Thursday, 26 November 2009

Valdez Is Coming (1971)

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Clark, Jon Cypher
Music: Charles Gross
Director: Edwin Sherin
Screenplay: Roland Kibbee, David Rayfiel
(based on the novel by Elmore Leonard)
Director of Photgraphy: Gábor Pogány

Like Martin Ritt’s ‘Hombre’, made a few years earlier, this was adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, and, like ‘Hombre’, it presents as its hero someone from an oppressed minority who is forced into a confrontation against heavy odds, due to the violent actions of some unscrupulous characters who hold him in racial contempt. Happening across a shooting party, Mexican lawman Bob Valdez (Burt Lancaster) is forced into a confrontation with an innocent army veteran, a black man accused by the rancher who’s leading the party of a murder he didn’t commit. Stricken with guilt at having killed the man, Valdez tries to get the rancher to give him $100 to compensate the dead man’s Native American widow; however, he’s met with contempt and physical violence, and the main part of the film sees him taking his revenge. (Although one should note that it’s not straightforward revenge, as Valdez is acting as much to prove a point – to make the rancher accept his guilt and show some concern towards the oppressed – as he is to avenge a personal slight or injury.)

Less downbeat and more unbelievable in its development than ‘Hombre’, this is nonetheless a film I wanted to like, and one which certainly has something to lift it above your average western. It’s not a ‘message’ picture, as was the vogue at the time (‘Little Big Man’, ‘Solider Blue’ et al); rather, its revisionism is gentle and easy to miss, often just a seemingly throw-away line (asked when he hunted Apache, the titular hero replies “before I know better”). The fact that Valdez is a Mexican also runs counter to the usual western clichés of those ‘over the border’ being either caricatured bandidos (Calvera from ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and General Mapache from ‘The Wild Bunch’) or poor, oppressed farmers, essentially innocent but often incapable of defending themselves without the help of white mercenaries (again, we can turn to ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’ for examples). Indeed, an exchange between Valdez and his old friend Diego, where Valdez impersonates the rancher who will prove the villain of the piece, nicely captures the mix of scorn and idealisation which characterises the white man’s view of the Mexican: “well, you’re a good greaser, Diego. As long as you’re a good greaser, I treat you fair and square – yes sirree, Diego, you people sure know how to live: singing, dancing, screwing – you don’t worry about nothing.” It’s one of the best moments of the film, in part because it’s so understated, yet underlain with a certain dramatic tension: having begun wryly, ironically, Lancaster delivers the final line with what is almost a sigh; a shift to a new, quiet seriousness and determination which is signalled by the faint rattle of Morricone-esque percussion on the soundtrack, and which sees him ride out on his horse for his near-fatal second encounter with the rancher.

Given all this, it’s unfortunate that the Mexican is played by a white man in make-up, although I’d accept that, back in the 70s, there were less bankable Latin stars of the kind who crop up in Hollywood films today (one can imagine Benicio del Toro playing this role, for example). Not that Burt Lancaster’s make-up is particularly bad; and, after all, the fact that he played the hero of Robert Aldrich’s ‘Apache’ in similar ‘brown-face’ didn’t prevent him from giving a very fine performance in a very fine film. His blue eyes do look a little out of place here though, and the henchman character, ‘El Segundo’, looks like a pantomime villain, with hair that sprouts in huge, wild tufts on either side of his head, and dollops of face-paint which make him look like Laurence Olivier’s Othello. Indeed, several of the protagonists also look distinctly like 70s TV characters: I’m thinking primarily of the woman Valdez kidnaps, and her man, the villain of the piece.

Particularly in the second half of the film, ‘Valdez is Coming’ threatens to become a rather tedious revenge/chase movie, though the plot is slightly more complex than this. Nonetheless, there is something rather pulpy about the way that Lancaster turns from put-upon minor lawman to brilliantly competent guerrilla fighter, shooting a man from a 1,000 yards, easily picking off the numerous armed riders sent after him, and sneaking into the heart of the enemy camp without anyone noticing. It’s particularly noticeable partly because of the understated, resigned quality that characterises his performance in the initial stages of the film: moving slowly and speaking carefully, almost deferentially, Valdez is a character not exactly resigned to his lot (which is being treated with open or concealed contempt by his white neighbours) but understandably cautious about being too outspoken. From the moment he pulls his old army gear from under the bed and starts to growl, “Valdez is coming,” he is suddenly athletic, hyper-alert, and a crack shot who never misses the target. The one-man-against-impossible-odds storyline seems here actually more unbelievable than in ‘Chato’s Land’, where Charles Bronson’s character has the advantage of knowing the terrain – as the film’s title indicates, it is the desert which accounts for the fate of the posse he stalks as much as it is the actions of Chato himself. Valdez, though, eludes capture with such ease that the fact he is forced into a final showdown comes as rather a surprise – though, given the mechanics and conventions of plot, it has to happen.

It’s the old Elmore Leonard trick (seen also in ‘Mr Majestyk’) of having the passive, good-natured hero take his revenge after suffering some memorable indignity (in ‘Majestyk’, this involved the machine-gunning of a crop of melons; here, the incident has Lancaster forced to struggle through harsh terrain with a wooden cross strapped to his back). But whereas that sort of thing might be expected in a simple action film like ‘Mr Majestyk’, imposing such a cliché on what could have been a reasonably realistic look at life in the Old West means that ‘Valdez is Coming’ fails to live up to its initial promise. The end result is a rather uneasy compromise between action-movie set-pieces and something more thoughtful and interesting. Still, it’s worth an hour and a half of your time – even if that’s for what it could have been more than for what it is.

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