BR: Vera Cruz (1954)

April 1, 2020 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Standard

Label:  MGM

Region: All

Released:  June 7, 2011

Genre:  Western

Synopsis: A Confederal Colonel and a scoundrel accept a too-good-to-be-true deal to escort a lady and a gold-packed carriage to Vera Cruz during the Mexican Revolution.

Special Features:  Theatrical Trailer.




Although the first film produced & released by RKO in their new widescreen process was Underwater! (1955), it was United Artists’ Vera Cruz (1954) that was the first film shot in Superscope, a sort-of anamorphic system developed by the Tuchinsky brothers, which the studio adopted as their (initial) preferred process.

According to the Widescreen Museum (which offers a lengthy dissection of Superscope), films were shot using normal lenses to fill out the full 35mm frame, including the area normally reserved for sound, and widescreen anamorphic prints were actually created in the lab prior to being theatrically exhibited in an anamorphic 2:1 ratio.

In creating a wide image by optically ‘blowing out’ a rectangle image from a full frame negative, the results were often mixed. Unlike RKO’s mega-hyped Jane Russell swimsuit saga Underwater! Vera Cruz shows more of the format’s technical issues: the horses’ legs in the main title sequence are chopped off (maybe the decision to film the production in widescreen came late, or the second unit crew erred), and the grain level is substantially higher in long and medium shots – perhaps a combination of the lenses, the blowing-out process, and less than ideal film stock.

In both Superscope and Fox’s CinemaScope processes, shots that dissolve between each other have palpable grain, but it’s far more pronounced in Vera Cruz; perhaps Underwater! cinematographer Harry J. Wild insisted on a better grade of stock to minimize the celluloid gristle.

Now, the reason for this technical preamble prior to the film review is perhaps to prepare one for the disappointment that’s affected both DVD and Blu-ray editions what is an otherwise raucous, action-heavy, and sometimes brutal western that’s also a seminal entry in the buddy action formula.

By the early 1950s, Burt Lancaster had substantially grown from movie star to producer, forming the famous Hecht-Hill-Lancaster and Hecht-Lancaster productions, and Vera Cruz was their second collaboration with director Robert Aldrich, with whom they’d made the well-received Apache (1954).

Based on a story by Borden Chase and written with underappreciated verve by Roland Kibbee (A Night in Casablanca, The Tall Men) and western scribe James R. Webb (The Big Country, Cheyenne Autumn, How the West Was Won), Vera Cruz has former Confederate Colonel Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) leading his lame horse into a Mexican ranch. Soon after paying an extortion price to thuggish gang leader Joe Erin (Lancaster, sporting an especially radiant 2000 Watt version of The Grin), the two find ephemeral safety under the gilded wings of Mexico’s pretentious Emperor Maximilian (George Macready), a satellite monarch implanted by Austria in a doomed attempted to claim a small chunk of South America for itself.

Joe double-crosses Ben, then gets double-crossed by Ben who makes it into town alive, then meets Joe’s sleazy gang, and is almost beaten to a pulp until Joe reappears, arguably saving his life and toasting ‘the only friend he ever had.’

It’s a soon-to-expire marriage comprised of a beaten and soul-searching southern Colonel and a band of adventuring crooks, and their wobbly alliance with Maximilian, while rebel Juaristas plot further attacks and gradually acquire funds to defeat the Eurotrash Emperor and found a new nation.

Joe and Ben escort a convoy consisting of a carriage of gold needed to hire and ferry soldiers from Paris, and safeguard pretty Countess Marie Duvarre (sultry Denise Darcel), the formal girlfriend of the Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) who leads the convoy alongside Capt. Danette (sneering Henry Brandon).

During their travels, it seems everyone’s a scoundrel, and as knowledge of $3 million in gold coins spreads, allegiances are as ephemeral as clusters of wind-blown rain clouds. Romero nicely underplays the savvy Marquis, who shares the Emperor’s own exploitive designs for the foolish, greedy Americans; deliciously slimy Macready (Rogues of Sherwood Forest, Gilda, Paths of Glory) adds extra oily filth to the slickly attired monarch; Darcel has Marie evolve from a refined piece of executive décor to a nasty femme fatale; and Joe’s gang is packed with a fine band of character actors, including Ernest Borgnine (soon to win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the titular lonely Joe in the Hech-Lancaster production of Marty), Jack Elam (Kiss Me Deadly, Once Upon a Time in the West), a young Charles Bronson, Juan Garcia (excellent in The Tall Men), dancer Archie Savage (fresh from appearing with Lancaster in His Majesty O’Keefe), and outrageously prolific Morris Ankrum (In a Lonely Place, Invaders from Mars, Apache).

Amid the deprecating jokes, jabs, and the eyeing and occasionally manhandling of women are stark class struggles which ensure neither Joe (an instinctive fighter and schemer), Ben (a seasoned war vet with a bruised but functional moral compass), the Marquis, Juarista leader Ankrum, autocratic Danette, and gang lieutenant Donnegan (Borgnine) can solidify any real trust; it’s just in their nature to look out for their own skins.

Joe and Ben frequently bond over food and drink and guns; neither is afraid of greasy finger food, but whereas Ben’s cultured nature keeps him sober and disciplined to think fast and shoot precisely, Joe’s ultimately the victim of his own indulgent behaviour. The two men share genuine affection and admiration for what each lacks (and perhaps secretly wishes could acquire, or behave with impunity), but they have stark differences in keeping their word. There’s also their differing trust and respect for women: Joe smacks the Countess around, knowing they’re both cut from the same cheap cloth, while Ben gradually builds a friendship and seeds a potential relationship with Nina (beautiful Sara Montiel), the not-so-secret Juarista rebel.

Vera Cruz feels like a modern buddy actioner because it forces two unlikely scoundrels to team up for a greed-packed goal, then adds a pair of savvy and smart women, a gang of hired guns with flexible loyalties, augurs drama and nastiness with sharp humour, and most importantly, delivers major action scenes in fantastic locations before the marriage of our partial anti-heroes crumbles, and mandates a showdown.

In spite of the aforementioned technical flaws of Superscope, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (D.O.A., It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Logan’s Run) maximizes the vistas of the arid landscapes, the massive ruins of Teotihuacan and worn Spanish forts and rectories. Aldrich’s use of tracking camera and obfuscated foregrounds are very striking, plus wide-angle lenses make two and three-shots of grinning Lancaster especially menacing.

Not unlike Sam Peckinpah, Aldrich’s use of a gifted editor ensures action scenes move at a fast clip, maintain absolutely coherence, and match sometimes very odd shot choices, especially during an otherwise superbly choreographed attempt by the Juaristas to snatch the gold-packed carriage in cramped streets and alleys.

When the chase literally leaps from the sprawling town into an open field, Laszlo’s camera keeps tracking with the pursued and the Emperor’s uniformed men, and in many shots one sees Lancaster doing several stunts. Just as impressive is Montiel, jostled as she drives a covered wagon over highly uneven ground. It’s an unusually sustained shot that enhances the tension of the epic sequence, and Ben clearly gets a rush in seeing Nina being so resilient. As he becomes increasing enamored by Nina’s strong persona and morality, Ben in turn falls for the Countess because he sees a reflection of his morally corroded self beneath her faux image of refinement.

Alan Crossland Jr.’s edits are tight and fluid, adding immensely to the film’s contemporary feel, and although he would switch to directing reams of episodic TV, Vera Cruz still stands as a textbook example of top-notch action editing and scene choreography. The final shootout in a monastery is packed with waves of nuances and movements as rebels attempt a siege, and Maximilian’s stiff soldiers initially maintain their defensive positions with heavy firepower, which includes a deadly Gatling gun.

During the 1950s, Fox’s reliable Hugo Friedhofer had scored a slew of top dramatic films (Seven Cities of Gold, Boy on a Dolphin, An Affair to Remember, The Young Lions), and although not new to the western genre (Broken Arrow, Hondo), Vera Cruz features the kind of rich musical themes he would expand to ravishing variations in later masterpieces such as One-Eyed Jacks (1961).

(It’s also worth noting a curious parallel between the music of Vera Cruz and 100 Rifles, the 1969 action-western / buddy movie scored by Jerry Goldsmith. Both composers used differing degrees of orchestra with South American influences, but the Juaristas’ siege of the monastery is heavily enhanced by Friedhofer’s striking, modernistic orchestrations, with dissonant strings and heavy brass – aspects which Goldsmith may have drawn from to craft his own legendary chase montage in which Austrian snots chase Burt Reynolds, Jim Brown, and Raquel Welch through the peaks and steep slopes of a bleak, crumbling valley.

This parallel between Vera Cruz and 100 Rifles reinforces the suggestion that among Goldsmith’s early influences, Friedhofer was a valuable resource for action writing, and bending a melodic theme into grinding, menacing, and heavily polyrhythmic action cue. At present, Fiedhofer’s score remains unreleased on disc, but a vocal theme not used in the film written with Sammy Cahn was issued on LP in 1954.)

The bullet-proof structure of the script as well as the sharp character archetypes and quips among dangerous rivals and would-be lovers separates Vera Cruz from its more formal genre entries, and the success of the film probably gave Aldrich the clout to both start his own production shingle and direct a slew of genre classics, including the nasty noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the bleak drama The Big Knife (1955), the gothic shocker Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and the nihilistic WWII actioner The Dirty Dozen (1967). The director would reteam with Lancaster for Ulzana’s Raid (1972) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), and offer Borgnine one of his best and the meanest role of his career, the ax-wielding train conductor in Emperor of the North (1973).

MGM’s Blu-ray (sadly, now OOP) is a marked improvement over their prior DVD which suffered from low volume levels and muddy sound. The cleaner HD audio does bring out technical flaws in the dubbing – the studio looping was seemingly done in an echo-plagued booth, and Montiel’s English dubbing drifts – but Friedhofer’s score and the punchy sound effects manage to shine.

Laszlo’s pastel colour palette is very lovely when the shots are clean; the aforementioned grain does affect optical dissolves, plus one very odd shot during a marksmanship challenge between Joe, Ben, and Maximilian; the massive grime in that single shot suggests Aldrich needed a specific cutaway for his montage, and opted to blow-up a small section of a wider shot in spite of the jarring drop in quality.

The lone extra is a trailer, which is a shame, given Vera Cruz offers an excellent opportunity to celebrate Aldrich’s canon – either via featurettes or a steady commentary by a historian.

Cinesavant’s review of the film cites an important omission – apparently MGM’s 1993 laserdisc (1.85:1) retained the Superscope proclamation ‘chopped’ from the DVD and BR transfers – and cites a few other technical issues which may well stem from a rushed audio editing & mixing sessions. Interestingly, the trailer on the Blu-ray ends with a red Superscope logo – a peculiar placement, given Fox bookended and interpolated the logo and mention of CinemaScope wherever they could in their trailers.

Roland Kibbee would also write the similarly timeless buddy / pirate actioner The Crimson Pirate (1952) and the western Valdez is Coming (1971) for Lancaster, and The Midnight Run (1974) which he co-directed with the star. He also wrote the infamous western The Appaloosa (1966), and built a hefty C.V. in TV, creating It Takes  a Thief (1968-1970) and directing episodes of The Bob Newhart Show (1961-1962).

James R. Webb similar wrote a handful of films for Lancaster – Apache (1954), Trapeze (1956) – and the suspense classic Cape Fear (1962). Although many films were made from stories by Borden Chase, the author also scripted Flame of the Barbary Coast (1945), Red River (1948), Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), and His Majesty O’Keefe for Lancaster.



© 2020 Mark R. Hasan





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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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