Valdez Is Coming

This is what the New York Times officially categorizes as a “revisionist” Western, meaning the Times can’t make head nor tail of it. The best clue is John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, but alas for the Times, that too is in the “revisionist” category.

To be entirely fair, the film is rather difficult. Though the structure appears open and simple (many writers have recounted the plot in satisfying detail), it is actually made of surrealistic signposts that are organized in the manner of a dream. The centerpoint of the film has Valdez unroll his packed-up Army memorabilia, including a photograph of himself on Gen. Crook’s staff in the Seventh Cavalry. He then puts on his old uniform and rides out against Tanner (all of the racial baiting in the opening scenes is only to generate a differential equation expressed in this name). The point, as subliminal as it may be, is the reference to Robert Aldrich’s Apache, with the suggestion of Little Big Horn.

All that matters in the succession of images is that Valdez becomes a pony soldier. In the end, Tanner is alone, a last savage forsaken by his underlings, face-to-face with Valdez requesting his contribution to the Widows and Orphans Fund.

Edwin Sherin gives an imprimatur to his masterful direction from Eisenstein in a few quick bloody frames when Valdez guns down three riders at a dry gulch. The rest is camera movement, most noticeably in what appears to be a low crane shot advancing over a shallow pond with Valdez reflected in it over the rocks, continuing up the rise to him digging a grave for the man he’s just killed in self-defense, and zooming in behind him to the man’s Apache widow seated at the front of a wagon. This shootout has a fine invention, the camera zooms in to the doorway as the man is hit and stops on him supine in a Manet perspective.

There is a superb tableau further on when Tanner and his men gather around a fallen comrade in an archway. Sherin’s editing is just as inventive and accurate. Valdez approaches an outrider (Hector Elizondo), they converse, the man rides up the slope and waves, then is gone. Sherin cuts to him on the plateau with his rifle now drawn, then to Valdez already dismounted and aiming his scattergun to shoot the man as he reappears. It’s an elision that freshens up the old trick satisfactorily in the mind.

The work is sometimes associated with the Italian school, only because it was filmed in Spain. Although it’s certainly a masterpiece, it has no particular debt to anyone, only an affinity with certain thematic strands in John Guillermin’s El Condor, John Sturges’ Joe Kidd, and a number of other films (including Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain, where the uniform gag is deployed).


King Lear

The great James Earl Jones warms up backstage, costumed, book in hand, and the thing begins with its wonderful cast ripping into their parts (a stage production), notably the dapper Rene Auberjonois dashing through a suite of animal impressions as Tom o’ Bedlam.

The classic mode is followed, with blind Gloucester (Paul Sorvino) surrounded by Homeric wars, and into it walk such actors as Raul Julia (Edmund), Lee Chamberlain (Cordelia), Rosalind Cash (Goneril), Ellen Holly (Regan), George Dzundza (Gentleman) and Tom Aldredge (Fool). Jones is his own thunder and lightning, and the cast support the production in various lights on the predicament of stale tradition and conformism usurping power in the realm.


A Marriage
Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz

There is a clear relation to Cukor’s Pat and Mike in the “five oh five oh” equation presented here, the difference of ages (which makes for a small increment of drama) and worldly experience between the somewhat reclusive and even provincial O’Keeffe and the great Manhattanite Stieglitz, the storybook legends surrounding them, the very luster of their names, are secondary material distributed as dialogue in a picture of two first-rank artists, pioneers in the wide-open spaces of American art.