Criterion released a bare-bones (Eclipse) set of early Sam Fuller movies, including the 1950 “The Baron of Arizona” with Vincent Price playing the title role. Through most of the movie (having had some difficulty staying with it in the first half hour), I thought that it was less outlandish than the other two Fuller westerns I’ve seen—”Run of the Arrow” with a very eccentric portrayal of a bitter Confederate Army veteran (played by Rod Steiger with a strong Irish brogue) going native among Plains Indians and “40 Guns” with Barbara Stanwyck at her bossiest, bossing the 40 gunmen she employs.
I expect something extreme in Fuller movies. The scheme to claim the whole of Arizona Territory (18,000 square miles) by forging a Spanish land grant (a complicated project that includes carving three stones as well as getting into two places that are difficult to access in Spain) is pretty far-fetched, but the real Fuller(ian) twists come late. The opening frame, a bunch of self-satisfied leading Arizona citizens celebrating Arizona statehood in 1912, is stultifying, and the start of the lengthy flashback to 1880 about the scam James Addison Reavis (Vincent Price) concocted and executed over the space of many years to claim Arizona for an orphan whom he had had raised by Beulah Bondi (utterly wasted in the movie) and then married. Where the money to finance all the preparations came from is never addressed. Getting to the land grant books in Spain occupies nearly half the movie’s running time, and involves becoming a monk and then recruiting a band of gypsies (by seducing its de facto leader).
Reavis was reputedly Price’s favorite role. As Reavis, Price has some charm, if more megalomania, and the movie turns quite romantic (I suspect Production Code demands of being a factor). I find it difficult to credit Reavis’s success as a seducer of a tough gypsy woman, but Price is quite good back in Arizona, extorting money (and turning down a very large settlement offer), and being challenged by John Griff, the Department of the Interior’s forgery expert, who is also the author of the book from which Reavis learned forgery (played by Reed Hadley, who played the title character in Fuller’s first movie, “The Man Who Shot Jesse James,” which is also in the Criterion Eclipse set).
Ellen Drew is not bad as the baroness who worships her husband, though uncomfortable about the amount of hatred the claims he makes for her land. Tina Pine is totally unconvincing as the gypsy leader.
My own favorite Vincent Price performance is in “His Kind of Woman” (1951 with Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, directed by John Farrow), but he was often entertaining, as he was here.
Fuller seems to me to have had a weakness for melodrama and to have made a mistake in having Griff narrate the film, particularly to a group who could be presumed to know most of the story already. I think that, because he was so independent, Fuller has been overrated by auteurists (European and American), though the movie he made after “Baron,” “Steel Helmet” (1951) is a great one. (I also particularly like “The Naked Kiss,” (1964), find considerable interest in his 1953 “Pickup on South Street,” much of interest in “Shock Corridor” (1963), and find his magnum opus, “The Big One” (1980) almost entirely unbelievable. There are scenes that fall very flat in all of the Fuller movies I’ve seen. I think he is another director (like Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall) who needed the aid of a strong editor.
I should make explicit that there is very little of a western here, though the main action scene definitely belongs in the genre of western. The movie is about an extortion scam—and love—not a shoot ’em up action picture.
There really were land grants forged by James Addison Reavis, who married the heir he selected and billed himself as “Baron of Arizona,” and the documents were proven to be forgeries by an expert named Royal Johnson. The court case in the movie bears little resemblance to the historical ones (not least in that Reavis was not an effective courtroom advocate for himself and that the real Reavis had forged alliances with rich and powerful figures, including George Hearst and the Southern Pacific Railway (which sent him off to check out claims in the first place).
©2017, Stephen O. Murray