The Comancheros (USA, 1961)

comancheros-posterDirected by: Michael Curtiz. It’s been awhile since I topped up my quota for classic Hollywood in general, and classic Westerns in particular. And it occurred to me that it might be prudent to have seen more Michael Curtiz movies than just Casablanca. And I thought it also might be prudent (and plain old interesting) to see how a director who isn’t John Ford or Howard Hawks handles a Western. And heck!—I just plain old like to watch John Wayne do his thing for 90 minutes—especially if he shares a bit of screen time with Lee Marvin. This is an interesting movie, mainly because of the way the narrative unfolds. At the beginning, it doesn’t seem like a typical Western format—it contains a number of elements not usually in the genre. For starters, it’s set before the Civil War, and it begins with a gentlemanly duel in Louisiana between two upper-class Eastern types—it feels more like Barry Lyndon than anything else. The first 20 minutes or so, following Stuart Whitman’s protagonist to a paddleboat casino where he meets with the alluring, self-reliant woman lead Ina Balin (who seems like a prototype for the cool, detached independence of one of the stronger Bond women), feels almost like a Hitchcock movie that happens to be set in the West, up to the time he meets the Texas Ranger Cutter, played by the towering embodiment of the Western, John Wayne. Even with the introduction of Wayne, who takes the effete Easterner—“Mon-soor”—on a rough ride through the desert West, the Westerner figure portrayed by John Wayne, even though he’s a Texas Ranger, a really tough-sounding, Western-sounding manifestation of the Westerner (after all, what’s more Western that Texas?), spends the majority of the film as an undercover cop, posing as an arms smuggler with the criminal Lee Marvin, trying to bust a ring of smugglers and rustlers called the Comancheros. This could very easily be a gangster film, or at least a modern crime film directed by Michael Mann or someone. There’s a tough cop and his upper class, effete prisoner; the prisoner escapes; while undercover, the cop sees the prisoner at a chance encounter; the prisoner doesn’t blow his cover and eventually they end up working together, the prisoner helping the cop bust the smuggling ring, which is run by the alluring woman from the beginning. Not a typical Western, right? And yet, by the end, we have our expected return to the status quo, and just enough, just a hint, of the Westerner’s desire to enter domestic life. Just as John Wayne is riding off into the sunset to join his Texas Ranger buddies on the Wild plain, our co-protagonist Whitman yells after him to “Mend those fences!”, referring to the walk-on role of his buddy’s widower, who obviously loves him, and whom he keeps visiting briefly to mend her fences (if you know what I mean). All in all, a pretty interesting movie, and a worthy contender in the canon of Westerns. Definitely not as good as Casablanca, though (obvz).

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