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March 07, 2017

Vera Cruz

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Robert Aldrich - 1954
MGM Home Video BD Region A

Several cinephile friends and acquaintances have been discussing the television series, Feud, based on the rivalry of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. While also a character in the series, the director of that film, Robert Aldrich, seems to have been pushed to the background. I haven't seen any episodes of Feud yet, but it is important to note that it was Aldrich who had the idea of getting Davis and Crawford together. Not only did Aldrich have to persuade the two actresses, but also studio head Jack Warner, as well. Aldrich had worked with Crawford previously on Autumn Leaves, in which we are to believe that mentally fragile Cliff Robertson finds happiness with Joan, after his previous wife has been seduced by Robertson's father, played by the older by eight years Lorne Greene. And keep in mind that Joan Crawford was older than both men. Jack Warner had a much longer history with Davis and Crawford when both were contract stars at Warner Brothers, and had doubts about any box office potential of two "old broads".

While several critics have pointed out to several classic films starring Davis and Crawford to get a better sense of what the actresses were like during the years that cemented their respective stardom, I propose that Robert Aldrich should be given is due. In thinking about his career, well before Baby Jane, Aldrich had also worked with several demanding male stars who also made a point of throwing their weight around. And the first was Burt Lancaster, for whom Aldrich directed two films, that Lancaster produced.

I had seen Vera Cruz once, quite a while ago on a black and white telecast. My interest in seeing it again was piqued by Alex Cox's book on Italian westerns, citing Aldrich's film as an inspiration with a plot that involved a series of double crosses, and Burt Lancaster, often seen dressed completely in black, as the charismatic mercenary, first seen selling Gary Cooper a stolen horse. Lancaster did make a point of making a couple of films with older actors he admired, Cooper here, and Clark Gable in Run Silent, Run Deep. And according to accounts, Cooper also made some demands known to Aldrich regarding what his character would or would not do. I'm not aware of Cooper and Lancaster having problems working together, unlike Gable and Lancaster four years later. What is also notable that Gable and Cooper were still considered viable movie stars well into their fifties, unlike Davis and Crawford.

While a widescreen Technicolor western that takes place largely in the rough terrain of Mexico is in terms of genre a world away from a black and white film taking place within an old mansion, Aldrich has several films with either a pair of characters, or a group, that may be at odds with each other, but more frequently will set aside their own agendas, at least temporarily, for a common goal. Baby Jane is about a relationship too severed to be overcome, with a feeling of regret for the sibling rivalry at the end, suggesting what have been had there been no automobile accident that defined the remaining lives of the Hudson sisters.

More than sixty years later, Vera Cruz will probably be of more interest to contemporary viewers for anticipating some the changes to be seen in future westerns, as well as glimpsing early performances by two actors who became iconic later in life. Certainly, Gary Cooper mowing down a Mexican army anticipates, among other films, a similar scene in The Wild Bunch. The plot of Americans loose in Mexico, hired to take sides in a revolution, has been visited several times. While historically correct, but an anomaly for a big budget western, Lancaster's gang includes the black actor-dancer, Archie Savage, a talent certainly underutilized on the big screen. When not blinded by the sight of Burt Lancaster flashing his famous, toothy smile, Ernest Borgnine and the actor formerly known as Charles Buchinsky can also be seen as part of Lancaster's gang. Aldrich uses his signature overhead shot to catch a glimpse of Denise Darcel's cleavage. That Aldrich later explored lesbian relationships in Killing of Sister George seems less surprising with a scene of Borgnine and Jack Elam dancing together, as well as a later scene with the seemingly most sophisticated, and well-dressed gang member dancing with someone wearing a full mask, only to be revealed as a short, gap toothed man. Hopefully, interest in Feud will generate renewed interest in Robert Aldrich and his films. Andrew Sarris describes the relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis as combustible. I would say that this describes what goes on in almost every Robert Aldrich film.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 7, 2017 08:08 AM