Monday, June 13, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Comancheros" (1961)

I don't regard "The Comancheros" as an exceptional Western. Its production values are exquisite -- gorgeous Deluxe color Cinemascope photography by William H. Clothier, a jaunty and memorable score by Elmer Bernstein, wonderfully detailed sets and costumes, and the steady hand and keen eye of director Michael Curtiz.

But in terms of plot and themes, it's largely a muddle. John Wayne plays Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger who spends much of the movie undercover posing as a gunrunner. He apprehends Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a Louisiana gambler wanted for murder after he won a duel against the son of a wealthy New Orleans family. They part ways, reconnect, evolve from adversaries to allies, and eventually team up to take down the Comancheros -- white and Hispanic men who have been supplying the Comanche Indians with rifles and whiskey.

Oh, and there's a short-shrifted romance, too.

The story seems to meander with the tumbleweeds, following one course for awhile until it grows boring or reaches a dead end, and then picks up a breeze and heads the other way.

What I did find notable about the film is Wayne's character and performance. Despite a life of pain, including having his family killed, Cutter has an upbeat demeanor, always quick with a smile and a joke. He treats even his enemies with a friendly regard and a measure of respect. I can't remember another movie in which Wayne's eye twinkled so brightly and often.

This is at odds with the Duke's star persona, which always had a streak of orneriness running through. Sometimes meanness dominated the character, as with Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers," and sometimes it was barely discernible, like the Ringo Kid from "Stagecoach." Most of the time, though, Wayne's cussedness lay just beneath the surface, like the hard iron of a Colt Peacemaker inside a comfortably worn leather holster.

There's really only one moment in "The Comancheros" when Cutter loses his temper, and that's in his confrontation with Comanchero Tully Crow. Cutter, posing as gunrunner Ed McBain -- complete with foppish grey top hat -- rendezvous with Crow and cuts a deal to sell guns to the Comanche. They get drunk to celebrate, wind down with steak dinners and a game of cards, and get into an argument about cheating.

What's memorable about this scene is how Wayne's character repeatedly and deliberately ignores the other man's threats and insults, and only resorts to violence when Crow draws on him. Most of Wayne's hombres would have thrown done at the first hint of disrespect.

Crow is played by Lee Marvin in a deliciously vicious, brief performance made all the more memorable by the fact that Crow only has half a scalp -- the other having been taken by the Comanche before he gained their trust and began bartering with them. Curtiz aims the camera leeringly at Crow's raw, bizarre wound -- a freakshow counterpoint to the man's even more repulsive personality.

Speaking of Curtiz, "The Comancheros" was his last film. He died shortly after its completion, and in fact he did not actually finish filming. His health forced him to drop out, and Wayne himself completed production in the director's chair ... though he refused an onscreen credit for co-directing.

Curtiz' name is generally not mentioned when lists of the great Golden Age directors are bandied about, but he deserves to be. Because he was largely a journeyman filmmaker, who took whatever jobs the studio assigned him or (later) he could find, most historians and critics regard him merely as a capable gun-for-hire who was lucky enough to find himself attached to good projects.

Bollocks. One does not acquire this sort of astonishing filmography -- "Casablanca," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Mildred Pierce," "Angels with Dirty Faces," "Captain Blood," "The Adventures of Robin Hood," to name just a few -- through happenstance. The very fact that he did not have a distinctive style is what made him great: Curtiz adapted his artistry to the material, rather than forcing his vision on a picture like a Hitchcock or Ford would have.

Stuart Whitman had an interesting career. Though he was never quite a star, he worked steadily in film and television for nearly 60 years, until a self-imposed retirement starting about a decade ago. He's still with us, and contributed to a fantastic new Blu-ray edition of "The Comancheros" to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Ina Balin plays Pilar Graile, daughter of the head of the Comancheros. In the grand Hollywood tradition of Caucasian actors assigned to ethnic roles, Balin was a Jewess from Brooklyn playing a Hispanic woman. Pilar is interesting for her unbending self-confidence, pursuing a romance with Regret -- but only if she can maintain the upper hand.

Nehemiah Persoff has a steely turn as her father, a crippled man who nonetheless rules the Comancheros with the absolute power of a patriarch. (Persoff was also Jewish, so I guess at least there was a twisted consistency.) Even Cutter acknowledges that father Graile must have been "a man to step aside from" when he was young and whole.

The plot seems to have its own, unfathomable rhythm. The screenplay by Clair Huffaker and James Edward Grant is based on the novel by Paul Wellman. Cutter's pressing duty ricochets back and forth between apprehending Regret and tracking the source of the Comanche's guns. They end up in the Comanchero village for the final showdown with the Rangers almost by happenstance.

Speaking of guns, despite being set in the 1840s, the rifles depicted in the movie are lever-action Winchesters not available until after the Civil War. Similarly, the revolvers are not the clumsy cap-and-ball weapons of that era but the more advanced cartridge pistols that were not invented until 30 years later.

Usually, Hollywood would have just rejiggered the period for the sake of expediency. But the Comanche tribes were relegated to reservations by the 1850s, and the Comancheros quickly faded away without their best trading customer.

"The Comancheros" is not a particularly good example of the classic Western, but I found it an engaging movie to see and think about. Some movies are like that -- better when considered than watched.

3 stars out of four

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