Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

When young Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) is called back by his father from a life of duelling, making merry and a bit of soldiering in Spain to Spanish California, he finds out his Dad Don Alejandro (Montagu Love) isn’t the governor of the province around beautiful Los Angeles anymore. The just, fair and incredibly law abiding Don Alejandro has been replaced by the cruel, greedy, snivelling and all-around unpleasant Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) who shares the spoils of oppressing the peasantry with his not exactly beloved partner in crime and captain of the local soldiery, Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone).

Diego is not at all happy with this sort of thing but he knows his father won’t approve of any extra-legal attempts to get rid of Quintero, Pasquale and their minions, so he decides to pretend to be the wimpiest fop ever to have spent time in Spain and secretly fight them under the guise of the masked rider Zorro in a campaign of finely placed needle pricks. If all goes to plan Zorro’s activities should bring Quintero to resignation, and get him to name Don Alejandro as his replacement to avoid having one bad apple replaced by another one. While he’s at it, Diego also finds the time to romance Quintero’s niece, the extremely virginal Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell) out of love, as well as Quintero’s wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) as part of his plans.

Rouben Mamoulian’s movie version of Johnston McCulley’s pulp character Zorro is pretty much the epitome of a great old-style Hollywood swashbuckling film. It’s crisply paced – having already established its characters and situation and started its hero on his mission by minute twenty-one – going from sharp, genuinely funny dialogue scenes to still exciting action to a cute romance and back again with aplomb and a generous spirit that should put a smile on everyone’s face.

Power is the perfect Zorro as well as the perfect Don Diego, diving in the pretend-foppishness with the same verve he shows when he (well, or his fencing double) is donning his costume, milking every fun little barb the script gives him for the best effect and – obviously, giving the sort of film this is and the time it comes from – cutting the appropriately dashing figure. I also find him genuinely likeable because he gets the rather difficult balancing act between charming and rogue just right and therefore never comes over as a self-loving prick. And we all know how Basil Rathbone excelled at being the villain in this kind of piece, as well as at the fencing.

Mamoulian is a director I really more connected with musicals, and wouldn’t have expected to be quite this good at letting the swash buckle. Though swashbucklers and musicals do of course share an emphasis on elegant movement, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised by how perfectly Mamoulian handles the material here. There’s a joyfulness of movement (and therefore physicality) not only to the action scenes but also to much of the dialogue sequences, with little in Mamoulian’s direction that seems routine or in the least bit willing to ever look boring or bland. The director’s hand is so strong, he even gets away with a central fencing match between Diego and Pasquale that doesn’t take place in an open space or very large room but in what amounts to a somewhat larger office room. The strong choreography by Fred Cavens - responsible for a lot of the more impressive looking fencing you’ll see in classic Hollywood films – for that decisive duel is pretty remarkable, too, using the cramped space brilliantly and inventively.

The whole thing’s also beautiful to look at, with sets that are certainly not authentic to the time and place they are supposed to belong to but which feel like the proper environments for the story taking place in them.  Arthur C. Miller’s photography is shadow-rich and atmospheric, never looking anything less than perfect for any given moment.

If all this sounds as if I enjoyed The Mark of Zorro a lot, and think it’s one of the best swashbucklers and adventure movies ever to have come out of classic sound film Hollywood, then I’ve done my job here exactly right.

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