Vera Cruz (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster

Below the Mexican border, during Antebellum days, a diverse array of Americans find themselves in the middle of the fight against Maximillian of France. Vera Cruz is far from a history lesson, however. It need not be. Still, it plays as an important footnote in a different type of history altogether, that of the classic western genre in a current state of evolution, jutting ahead into the 60s.

The script is not always phenomenal, but what it does have is an Aldrich-like penchant for the cynicism of noir. It starts to make even more sense when you consider Borden Chase’s pedigree: a fine row of Anthony Mann westerns. And yet the good sense of amusement overshadows everything else. This is how it still manages to remain a product of the 50s (which isn’t necessarily bad).

Its other readily available and beneficial assets are star power: the pairing of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster fits the bill. Then, the on-location shooting does so much to elevate the environmental credibility. There is no other way to make this picture feel truly robust aside from actually finding your way down to Mexico. It’s not that it’s a wholly authentic experience, but at least something in these locales breathes of some form of reality.

Lancaster has the beefier, more intriguing part as Joe Erin, but Gary Cooper (Ben Trane) is able to bring his even-keeled strength to a new generation of westerns, and it serves the picture splendidly. It’s paramount that the two stars act as the utter antitheses of one another while still managing to be opposite sides of the same archetype.

Their garbs still plant them squarely in the traditions of olds, Cooper in the light colors of an undisputed hero and Lancaster game to wear the pitch-black clothes of a two-bit bandit, who would shoot a man in the back and hold children hostage.

Due to Coop’s presence, I couldn’t help but feel Vera Cruz is somehow reminiscent of the adventure films of old like Lives of a Bengal Lancer. There is a similar sense of camaraderie here and our main characters are able to blow through their mission on their own personal valor, even as the locals only purpose seems to be that of collateral damage.

As hinted at before, Vera Cruz is also an early forerunner to a future generation of westerns, all but losing the luster of the mythologized west for something grittier, more graphic, and in some ways, more stylized.

This is the lineage that will lead us to The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone, and The Wild Bunch Et al. The presence of Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine in a pair of minor thuggish roles are a convenient nod to their future counterparts. For that matter, even Jack Elam would get into Once Upon a Time in the West.

The picture can generally be characterized by two distinct tones: giddy in one moment and equally tense and unsentimental in the next. If you mentally draw up any partnerships or rivalries in the picture, you’re probably apt to see it. It’s incredibly fluid. This precedent is effectively established when Erin growls at his pack of thugs that they aren’t even his friends. Instead of ganging up on Trane, he welcomes him aboard into their merry company.

In other words, he doesn’t show favoritism, nor does he harbor any kind of sentimentality. It’s both an asset and a curse. Always game for a new gun to come around, but equally intent upon looking after number one. His sole allegiance is to himself.

In their attempts to sell themselves out as mercenaries in the Franco-Mexican War — potentially to Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) — they find themselves trapped. Rebels poke their heads over the side of mission walls, guns pointed menacingly down on them.

One must only dip back into the memory bank to remember a similar visual in Butch Cassidy. But of course, in this picture Coop is still infallible and by most accounts, indestructible. Talking his way out of predicament with casual diplomacy and whipping out his six-shooter only upon provocation. He’s entered the grimy, blood-spattered world full of its ambiguous tones, and yet he still remains stalwart. One of the last remaining bastions of the archetypal western hero.

If anything, Vera Cruz signals the decline of his reign over the West, even as it manages to have a wagon full of fun. They show their prowess with a Winchester rifle in the courts of Emperor Maximillian, only to be entrusted with a tenuous mission to escort a Countess (Denise Darcel) to Veracruz. Their valuable cargo winds up being more precious than they first envisioned when they discover it’s loaded up with gold bullion.

The gold becomes the driving force worthy of all sorts of double-crosses and easily rearranged allegiances. There are those driven by greed, others who want the kingdom, and still others, the most noble of all, who want to return the nation to its rightful rulers.

In this last act, the patriotic Juarista and the French forces face off with all the fervor you can imagine. The editing feels surprisingly quick for a day and age when breaking 10 seconds on an individual shot was not altogether uncommon.

Aldrich, in his first big production, fused with the talents of cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, boasts a picture with a lot of frenetic energy to offer. It is an imperfect, at times, disjointed effort, but it willingly takes hold of the bridle and rides the story to a worthwhile conclusion.

There are ample visually striking moments to reference, from a column of men on horseback fleeing across the plains and then, in the climactic moments, gattling guns rattling the terrain with bullets. Cannon volleys follow in earnest as a charging onslaught of men look to take the Bastille, as it were. Clouds of gunpowder and smoke hang in the already dusty air.

This is purely on the macro level. Overlaid with Erin’s relentless ambitions to acquire the gold for his own, and Trane looking to do anything in his power to keep him at bay. It comes down to the fated face-off, all but bubbling under the surface from the first time they ever laid eyes on one another. Do you really need to guess the outcome? See it for yourself.

The final emblematic images are of a ravaged battleground strewn with dead bodies. Widows and orphans scurrying to find loved ones and survey the damage. Who ends up with the gold at this point feels inconsequential. The conclusions drawn might as well be the cataclysmic effects of avarice and war. Though Vera Cruz has enough wherewithal to manage a decently good time going about it. This might be an unfeeling observation to make but, once again, it also remains a fitting portent for the future.

3.5/5 Stars

Kiss me Deadly (1955)

kissmedeadly1Set in L.A., the film stars Ralph Meeker as the callous and often corrupt P.I. Mike Hammer, adapted from the Mickey Spillane novels. One night while driving, Hammer picks up a frightened woman who begs him to remember her. They are forced off the road by thugs and the girl is eventually killed. Hammer wakes up in the hospital to his secretary girlfriend Velda (Maxime Cooper). He makes it his priority to find out what the mysterious woman was talking about. He meets up with opposition and a femme fatale, but Hammer keeps on going using strong-armed tactics. He finally tracks down a mysterious whats-it but then discovers that Velda was kidnapped. In the final confrontation, he finally learns who he was looking for and he finds out the consequences of the Pandora’s box in the hands of a deadly female.

Out of most of the prominent works in the canon, Kiss Me Deadly is probably the pulpiest of L.A. Noir. The images are rather like a historical time capsule of 1950’s Los Angeles with locations on Wilshire Blvd., Sunset Blvd, and even near Angels Flight. It has crisp black and white cinematography with many noticeably low angles underlying the sleekness, but also the paranoia wrapped up in this story. It arguably has the queerest cold open and ending of any noir, which I cannot help but remember.

kissmedeadly2Ralph Meeker plays’s Mickey Spillane’s P.I. Mike Hammer to a tee. His husky voice perfectly fits the bravado of Hammer, a misogynistic brute prone to coercive action. Out of all the private gumshoes we’ve met, Hammer is probably the lowest — he’s a real scuzzball.

 Hammer throws women around like playthings and even his girl Velda has a double purpose. Yes, she is a lover, but she also makes a keen asset for business. As a P.I. specializing in divorce cases and marital problems, he’s not below giving business a little help. Velda willingly works on the husbands for him and he’s not above playing around with their wives. It’s a cozy little set-up.

kissmedeadly8That’s Hammer’s level and so when he gets caught up in the story of the mysterious girl Christina (Cloris Leachman), he has no idea what he gotten himself into. It’s a lot bigger than him and when the authorities throw around words like the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, and Trinity he finally understands what its all about, but not really. In essence, Kiss Me Deadly is the quintessential film of paranoia in the Cold War nuclear age. We have a MacGuffin in the form of the mysterious Whats-it, but aside from that, we get few answers. Only a few deaths and some mighty kissmedeadly4destruction.

Kiss Me Deadly has some great characters aside from Hammer and Velma. The thugs are played by the perpetually cross-eyed Jack Elam and the glowering Jack Lambert which turns out to be great casting. Also, the lively Greek-American Nick (Nick Dennis) is a great deal of fun with his enthusiasm and a lot of “Vavavoom!”

It’s an interesting dilemma because I have never loved Kiss Me Deadly, but director Robert Aldrich developed a film that is so persistently interesting. It was a film that was supposed to ruin young viewers for its moral depravity, sensuality and who knows what else. This film literally screams “Remember Me” and honestly I will not be forgetting about it anytime soon.

3.5/5 Stars

Christina: You have only one real lasting love.

Hammer: Now who could that be?

Christina: You. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard. 

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

This psychological thriller starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford with Victor Buono, opens with the bratty vaudeville star Baby Jane Hudson. Her sister Blanche lives in her shadow but begrudgingly agrees to watch out for her sister. Now in the 1930s Blanche is the movie star and Jane is all but forgotten. After a mysterious accident, the film moves to the present where Blanche is confined to a wheelchair and Jane vengefully takes care of her. Because of Jane’s psychotic and often cruel behavior, Blanche tries getting help several times but to no avail. She is at the mercy of her sister, when Jane is not trying to renew her career with the help of a young accompanist. Ultimately  the truth is revealed and the film ends on a pitiful note. This film is full of suspense and Davis is absolutely creepy; never was one staircase so integral to a story either.

4.5/5 Stars