The Baron of Arizona
Films in BOLD will Air on TCM * | VIEW TCMDb ENTRY
The Baron of Arizona (1950) has been called an anti-western, and that might have pleased writer-director Samuel Fuller, who enjoyed bollixing up the rules of every genre he got his hands on. Only a handful of gunshots are fired in the film. There's little or nothing when it comes to showdowns, saloon scenes, and sheriffs tracking varmints through the sagebrush. Yet in its own ornery way, Fuller's offbeat biopic has a great deal to say about the American frontier, its spirit, and its history.
The hero, or anti-hero, is James Addison Reavis, a real-life con artist who nearly pulled off a monumental scam in the Arizona territory during the 1870s and '80s. His first step in the story is to scout around for a little girl of Spanish ancestry whom he can unofficially adopt, arranging for her to be brought up by a governess with a proper knowledge of aristocratic manners. Then he travels far and wide, fabricating a bogus historical record that will show the girl, Sofia, to be the heir of a nobleman who laid legitimate claim to Arizona back in the eighteenth century. Going into the desert, he carves a stone tablet declaring a nonexistent baron to be the rightful owner of the region. Heading for Spain, he joins a monastery where records of land ownership are kept, and sneaks in a forged entry supporting the fictitious claim. Learning that a second volume is kept in Madrid, he travels there with a band of gypsies and repeats the forgery. Then he journeys back to Arizona and asks Sofia to become his wife. She knows nothing of Reavis's crooked scheme, but she's decided she loves him even though she's hardly ever seen him, and he's twice her age so she says yes. This enables him to claim all of Arizona on behalf of the "heiress" he has so carefully manufactured.
Things start going wrong when the local landowners rebel against the so-called baron, especially when he threatens to evict anyone who doesn't pay high rentals to him. The territorial authorities call in a forgery expert named John Griff, hoping to prove Reavis is a fraud, and eventually Reavis goes on trial as the townspeople form a lynch mob to string him up. By this time Sofia, finally clued in to his actual nature, has persuaded him to confess and take his punishment like a man. Will he repent his evil ways? Will the lynch mob hang him first? Has he lost Sofia forever? These and other questions get resolved in the final reel.
According to Fuller's autobiography, he first heard about Reavis during his hobo days in the 1930s. Intrigued by the story, he did some research and published a magazine article about it. Then he pitched it as a movie project to Lippert Pictures, which had produced his only previous film, I Shot Jesse James, a surprise hit in 1949. Fuller wanted to convey the flavor of Reavis's larger-than-life personality, but in other respects he "concocted a yarn that was more interesting than Reavis's actual story," as he put it, inventing the love angle with Sofia and the long, elaborate preparations for the scam. The happy ending is also a fabrication, since by Fuller's own account, the real Reavis was alone and penniless in his last years.
Fuller's first choice to play Reavis was Fredric March, but Lippert couldn't afford his fee, so Vincent Price got the part. Price wasn't yet the B-movie star he would become a few years later, but he knew how to project the blend of evil and elegance that Reavis himself probably possessed, and he handles the part with obvious enjoyment. Reed Hadley, who played the title character in I Shot Jesse James, makes Griff a kind of good-guy con artist who could have been as shifty as Reavis if he'd made slightly different choices in his life. While that's a good concept for the role, Hadley is one of the film's weakest links he has only one facial expression, and his voice sounds more like a maitre d' than a government troubleshooter. Ellen Drew is very pretty as Sofia, which is apparently all Fuller asked of her. The cinematography is by the gifted James Wong Howe, who amazed Fuller by taking on a low-budget production that had to be shot in a mere fifteen days; unfortunately, though, Howe didn't contribute the high-octane visual energy that became Fuller's trademark starting with The Steel Helmet (1951) the following year. The Baron of Arizona looks solid and handsome, but it rarely looks exciting, even when Fuller throws in a few old-fashioned western thrills like a runaway buckboard and a vigilante attack.
Although some of the exteriors were shot on Arizona locations, The Baron of Arizona has drawn fire for its theatrical style, with stagy interiors and a flashback structure held together by Hadley's stiff narration. The movie has also been faulted for sympathizing too much with Reavis at the expense of the ordinary folks who just want to keep the land they've settled on. This undervalues the complexity of Fuller's vision, though, even at this early stage of his career. Reavis is definitely a sympathetic villain, but he gets his comeuppance in the end, and doesn't every successful scammer have a seductive smile and a winning spiel? The film's theatricality also makes sense when you see it as an extension of Reavis's approach to life as an exercise in showmanship for extremely high stakes. As for the ordinary citizens, who are capable of firebombing Reavis's house and howling for blood in the lynch-mob scene, Fuller refuses to sentimentalize them just because they're ordinary. When bigger-budget filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock do this, they're rightly hailed as astute psychologists of the screen.
In any case, the lynch-mob scene provides a sensational climax, as Reavis delivers an impassioned plea for justice with the noose around his neck and his voice partly strangled by the rope a moment of quintessential Sam Fuller, outrageous and unforgettable at the same time. When it comes to counterfeit nobility, the Baron of Arizona gives the Duke of Earl a run for his money.
Director: Samuel Fuller
Producer: Carl K. Hittleman
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: Arthur Hilton
Art Direction: F. Paul Sylos
Music: Paul Dunlap
With: Vincent Price (James Addison Reavis, "The Baron"), Ellen Drew (Sofia de Peralta-Reavis, "The Baroness"), Vladimir Sokoloff (Pepito), Beulah Bondi (Loma), Reed Hadley (Griff), Robert H. Barrat (Judge), Robin Short (Lansing), Tina Rome (Rita), Karen Kester (Sofia as a child), Margia Dean (Marquesa), Jonathan Hale (Governor), Edward Keane (Surveyor Miller), Barbara Woodell (Carry Lansing), I. Stanford Jolley (Mr. Richardson, Secretary of the Interior), Fred Kohler, Jr. (Demmings), Tristram Coffin (McCleary, New York World reporter), Gene Roth (Father Guardian), Angelo Rosito (Angie), Ed East (Hank), Joe Greene (Mr. Gunther).
by David Sterritt