The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950)

Vincent Price just rocks as James Reavis, an ambitious and motivated (to say beyond the least) forger and con-man willing to go to downright stupefying lengths to acquire the entire territory of Arizona through fraudulent land claims and lineages. The first portion of this film is a spectacle of deranged tenacity on Reavis’ part that would require an incredible suspension of disbelief if this weren’t, incredibly, based on a true story. Reavis finds an unassuming girl from the backwoods of Arizona and culture-fies her, in a kind of foul twist on My Fair Lady to groom his own unknowingly fake heiress to a vast Spanish legacy with whom he can marry into the rights to Arizona itself, creates fake messages in stones, and goes so far as to spend years – years! – at a Spanish convent going through all the rites of becoming a monk, just so he can eventually find a brief opportunity to alter a land grant in the library to further validate his fictitious family tree. It’s an impossibly complex and ambitious scheme, and most if not all of the fun of this film is derived from trying to get into the head of this man, as you can’t help but think, is acquiring Arizona worth this staggering amount of deceit and risk? He’s well-spoken, charming, obviously intelligent, and apparently a man of means, able to afford a years-long trip to Spain as if it’s a trip to the supermarket, surely that’s enough to build a respectable life? If anything, you can’t help but admire his ambition and drive, even if that ambition and drive are completely deceitful and self-serving. You get the feeling that he is simply reveling in the process, in putting his admittedly incredible skills of forgery and duplicity to work, rather than looking towards the end-game of essentially becoming the king of a vast desert, and indeed, Vincent Price excels at this, his combination of suavity and humility completely fooling both his fellow monks and his ward-turned-wife, while a certain degree of sliminess reminds us of the sheer immorality behind it all. We dare not root for this ruthless snake, all while we almost must root for him nonetheless, just to see whether this impossibly cruel, impossibly incredible scheme can actually come to fruition.

As in-his-element as Reavis seems while putting this ridiculous scheme together, he seems just as out-of-his-element, and utterly lost, once he’s gotten what he wanted. And so too does the film itself lose its way. I was having a blast watching Vincent Price act the snake, charming his way through forged documents and using rube-like monks as his playthings, but then as heavy became the head that wore the crown and stereotypically redneckish displaced landowners and the bland common girl-turned-baroness (whose undying devotion to her husband is both baffling and irritating…if we the anonymous viewers of a film can see the reptilian underside of this Baron of Arizona, surely his own wife can, after a while…) and the government powers-that-be who smell a rat replaced the fascinating James Reavis as the focal point of the narrative, things got more conventional, and interest is lost. To compound that, Fuller cheats and gets a bit lazy in his storytelling, using a bunch of wealthy old white guys sitting in a parlor to reflect on the life and times of James Reavis and narrate the proceedings and give us a rather needless guide to what we’re seeing with our own eyes (although, to be fair, their explaining Reavis’ backstory at the film’s outset was helpful). But, at the very least, most of the footage of these men is set at a fixed mid-angle shot, not all that close to these men and indeed with some of their backs turned to the camera, making these indistinguishable wealthy old white guys seem even more indistinguishable and wealthy and old and white – pretty much the polar opposite of Vincent Price’s Reavis, who literally emerges from the rain one night and works his degenerate ass off to get to the top, only to in all likelihood stick out like a sore thumb in the presence of men such as these – a dark mirror image of the American dream. His eventual shot at redemption feels like all kinds of false and unsuitable and reeks of Hollywood conventions at the time demanding a, if not happy then at least tidy, ending. But, at least his clear and somewhat amusing surprise at such an outcome leads to all kinds of opportunity for speculation about his character. He clearly knows he’s a shameless scoundrel, but whether he’s actually repentant or merely relieved is a fun question to ask during an otherwise disappointing conclusion to a film that started with great promise.

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