fact, the whole thing moves along at a good pace and, at a little over an hour and a half, never outstays its welcome.

Gary Cooper

I love these early scope films from Fox, and this a great looking picture. Hathaway makes fine use of the widescreen process to show off the Mexican locations; some of the photography on the high mountain pass is simply stunning. The score is a bit of an unexpected one, by Bernard Herrmann no less. Herrmann, being Hitchcock’s composer of choice, is not a name you’d automatically associate with westerns. Nevertheless, the combination of soaring and ominous tones fits the mood of this movie perfectly.

There is, though, one very odd aspect to this film. Now, I won’t claim to be highly knowledgable of American Indians but the Apache we see here are the strangest looking bunch I’ve ever come across - surely the Apache never had Mohican haircuts!

That aside, I highly recommend this movie. How can you not love a western with Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark. I think both men give excellent performances, although I may be a little biased since I’m a huge fan of Coop. He gets to deliver the last line of the film while squinting into the sunset -

The garden of evil - if the earth was made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.

Great stuff!