Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of Vera Cruz. A thoroughly enjoyable Western with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster on a thoroughly average MGM disc.
Robert Aldrich was, for a long time, one of the most underrated of all American directors. Because his films tend to be brash, violent and rowdy, his genuinely groundbreaking work was either ignored or patronised. His film noir Kiss Me Deadly is an extraordinary film in many ways, but his achievements in other genres shouldn’t be forgotten. He helped to redefine the horror film in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane ? and the war film in The Dirty Dozen, made the first mainstream film about lesbianism and, er, the first film about female tag wrestling (the rather wonderful All The Marbles with the peerless Peter Falk). It’s his work in the Western genre that I find most interesting though. He made two of the most subtle studies of the relationship between the Native Americans and the Settlers in Apache and the superb Ulzana’s Raid, both films which deal with racism in a very intelligent way without patronising the Indians or being embarrassingly schmaltzy.
Vera Cruz expands the genre in an interesting way too. Into an adventure movie about mercenaries in Mexico, Aldrich inserts a fascinatingly amoral tone and a compelling pessimism about human motivations that is a long way from the usual “fun down Mexico way” that we are used to. It has certain similarities to Anthony Mann’s Western noirs and points forward to Peckinpah’s work, particularly The Wild Bunch.
The great Gary Cooper, more nonchalant than ever and incredibly cool to boot, plays Benjamin Trane, a mercenary who is looking for work in Mexico. Trane is a former landowner who fought for the Confederate side in the Civil War and lost his land in the process, along with his principles. So he works for the highest bidder and Mexico, embroiled in revolution, seems the place to be for a hired gun without too many scruples. He encounters an even sleazier outlaw, Joe Erin (Lancaster) whose toothy grin conceals a ruthlessly grasping obsession with wealth. The two men cheat each other but develop an uneasy partnership in order to cheat the Emperor Maximillian out of 3 million dollars worth of gold intended to pay foreign troops coming from Europe to help him fight the revolutionaries. Needless to say, their loyalty to each other lasts about as long as it takes to devise a plan to steal the gold for themselves – and the Countess Marie Duvarre, travelling to Vera Cruz with the gold, has her eye on the main chance as well.
So, what we have is an entertaining romp with lots of amusing twists as everybody tries to deceive everybody else. What makes it particularly interesting is that this continues Mann’s work in moving away from the uncomplicated white hat / black hat set up into more morally ambiguous territory. Gary Cooper, representative of all this is wholesome and good in so many films, becomes shaded here into something more complex. Trane is sympathetic to an extent but he’s also ruthless and haunted by the war that he feels partly responsible for losing. A broken man trying to put his life back together, he is a more positive version of Jimmy Stewart’s character in The Naked Spur. Ultimately, he is redeemed by his belief in his own redemption, saying “A man needs more than money. He needs something to believe in.” This points forward to Peckinpah’s Ride The High Country, with Joel McCrea’s comment, “I want to enter my house justified”. But Trane isn’t averse to theft or double-crossing his partners – what makes him seem honourable is the contrast with Joe Erin. Burt Lancaster was rarely better, in his pre-J.J.Hunsecker career, than as the gleefully amoral Erin, screwing over anyone who makes the mistake of trusting him and changing his allegiances more often that his shirt. Erin despises Trane’s humanity, saying “He likes people – you can never count on a man like that !” In contrast to these two the other characters seem a bit dull, but Cesar Romero has so fun as the Emperor’s slimy diplomatic henchman. Denise Darcel has the presence and spirit to be a Hawksian tough heroine, as does Sarita Montiel as the peasant woman that Trane hooks up with, but they aren’t given much to do in their underwritten roles.
The film looks tremendous. It was shot on location in Mexico and great use is made of the Aztec remains and the small desert towns which seem frozen in time. There is a strange displaced look that is reminiscent of the Leone Westerns of ten years later and the film as a whole has quite a Spaghetti edge to it. Ernest Laszlo’s photography is atmospheric and the use of the wide 2.00:1 frame is extraordinarily confident, full of cunning use of space. It was shot in SuperScope which used this aspect ratio. There’s also an energetic score by Hugo Friedhofer. Aldrich’s direction is typically exuberant with a lot of rough-house humour from the likes of Jack Elam and Ernest Borgnine. But there’s also a thoughtful side to the film which is typical of Aldrich’s best work – not the philosophical insight into human cruelty that we get in Ulzana’s Raid admittedly but still a distinct cut above the average fifties western. If it’s not in the class of The Searchers or Aldrich’s next film, the fascinating meditation on racism Apache, also with Lancaster, then it’s a respectable and exciting Western adventure which comes in at a nicely tight 90 minutes.
This is an MGM release and, despite their recent track record, it isn’t too bad. One immediate merit is the price drop – it retails for a recommended £12.99 which is a slight improvement on previous releases. But it’s still not as good as it could be.
The film is presented in an anamorphic transfer and is framed at 1.98:1. This looks correct to me, although the difference between 1.98:1 and 2.00:1 would seem to be minimal. The image is fairly well detailed and the colours are striking. However there is some artifacting and the print looks a little dated and in need of proper remastering. A lot of grain too, throughout the film.
The soundtrack has more problems. It’s the original mono track – as it should be – but there is quite a lot of distortion present. The cover makes a comment about restoring the audio to the “highest level of fidelity” but the restoration isn’t all that successful. It’s not a disastrous audio track, but the crackling is irritating in places and some of the dialogue is hard to decipher. The music comes off best throughout.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer. This is an amusing period piece with an awesomely pompous commentary in the best fifties manner. It’s presented in full frame and demonstrates how horrible this film looks when not in the correct ratio. There are 16 chapter stops.
A thoroughly entertaining film then, presented on a DVD which is, at best, average. It’s well worth seeing Vera Cruz but only western fans will find this disc a worthwhile buy.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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