Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Devil's Mistress (1966)

The Old West. Four cowboys - the sadistic couple of madmen Charlie (Wes Moreland) and Joe (Douglas Warren), the young Frankie (Robert Gregory) and the experienced Will (Oren Williams) - have been run out of the last town they were in, and are now fleeing through the tribal highlands of the Apache.

Right in the middle of nowhere, the quartet comes upon a hut that is the home of a bearded, hollow-voiced man (Arthur Resley) and "his woman", the mute Liah (Joan Stapleton). The couple takes the strangers in without showing any signs of fear, but soon enough, Charlie and Joe - who had already fantasized about rape in an earlier scene - can hardly contain themselves anymore. A reason to point some guns at their hosts is found easily enough.

Instead of either partaking in the following, or trying to reign their mad friends in, Will and Frankie just ride away to meet up with them again later. Now completely free to play, the sadists kill the man, and rape Liah. Afterwards, they decide that it would be quite an idea to take the woman with them as their slave.

When the four cowboys meet up again to continue their journey, Will and Frankie aren't exactly happy with their flight turning into the Wandering Rapist Revue, but Will just glares and goes away for a while when things trouble him, and Frankie's just too chickenshit to do anything beyond complaining.

Not that Will and Frankie really need to do anything. After they have kidnapped Liah, a shadow hangs over the groups' travels. Someone seems to be following them, and spending close-up time with Liah leaves her kidnappers strangely helpless and exhausted. Soon enough, the first of them dies.

With Orville Wanzer's only film The Devil's Mistress, we are back again in the loving arms of US local film productions. The film was shot in New Mexico, and - not surprisingly - the regional landscape is one of the big advantages the film has over the more studio-bound of its brethren. Wanzer isn't a director for large, sweeping shots of his location (lack of money and experience usually prevent this sort of thing in this area of filmmaking), but he still makes some effective use of the bleakness and emptiness of a landscape that makes the intrusion of the strange into life all the more believable.

Wanzer belongs to the more technically proficient among the one-film directors of the locals. Shots are often actually composed, scenes are built from more than one shot (I know, that's what's usually called "filmmaking", but if there's one thing experience has taught me, then it's that what's usually called filmmaking and how low budget semi-professional films are made are often quite different things). Hell, some of these compositions are even pretty clever.

The acting's of the more expected type, wooden, not fully professional and less than inspired, though nothing too painful. Stapleton should probably be more charismatic, and more like a force of nature than an actual human being for what the film is trying to do with her, but her muteness and the shots of her just blankly staring into the distance or noiselessly whispering to a horse are appropriately moody.

Not surprisingly, The Devil's Mistress is a bit on the slow and ponderous side, with scenes often going on much longer than they should, and not much outward - or, for that matter, inward - action happening in it.

In the end, the lack of dramatic pull is not much of a problem for me. What makes the film fascinating is the feeling it evokes through and despite its slowness and its various other flaws. It's the feeling of watching a barely embellished folktale, the sort of legend I could imagine the film's characters telling each other around a campfire. Although this tale isn't told in the voice or with the technique of an experienced storyteller, it has an ambiguity and simplicity that can't be destroyed by a telling that isn't perfect; at least not for a listener willing to overlook the moments when the storyteller is getting a bit disoriented and needs a while to find his feet again.


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