When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
A Weekend of Cult Westerns

It’s easy to get confused.

Some folks mix up El Salvador and San Salvador.  Others can’t differentiate between Monique van Vooren and Mamie Van Doren.

For me, two ‘big status’ Westerns from the 1950s have always been interchangable in my mind.  I’d never seen either one, but their window-dressings are similar:  both starred Gary Cooper, both were shot in Mexico, and both were helmed by directors with a cult following.  They’re THEY CAME TO CORDURA and VERA CRUZ.

So, stuck on my couch with a bad cold over Memorial Day Weekend, I had a perfect opportunity for back-to-back comparisons of Alternative Westerns from the ‘fifties .

Despite the similar credentials, the movies themselves (to quote my South Carolina mom) “are as different as cheese and chalk!”  VERA CRUZ is a work by tough-minded and idiosyncratic Robert Aldrich, made directly before his trilogy of California Noir — KISS ME DEADLY, THE BIG KNIFE, and AUTUMN LEAVES.  This is only Aldrich’s second A-List movie, but he already nails the grammar of film, showing a knowledge of how to use the demanding visual language of up/down, dark/light, left/right.  But then, he had been an assistant director in the 1940s for some great directors, including Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin, Max Ophuls, William A. Wellman, and THEY CAME TO CORDURA‘s director, Robert Rossen.

Rossen, like Aldrich, could delve into the unbalanced shadows of life (e.g., THE HUSTLER), but his praxis in filmmaking was more literary, more painterly.  [Ironic since it was Rossen who grew up hustling pool and prizefighting on New York’s East Side, while Aldrich was from a privileged Rhode Island family, was Nelson Rockefeller’s cousin, and was one degree of separation from the Federal Reserve Board.]

While Aldrich learned the craft by working as the director’s assistant, Rossen was a writer-turned-director.  The transition from grinding out scripts to stepping behind the camera wasn’t easy:  Rossen’s directing career was rocky path, starting well with an Oscar nomination for ALL THE KING’S MEN, his third directing effort.  Then came the Hollywood Blacklist, and his resulting inactivity and emigration to Europe, where he made the delicious MAMBO (1954) with Silvana Mangano as the lady who shimmies the eponymous dance, Michael Rennie as her suitor, Shelley Winters as her frustrated lesbian lover, and the legendary African-American dance troupe of Katherine Dunham in its prime.  After a couple more Hollywood films (the last of which was CORDURA), Rossen became an East Coast auteur, making his penultimate film, THE HUSTLER, and his final film, LILITH, close to his native New York.  Rossen was deeply ill during most of the filming of LILITH, but it was the continual battles with the film’s star, Warren Beatty, that is reportedly the reason Rossen walked away from filmmaking.  [Co-stars Gene Hackman and Peter Fonda were so infuriated with Beatty’s behavior, they planned to jump him one night and hammer him into the ground.]

Both the Aldrich western and the Rossen film are revelatory in personal ways.  VERA CRUZ is now seen in retrospect as the forefather of the Spaghetti Western genre, with an uneasy alliance of a chivalrous hero (Cooper as a vanquished Southern gentleman) and sadistic anti-hero (Burt Lancaster as a cold-blooded mercenary) in a mutual quest for lucre and poontang.  Among the ladies being pursued is Franco-era Spanish cinema star Sara Montiel, who was exalted to the diva pantheon in Pedro Almodovar’s LA MALA EDUCACION (Bad Education).

Female companionship is the furthest thing from Cooper’s mind in THEY CAME TO CORDURA, as his character is homosexual, at least in the novel on which the film is based.  (John Wayne denounced the veiled gay angle of the film, with an implied affair between officer Cooper and his underling Tab Hunter, as “poison polluting Hollywood’s moral bloodstream.”)

However the sole female performance in CORDURA by Rita Hayworth is one of her strongest.  The film was shot on location in the desert, so (at least to the ears of this Emmy-winning sound designer) almost all dialog was re-recorded in a sound studio for clarity (aka “looping”).  Despite her fiery screen image, Hayworth was quite an introvert, and having the opportunity to speak dialog by herself, alone in a studio with just headphones and a microphone, presented her with a chance to deliver the most superbly modulated, phrased and inflected lines of her career.

In THEY CAME TO CORDURA, supporting actor Dick York (the original Darren Stephens from TV’s BEWITCHED) was injured in a horse-riding scene, an accident from which he never recovered.  Eventually he had to leave BEWITCHED because of chronic pain, and — like too many at the mercy of the U.S. health care system — he died in poverty and in pain.

By the way, Robert Rossen’s MAMBO is now in Public Domain, so it can be viewed or downloaded for free at the Internet Archive.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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