Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Valdez Is Coming (1971)

A decade or two after the remaining apaches have been driven into the reservations, Mexican Valdez (Burt Lancaster) works as a part-time shotgun rider, part-time constable, part-time speaker for the Mexican community in a frontier town in the US South-West. His hard work of taking his hat off to people who’d never deign to take theirs off to him, not looking white people in the eye and peacefully ignoring most slights has only paid off for him as much as the town’s white bourgeois can pride themselves in treating him paternistically decent (which of course is no actual human decency at all).

Valdez realizes that even this decency doesn’t go very far when the false accusation of rich gun runner Tanner (Jon Cypher) and the stupid craziness of young, racist would-be gunman Davis (Richard Jordan) cause him to, mostly accidentally, kill the innocent black man Tanner accused of murdering an old friend of his – the husband of his now girlfriend Gay (Susan Clark) – years ago. Because the man left an Apache wife (Juanita Penaloza), Valdez tries to raise two-hundred dollars for her as at least some sign of contrition for the whole shabby affair by the people involved in it. However, the good white people of the town won’t give him more than pennies until he manages to collect a hundred dollars from Tanner.

Tanner, not surprisingly, doesn’t care one single bit about his own guilt, and lets his men, or rather the men of his main henchman El Segundo (Barton Heyman), rough Valdez up. Valdez does get the message yet decides to ignore it, going to Tanner a second time to ask for the money. This time around Tanner lets his men tie Valdez to a cross he’ll have to drag through the wilderness behind him; it’s clearly expected he will die this way.

Yet survive Valdez does, unpacking his old gear from his time as a scout and sharpshooter for the US cavalry, and now starting to ask for the money rather more violently. In the end, a lot of people will die for a hundred dollars, or rather the thing these dollars stand for, some people will show their true colours, and just perhaps, one man of power and money will learn that his power and money will only bring him that far.

It’s a rather confusing fact that a film as staunchly and clearly anti-racist as Edwin Sherin’s Valdez is Coming (based on a novel by Elmore Leonard) sees more than one actor donning brown-face. On the other hand, Burt Lancaster’s performance here is fine, often subtle stuff, so I wouldn’t call him miscast otherwise.

Lancaster does a lot of acting by body language and posture, an absolute necessity with a character like Valdez who doesn’t explain himself verbally; possibly because he doesn’t have many people to explain himself to except for his friend Diego (Frank Silvera), and Diego seems to know all that’s important about and for Valdez without needing to hear it. Lancaster’s posture shows how years of assumed humility (or really, as the Mexican version of an Uncle Tom) have bent his shoulders down, possibly even more so because his eyes always tell the audience he doesn’t have any illusions about his actual position in the eyes of the white bourgeoisie he’s never allowed to look straight in the eye; and it’s quite the moment – subtly underplayed by Lancaster as well as by the director – when he finally does look up. Also never explicitly emphasised by direction or actor, yet clear, is how Valdez’s posture changes the longer he gets back to making use of his old skill set.

However, the film isn’t quite so much singing a song of the glories of vigilantism here as you might expect. Even though Valdez comes to life donning his old uniform and weapons and doing what he does best, he and the film he’s in know that it’s not necessarily a good thing to be best at, something that changes men for the worse, particularly men like Valdez who have come to understand the consequences of their actions (in one of the film’s sparse moments of explicitness close to the film’s end Valdez explains that he has experience “hunting Apache” from a time when “he didn’t know better”). There’s little joy in the violence here, only a calm businesslike attempt to somehow make up for things you can’t make up for, as well as a sad knowledge you actually can’t yet still have to try.

Most of this is carried by the posture of Lancaster’s shoulders, the look in his eyes, and Sherin’s compositions of Spain’s (as so often standing in for the US) landscapes that often dwarf the people moving through them.

Surprisingly, the film does end on a rather hopeful note, the idea that, perhaps, the inevitable can be evaded somehow, and things can turn around for the hopeless cause; though it also leaves the possibility open that perhaps, it might not.

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