The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950)
After his impressive debut with _ I Shot Jesse James_, director Fuller returned the next year with another tale of a scheming reprobate operating from the fringes of society determined to get what he wants (just the type of character I’m starting to recognize, the more I watch of his films, that Fuller loves to spend cinematic time with), only this time played out against a much grander backdrop (if not, also true of Fuller, at a much larger budget, with the entire film shot in a miniscule 15 days). It’s the fascinating, wildly improbably yet apparently mostly true story of how swindling conman James Reavis (Vincent Price) managed, through obsessively realized false claims he spent years and profoundly impressive effort setting up, to claim the entire territory of Arizona as his own (for a short time anyway, before being revealed as a charlatan and the area being granted US statehood in 1812).
The theatrical performance style that would make Price a horror film star of many a Corman Poe adaption makes a perfect match with the ever-pretending, always conniving (at least until he falls in love and finds his redemption, but more on that later) Reavis, who we watch put his impressively grandiose criminal plan in motion (presented by Fuller in that almost journalistic shooting/directing style that he often prefers) taking him from meticulously creating false monuments in the Arizona desert to an ancient monastery in Spain, where he infiltrates a religious order, pretending to be studying priesthood while patiently waiting (for years, according to the film! Geez, the guy had the obsessive patience of Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen in pulling off the years-long in the making World Trade Center tower topplings) to get at land deeds long stored there in order to masterfully forge them with fake information. It’s a fascinating tale, finely crafted by the director and acted by the performers (including the resonant-voiced, thin yet still imposing Reed Hadley, returning from his memorable role as the outlaw Jesse James to this time switching to the right side of the law, as a forgery expert out to prove Reavis as a scam artist).
Especially intriguing, considering how close to the surface Fuller skirts with the material for a film in 1950, is the perverse Lolita-style relationship that emerges between Reavis and the Mexican girl Sofia (Ellen Drew) who the con artist slowly woos as little more than a child under a pretence of love, while in fact fabricating an entire history of her as the rightful heir to Arizona (which, of course, would be handed over to him upon marriage). Surprising to himself, however, as the years pass and his schemes unfold, he begins to legitimately fall in love with the much younger girl (causing some monkey wrenches thrown into his plans), who, in turn, grows from an entirely naïve orphaned peasant to a strong and convicted woman whose unshakeable dedication remains for him, even as she realizes the terrible truth of the deep corruption at his core.
As he did with the impulsive and violent Bob Ford (John Ireland) from the previous film, and with the small-time pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) in the revered _ Pickup on South Street_ as well as many of the other less-than-moral characters at the center of many of his films, Fuller again puts us on the side of the immoral scoundrel Reavis, even as he fascistically exploits the hard working people on the Arizona land he now owns. It’s another story of the trounced upon little guy who, while he may ultimately be punished for his sins, at least dared through his own means (in the case of “Arizona”, mind-bendingly clever ones) to take on the big seemingly insurmountable system… and momentarily succeeded at becoming the head honcho on the block.
The happy Hollywood ending (likely demanded of the filmmaker) is the only real unsatisfying component to the film. While Fuller pushes into overtime to make it work (trying to apply a Dostoevskian transcendence in the redemption of love for the Reavis character), it’s hard to be convinced that this character would so change his stripes (this is no Bressonian pickpocket after all, picking up an illicit trade to survive, but a through and through identity-shifting conman, likely from day one of his life). I was waiting for Reavis to suddenly rip off the metaphoric mask and reveal that the overwhelming romantic feelings he was presenting to her were as false and calculated as every other emotion he presented throughout the film. Alas, the moment never came. And, with the apparent true facts of the case (with Reavis having been left penniless and abandoned) ringing so much more true, it’s hard to accept the romantic final delusions of the film as anything but Fuller being forced to apply a typical Hollywood— (and Reavis)— style audience pandering finale.