Written and Directed by Samuel Fuller
Samuel Fuller’s first effort in this marathon, I Shot Jesse James, was a mixed bag, but mostly a miss for me in how it handled the story of Robert Ford, infamous for slaying popular outlaw Jesse James. The famed director returns for his sophomore effort in The Baron of Arizona, which takes a very unconventional approach to the genre, as it finds a different story to tell upon the same backdrop of the west. In some ways, I might suggest that this film is not a western at all. There are no cowboys and Indians, no outlaws and lawmen. Plus, the film mostly takes place in civilization and society, not the rough and tumble settlements we often associate with the western genre. And yet, it qualifies for a few reasons. It takes place in Arizona in the 1800s, but the main character’s motivations can be directly tied to one of seven western stories I laid out to begin the marathon. In this case, The Baron of Arizona is an empire story.
James Reavis (Vincent Price) is a master swindler who painstakingly researched a loophole in the American distribution of land grants in what used to be Spanish territory. He shows up on the doorstep of Pepito (Vladimir Sokoloff) one rainy night in Arizona to inform him that the girl he had taken in, Sophia (played as an adult by Ellen Drew), is heir to the barony of Arizona, a land grant from the Spanish King to her ancestors. In doing so, Reavis had to jump through the hoops of constituional law, which included a three year stint in Spain where he posed as a monk in order to alter original documents, schmoozing women along the way to get what he wanted. It all comes to a head after he convinces Sophia that he loves her, getting her to marry him, thereby fulfilling his scheme and becoming the Baron of Arizona.
What a wild film! And I mean that in a very good way. Samuel Fuller really holds nothing back in his ideas in this film. It’s not that the filmmaking is necessarily over-the-top, but his ideas on the page as screenwriter are bonkers great. The audacity of Reavis here is spectacular, and Vincent Price was the perfect casting, as he is really great at showing the ambition, genius, and psychosis of a character like Reavis, who is dead set on upsetting the establishment for no other reason than his own enjoyment. Reavis is such a smart, dedicated con man, willing to go through with the long con, or in this case the really long con, for the benefit of inheriting and controlling an entire state in the Union. I guarantee you have never seen a tale quite like this, especially in the setting of the west. I am endlessly thankful for this film.
The film does take some leaps of faith by the audience to be completely sold by it, but to me it’s just wild enough of a tale to not truly worry about these nitpicks, but they are there. The Sophia character is a little bit underdeveloped, and as such we must follow along the story of Reavis, whose story this really is anyway. But what that amounts to is a leap of faith that Sophia would have fallen for Reavis, especially given not just the age difference, but the time spent apart when Reavis is off in Spain illegally corroborating his tall tale. When examined in a little more detail, assuring that she falls for him and marries him, giving him the barony is the biggest plot hole in the film. Not saying it’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but the development of that relationship is not earned at all, which could be problematic for some.
But this movie isn’t trying to be Ocean’s Eleven, crafting a complex, fully interwoven conspiracy to bring the land of Arizona to Reavis. His plan is straightforward and taken at face value. Anything that doesn’t work was either not considered important enough by Fuller, as the focus of this movie is less about the intricacies of the plan and more about the psyche of the man himself, which is why the film works as well as it does, allowing for Vincent Price to completely take over the movie and give a wonderful performance. That’s really the main reason to see the film, along with an interest in an early work from Samuel Fuller. Fuller’s work here is better, more polished than I Shot Jesse James, but you can also tell it’s a sophomore effort. The glimpses of his genius are present, but perhaps those are just glimpses of Price’s genius instead.