Monday, September 27, 2021

Review: Vera Cruz (1954)

VERA CRUZ is an outstanding 1954 western directed by Robert Aldrich (THE DIRTY DOZEN) that shares many plot points and devices with Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH, which wouldn't arrive on the scene for a full fifteen years. You want Charles Bronson playing harmonica over a decade before Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST? Here it is, alongside Jack Elam, another Leone pick. You want Ernest Borgnine as part of a band of outlaws looking for trouble? Here he is. The influence of Vera Cruz upon the next generation of filmmakers cannot be underestimated. 

At the core of Vera Cruz is the relationship between our two lead characters. Gary Cooper plays an honorable man who was on the wrong side of the Civil War and now drifts, looking for mercenary work. Burt Lancaster plays a scoundrel with few redeeming qualities, a literal black hat who is quick on the draw and seems to have no moral code whatsoever. The two men find their fates intertwined when they agree to accompany a countess to the Mexican town of Vera Cruz. When they discover that the stagecoach the countess rides in contains millions in gold, they scheme how to relieve those who have hired them of the treasure. 

Vera Cruz is remarkable, and well worth seeking out. As previously mentioned, comparisons to The Wild Bunch are inevitable, as Peckinpah's movie seems to be drawing so heavily on plot points, character arcs, and even the end battle in a way that cannot simply be coincidence.  Vera Cruz is far more violent than your typical fifties western, with bullets in skulls, a spear in someone's throat, and an attempted rape scene that was pushing boundaries for the era. 

The real draw here is the acting by Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. I often find Gary Cooper to be wooden and stiff. He typically delivers the kind of performance that some call "Lincoln-esque" which means that he's erect and noble, but also fairly stoic and expressionless. This is NOT the case in Vera Cruz, as he seems to really be enjoying himself. When the role calls for emotion, he's there. Grief, pain, betrayal, Cooper really conveys the deeper feelings of his character, and even seems to be having fun in the movie's lighter and more adventurous moments. 

Similarly, Vera Cruz finds Burt Lancaster in rare form. He's completely untethered, chewing scenery, snarling and sneering as he delivers the fantastic dialogue from the typewriter of screenwriters Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb. Consider this line: "Ace used to say you don't take any chances you don't have to. Don't trust nobody you don't have to trust, and don't do no favors you don't have to do. Ace lived long enough to know he was right. He lived thirty seconds after I shot 'em." It's the kind of role one has to imagine every actor hopes they get to play at least once: an irredeemable man of violence that is somehow so well-written that the audience roots for them anyway. 

There's so much to praise in Vera Cruz. The cinematography from Ernest Laszlo (Logan's Run, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) is top notch, and real Mexican locations such as the Pyramid of the Sun and historic parts of Mexico City play an important visual role in rooting us in a place beyond the typical landscapes of Hollywood westerns. This isn't Monument Valley, or even Vasquez Rocks, it's distinctly south of the border. 

The 2021 Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of Vera Cruz touts a new 2K scan (though this is not mentioned on the package itself), a new audio commentary from filmmaker Alex Cox, Trailers from Hell with John Landis (who points out the similarities to The Wild Bunch and admits to scenes he copied for his own western, The Three Amigos), and a theatrical trailer. 

The 1950s was the golden age for the western. The complexity of storytelling reached a pinnacle in the years following WWII as soldiers wrestled with the serious questions about what combat had turned them into. The westerns of the fifties embody peak cinematic value and thought-provoking scripts. This film is a shining example of what films of the era were capable of, depicting two men, both on the fringes, united in their quest and yet hurling toward an inevitable confrontation. Those looking for some of the best examples of mid-century westerns can add Vera Cruz to their short list. 

Review: Devil and the Deep (1932)

A stunning, powerful pre-code drama from Paramount that features Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Charles Laughton in his big-screen debut!

Laughton plays a submarine commander who is married to Tallulah Bankhead. Jealousy of his wife and how she's spending her time has driven him mad...or perhaps he was mad all along and his jealousy is what drives him into a complete break with reality. When he incorrectly suspects an affair between his wife and his lieutenant, played by Cary Grant, he has Grant transferred and replaced by Gary Cooper. Ah, but Tallulah and Cooper have already met, and shared a steamy one night stand in the desert night. They didn't realize that their tryst would tie them together with tragic consequences.

The drama culminates on a submarine endeavour with a catastrophic climax, as the lives of every person on board hang in the balance, with Laughton's mad, suicidal (and homicidal) behavior leading to a final confrontation with the two people he blames for his downfall.

This film is magnificent! Laughton had been a star of the stage and transitions to the screen like a pro, making a strong negative impression as a petty, jealous and insecure man who beats women and ruins the lives of the officers beneath his command on nothing more than baseless suspicions. His unlikability is staggering, and he plays each camera close-up with smug relish. Tallulah Bankhead is as impeccable as always, bringing her unique blend of glamour, strength, and power to the role. Bankhead's public struggle with her vices (alcohol, drugs, sex, etc) always informs her performances, giving her screen appearances a nuance and a depth that would soon be lost when the Hays Code began to crack down on the immorality of cinema. Her behavior would even land her on the "Doom Book" of actors and actresses that were declared to be unsuitable for the public. Gary Cooper is a bit wooden (a criticism I often have of the actor), but Cary Grant, in his few scenes, is as charismatic as ever, even this early in his career.

We viewed this film via the 2021 Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray, which has an incredible transfer featuring delicate grain structure and beautiful contrast, though there is some age-related scratching and wear to the film, as should be expected. The disc includes a commentary by David Del Valle.

The common thinking about early cinema is that it was safe, tame, and inoffensive. Devil and the Deep exists to smash those notions, or rather, to drag them to the bottom of the sea. This is a film of lust, infidelity, jealousy, and attempted murder on a massive scale. The climax on the submarine at the bottom of the ocean floor is unnerving, and the camera lingers on one particular drowning long after modern films would cut away. Very early appearances from Cary Grant and Gary Cooper make this worth note, but the outstanding work from Tallulah Bankhead and Charles Laughton send this one straight to the "must see" list.

Review: Hot Saturday (1932)

Ah, small town gossip! This pre-code Paramount programmer features a very early appearance by Cary Grant (who had just made his debut earlier in 1932 in
This is The Night) as a wealthy socialite and Randolph Scott as a down-to-earth (literally) geologist. Both men are the possible love interests of Nancy Carroll, a bank employee who is virtuous, but likes to spend the weekends partying with her pals. One hot Saturday night, things go a bit too far and before she knows what's happened, our sweet banker is the subject of gossip running through town like wildfire.

Because this is a pre-code film, subjects such as infidelity, spending the night at a wealthy man's house and even possible cuckolding are pushed to the forefront to bring as much salaciousness as possible. Also of note, a scene in which Nancy Carroll passes out in the rain and awakes to find herself dry in bed with all her clothes removed and hung out to dry by Randolph Scott's character, who leans over her in an intimate scene that would very soon be a definite no-no once the Hays Code began to be enforced.

Nancy Carroll is likeable and sympathetic and fresh-faced Cary Grant is incredibly charismatic, exhibiting leading man quality even this early in his career, still a couple of years shy of his 30th birthday. Randolph Scott doesn't have a lot to do here, but it's always nice to see him in a pinstripe suit instead of cowboy boots.

We screened Hot Saturday via the brand new 2021 Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray, which appears to come from a new scan and looks great, and includes a commentary by Lee Gambin.

Hot Saturday is a nice little melodrama that is perhaps most notable for its cast and not for its plot, but it does remind us that gossip, backstabbing, and bullying is nothing new. Once again, pre-code cinema exhibits how little we've changed in the last 100 years.

Monster Mash - 50 Years of Monster Cereal! Plus, General Mills Halloween Prizes in Every Box!

To celebrate 50 years of Monster Cereals, General Mills has created MONSTER MASH, a mega mix of all five monster cereals in one bowl! But that's not all: Count Chocula, Boo Berry, and Frankenberry have returned for a very special (and rare) cereal box prize available only for the Halloween season!

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