Thursday, April 23, 2009
Entitled To One Weakness
When I went to Santa Fe for a few days I had an idea that I’d get to spend some time watching westerns. It’s hard for me not to want to see a few of them while I’m out there, so I made sure to bring a few extras DVDs with me. As it turned out, my days were fortunately pretty full and by the time I would get a chance late at night I was too tired to commit to one. So even though I’m back now I felt like I had to watch at least one western to make up for that and I decided to make it the most random title possible, a disc that I can barely even remember why I own it. Probably somebody at work was just giving some stuff away one day and I happened to take it at random. So that’s why I decided to sit down and watch THE BRAVADOS, a Gregory Peck western from 1958 directed by Henry King, screenplay by Philip Yordan. So there’s not really any reason why I decided to watch it, but I don’t really need one anyway. It’s a western and I hadn’t seen it. That’s reason enough.
Rancher Jim Douglas (Peck) enters the small town of Rio Arriba the day before a hanging of four outlaws (“two white men, a half-breed and an Indian” played by Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Lee Van Cleef, Henry Silva) is to take place. Not particularly willing to discuss why, he’s there for the hanging and no other reason. The one person in the town who does recognize him is Josefa Velarde (Joan Collins, not a very convincing Mexican) who had some sort of relationship with him five years ago in New Orleans but now finds him a completely different person. The town sheriff can tell that Douglas has a certain interest in the four men, allowing him to get a look at them and he soon warms up enough to go with Josefa to church for the night’s service. But when the hangman (Joe DeRita) shows up he turns out to be an accomplice who stabs the sheriff before being shot but the four of them manage to escape with a hostage. The town races off to catch them but Douglas is intent on leaving on his own time, fully intent on catching the four of them, “if it’s the last thing I’ll ever do.” What he hasn’t told anyone is exactly why he’s so determined to catch them and even if he’s certain that they’re the four men he’s looking for.
THE BRAVADOS is a fairly grim, straight-ahead narrative with a story that continually moves forward while keeping things about as serious as Peck’s performance. The story is fairly free of gimmicks but very quickly it becomes clear that none are needed and that this story of a man so determined that is tightly paced and structured right from the start. It’s also a great looking movie shot in CinemaScope with camerawork by Leon Shamroy that contains much more fluidity and shadings than a number of other early Twentieth-Century Fox entries in the Scope process that I’ve seen, with some genuinely striking location work in Mexico. There’s some great use of color at times as well, particularly in the bluish hue used in the numerous day-for-night scenes. Steadily paced the whole way through with barely a dull moment, if there are any issues I have it’s that the story’s structure has Peck be single-minded to a fault, unwilling to interact with the people around him. There’s a valid dramatic reason for this but it makes for a middle section where maybe there’s not quite enough conflict because there doesn’t seem to be anyone willing to stand up to him. Collins’ character does a little of this but she’s more of a supporting player than a lead, not that the actress would be able to match him if she did have a bigger part. As the town sheriff, Herbert Rudley has a non-nonsense approach to his performance which is helpful in establishing the tone early on but his character is sidelined fairly quickly. I almost want to be flip and say that the revelations about Peck’s character make the whole thing play as a cut-rate version of THE SEARCHERS, but it’s really better than that comparison makes it sound. Ultimately it’s a good film instead of a great film, but at least it is a good film and the mature tone ultimately stands out and causes it to stick in the mind. Even the music, credited to Lionel Newman, adds to the serious approach, not always bursting into a heroic fanfare every time Peck is in action. There is some abruptness at a few points, giving the impression that footage was removed late in the game—it’s only 97 minutes, after all—but overall it feels very tight with a conclusion that’s not what you’d normally expect from such a film yet is still completely earned.
Gregory Peck may not have anyone to play off of here who truly measures up to him—certainly Joan Collins can’t—but he certainly carries the movie on his own. There’s a great amount of confidence in the absolute quiet he plays scenes, particularly early on before we are told anything about him. His early scenes with Collins, where we can deduce on our own that he is unable to return her affections because he’s clearly not the same man she once knew, is a good example of how such an actor can carry a scene by doing next to nothing. The four familiar faces playing the outlaws may be over the top at times but frankly I’ve never been all that upset to see Henry Silva in a movie so I didn’t really care at all. There are also a number of recognizable faces as the townspeople who make impressions in their small roles including the familiar Jason Wingreen (ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE and the original voice of Boba Fett) but particularly good is longtime character actor Andrew Duggan as the town priest who knows more about Jim Douglas than anyone. The oddest bit of casting is of course Joe DeRita, later of The Three Stooges, as the hangman. He’s not used as any sort of comic relief but there is certainly something off about him from the first moment he walks onscreen in a way that we can’t put our finger on. It gets us to keep our eye on him when he appears from then on and is certainly a successful bit of casting someone offbeat in a role like this.
It’s the sort of touch that makes any movie stand out, let alone a western from the fifties and yeah, I should probably try to see more of those. It’s not a classic but I always need to remember that there are films in each decade and genre that may not be in their various pantheons but are still worth seeing. Each of these examples have the ability to shed further light onto different film styles, helping to continually learn what makes them work the way they do. I guess THE BRAVADOS is one of those films.