27 April 2010

Movie Review: Vera Cruz

Vera Cruz (1954)
Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sarita Montiel, George Macready, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam, Henry Brandon.

Update: Vera Cruz is now available on Blu-ray. I haven’t see the transfer, but the reviews indicate that the grainy Superscope process hasn’t been tampered with, so the film looks about as close to how it did in theaters in 1954—flaws and all. That’s how it should be.

If I’m going to talk at any length about the Eurowestern, I have to mention Vera Cruz, the U.S. Western that had an enormous impact on how Italian filmmakers would start to revise their vision of the genre in the mid-1960s. You can imagine Sergio Leone watching this movie and saying, “Hot damn, this is how I wanna make ‘em!” (Sam Peckinpah was watching too; The Wild Bunch contains some direct visual quotes from this earlier trip down to shoot up Mexico.)

Vera Cruz doesn’t have the visual innovations of the Italian Western; it looks much like a 1950s U.S. product, with the exception of actual Mexican location shooting. What it changed was the addition of sneering cynicism and an army of self-interested shady folks out to double-cross and backstab each other over a shipment of gold. That’s pretty much the first half of Sergio Leone’s career summed up in one sentence, but it wasn’t what audiences expected from A-picture Westerns in 1954.

Vera Cruz stands up robustly today without having to view it only as an influence on a later movement within the genre. It was the flowering of Robert Aldrich as the perfect tough-guy action director, plus it has terrific performances from two legendary leading men, a crackling script, a sterling supporting cast (with a young Charles Bronson acting under his given name of Charles Buchinsky), and fully loaded magazines of violence and cynicism. I like cynicism in Westerns. Especially in the 1950s.

It was the cynicism and casual violence that made the film unpopular with critics when it came out. But the film was a financial success and assured Aldrich’s career. It’s amoral attitude also makes it far easier for audiences to enjoy now than the more innocent products of the decade that surrounded it. Vera Cruz is a rough film that avoids the maudlin and the idealist. Gary Cooper’s character keeps threatening to turn toward syrupy idealism—he certainly has that hidden Southern gentleman feeling to him—but the script never lets that sort of sentiment get the better of it.

The historical backdrop is the later years of the French intervention in Mexico and Benito Juárez’s Republican revolt against it, circa 1866, soon after the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War. This means we get French villains in a U.S. Western. I’m fine with that: nothing like vile European colonialism inserted into the North American frontier. It also means some sequences in royal palaces crammed with genuine Old World aristocratic splendor, which makes a thuggish lout like Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) that much more entertaining.

Erin is one of the U.S. fortune-seekers who have come south of the border to hire out in the conflict between the French-controlled Mexican government under Emperor Maximilian (George Paths of Glory Macready) and the Juarista freedom fighters. Erin and his band—which amazingly includes Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, and Charlie Bronson—will hire out to whomever pays them the most. And Erin will betray anybody to make sure he gets the biggest cut.

But some of the mercenaries “came alone,” as the opening title cards tell us. One such is Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) of Louisiana, formerly in the Confederate Army and now a man without a cause except survival. Trane falls in with Erin and his band of great character actor goons, who are on their way to offer their repeating rifles and the fingers to pull them to Emperor Maximilian.

The opening scenes, where Erin immediately tries to double-cross Trane, only to have Trane turn the tables on him and make off with his horse, show exactly what sort of relationship these two men will have for the rest of the movie. Despite all the conniving and political powers involved in the story, the centerpiece of the movie is always Gary Cooper’s gentleman with a granite edge stacked against Lancaster’s wickedly grinning immoral rogue. You couldn’t ask for a better backbone to a film: these two greats deliver everything expected from actors of their mythic standing. Lancaster is particularly wonderful with the horrid “I’m gonna get ya’” toothy smile he perpetually wears. You also get to listen to flinty exchanges between them like this:
TRANE: How much? [For the horse]
ERIN: One hundred dollars. Gold.
TRANE: That’s mighty hard.
ERIN: So’s walking.
Joe Erin later makes an astute assessment of Trane’s character: “I don’t trust him. He likes people, and you can never count on a man like that.” Lancaster gets a lot of killer lines like this, and he makes the most of them. I love Gary Cooper, he’s one of my favorite classic Hollywood actors, but I have to admit that Lancaster pretty much owns the film. (His company, Lancaster-Hecht, produced it, so I guess he literally owned it.)

After a run-in with the Juaristas under General Ramirez—done in an astonishing 360-camera move showing the armed men rising up from the walls of a plaza in a wave—Trane, Erin and Co. meet up with the Marquise Henri de Labordere (Cesar “Joker” Romero) and his imperial soldiers. Henri escorts them to the emperor’s palace in Mexico City. Emperor Maximilian has a job for the Yankees and the ex-rebel: guard a coach carrying Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) safely to the port of Vera Cruz. It soon becomes clear to Erin and Trane that this is only an excuse; the ornate coach is secretly loaded down with six million dollars in gold coins, destined for Europe to raise mercenaries for the emperor’s war.

However, that money will never make it to Europe because everyone—and I seriously mean everyone—on the caravan to Vera Cruz wants to grab the loot for him or herself. Duvarre has her plans to escape with the money, and makes a deal with Trane and Erin; but the countess is about as trustworthy as Erin’s grin, and Henri and Captain Danette (Henry Brandon) also have schemes to snatch the gold that may or may not include the Countess.

I mentioned French villains before, but every single character gets to play the villain at some point in the greedy cross-fighting. The only exception is General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum, who is so not Mexican), who genuinely believes in the ideals of Juárez’s fight against Emperor Maximilian. Benjamin Trane is also a puzzler: the audience will never know until the end what he honestly wants—because he doesn’t quite know either. A beautiful spy for the Juaristas (Sarita Montiel), will put it in focus for him. But even she has her own pocket-lining agenda.

Vera Cruz does have one significant flaw, and it’s a technical one. This was the first film released in Superscope, a budget widescreen process made to compete with the explosion of CinemaScope at 20th Century Fox and VistaVision at Paramount. Superscope isn’t a photographic process, but a post-production one where a 2:1 image is cropped from the original 35 mm frame and then turned into a squeezed animorphic image for projection. This was the first use of what still exists today under the general title “Super 35.”

I’m not sure what happened in the lab when Vera Cruz was converted into Superscope, but it ended up grainy with extremely dark and occasionally obscured night sequences. The grain is especially apparent on any shot that requires an optical, such as a dissolve. Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo was one of the greats in the art form, and the production shot on some lovely Mexican locations (including a stop by a pre-Columbia pyramid—not something you often see in a Western), but unfortunately much of Vera Cruz looks ugly, and I think that early Superscope can shoulder most of the blame. Superscope simply lacks the image quality of the other widescreen processes of the day. (Perhaps MGM had a bad transfer of it for the DVD, but I don’t think so, since most of their Western discs look fine.) If you would like some technical detail on Superscope, please see this series of pages at the Widescreen Museum. Pardon my excursion into technical specifications, but this information really fascinates me.

Unavoidably grainy film aside, Vera Cruz is my kind of Western: fun and mean.

The Juaristas eventually beat the French, and Maximilian was put up against the wall and shot. Just in case you were wondering, because Vera Cruz doesn’t cover this part. It should, because seeing George Macready getting executed via firing squad would make up, somewhat, for seeing him order innocent soldiers executed via firing squad in Paths of Glory.