Cast & Crew
Roy William Neill
Edward Peil Sr.
In 1849, Joaquin Murieta, son of a wealthy Spanish family, quarrels with three prospectors, Ike Mason, Black Kelly, and Al Goss. When Joaquin returns home, he finds that the house has been raided and his father is dying from wounds received during the raid. On his way to tell his brother Juan of the news, Joaquin meets Helen Lake and they begin a romance. Soon after Joaquin arrives at the camp, Mason and Goss kill Juan and knock Joaquin unconscious as they seize Juan's claim. The trio does not become wealthy, however, as the mysterious "Black Shadow," actually Joaquin in disguise, robs the stagecoach of their shipments. Although Helen's father, Captain Lake of the U.S. Army, offers a reward of $5,000 for the Black Shadow, Joaquin's disguise remains intact. After posting a notice at the saloon threatening Kelly, Mason and Goss with revenge, Joaquin arranges for their death by tricking the trio into shooting one another. Joaquin, however, is wounded in the process and seeks refuge with Helen, to whom he confesses the truth. Helen is unable to prevent his and Goss's arrest, and as a mob threatens to storm the jail, Joaquin convinces Goss to dress as the Black Shadow in order to escape. Goss is shot while fleeing, thus completing Joaquin's revenge. Helen tells her father the entire story, and he, convinced of the justice of Joaquin's case, gives them permission to marry.
Roy William Neill
Edward Peil Sr.
The Avenger on DVD
It's a little B western from Columbia Pictures, barely an hour in length, and it's a lot better than it has any right to be, thanks to Neill's hand with atmospherics and action. It centers on the character Joaquin Murrieta, in real life a notorious Mexican bandit of the 19th century who supposedly took bloodthirsty revenge against Americans for their maltreatment of him and his wife. At least that's the legend -- that he became a kind of Mexican Robin Hood. He was also a likely inspiration for the famous character of Zorro.
In any case, in The Avenger he is played by cowboy star Buck Jones -- an unlikely piece of casting, though Jones acquits himself very well -- and the story makes him completely sympathetic. Arriving in Senora after romancing, and serenading, a woman on a stagecoach, he finds that his brother has been accused of horse-thieving and is about to be hanged. In reality, the brother has been framed by greedy prospectors who want his claim. Murrieta is unable to stop them, and is forced to watch the hanging while strapped to a tree. Then he's whipped. Some years later, he returns to town under an assumed name and a new appearance: snazzy clothes, a mustache, top hat, and even a new accent. He's returned to exact revenge, and as the mysterious, Zorro-like "Black Shadow," he and his cohorts hold up stagecoaches and rob the gold, and quickly the entire area is on the alert. But then he gets down to his main business -- revenge against the three men who murdered his brother. Instead of killing them himself, however, he concocts ingenious plans to set them up to be killed inadvertently by others. But getting the main villain, Goss (Walter Percival), will prove especially challenging.
Roy William Neill's hand is evident in imaginative scene stagings, such as in a schoolhouse where Murrieta and Goss vie comedically for schoolmarm Helen (Dorothy Revier); or the hanging sequence in which Neill notably does not show us the hanging, leaving it to our imaginations and finding instead a simple visual way to show the rage and hurt building in Murrieta; and in a superb night-time bank scene, in which Murrieta finds his revenge against one of the three villains. That scene looks like something out of a film noir a decade later. There's also an impressive stampede through a town, and several gorgeous, galloping horse chases at night, filmed with low angles and silhouettes. These are exciting, suspenseful action scenes, creatively presented, and show the work of a real stylist at the helm.
To consider Neill's skill in creating atmosphere, look no further than the remarkable first three shots of the film: a panning long shot of a stagecoach careering across a rough landscape, a slow dissolve to a panning close-up of the side of the coach, and then a slow dissolve to a two-shot of a man and a woman inside, with the man playing guitar and singing a plaintive melody. The music, singing and slowly gliding camera moves and dissolves make for a striking contrast to the clattering speed of the stagecoach. We don't yet know what's going to happen, but the presentation casts an intriguing and arresting spell.
Buck Jones maintained his own film unit through much of his career, both at Columbia and Universal. Film historian William Everson wrote that Jones "always managed to get his personal imprint on his westerns... On the whole his standards were high... His pictures were rugged, well-mounted, deliberately avoiding slickness and streamlining, and usually keeping well out of the formula rut."
The Avenger was remade as Vengeance of the West (1942), starring Bill Elliott, but the character of Joaquin Murrieta has been played on screen by several other actors including Richard Dix in The Gay Defender (1927), Warner Baxter in Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936), Phillip Reed in The Bandit Queen (1950), Jeffrey Hunter in Murieta (1965), and others.
The only real flaw in this film are the long, drawn-out pauses between lines of dialogue that mar many early talkies. But putting that aside, The Avenger will still satisfy classic film fans who understand that this is a small B film -- better than most, but still small. Sony's DVD is a very no-frills affair, with not even a title menu. But the film has been beautifully restored and Ted Tetzlaff's outstanding cinematography looks great. Tetzlaff would later shoot films like Remember the Night (1940), The Enchanted Cottage (1945) and Notorious (1946) before becoming a director himself.
By Jeremy Arnold
The Avenger on DVD
A working title for this film was Phantom Hoofs. The film is loosely based on the exploits of legendary Mexican bandit Joaquin Murieta, who, in the mid-19th century, went to California and, according to the legend, swore vengeance against Americans and began of a series of robberies in the mining country after being discriminated against by white men. Varying accounts of Murieta's exploits in the California Mother Lode exist, including one story claiming that he was seized and decapitated by a ranger who killed him for a reward. Other films about Murieta that were made in the 1930s are the 1936 M-G-M film Robin Hood of El Dorado and the 1937 Principal Productions film The Californian (see below). Motion Picture Herald lists Teddy Tetzlaff, rather than Charles Van Enger, as cameraman. According to modern sources, the cast also included Paul Fix, Frank Ellis, Al Taylor, Blackjack Ward and Slim Whitaker. Modern sources also list Sol Lesser as the producer. The Avenger was remade by Columbia in 1942 as Vengeance of the West, directed by Lambert Hillyer and starring Bill Elliott and Tex Ritter. Other films featuring a character identified with Murieta include the 1919 D. W. Griffith film Scarlet Days, starring Richard Barthelmess and Clarine Seymour (see below); the 1927 Paramount film The Gay Defender, directed by Gregory Le Cava and starring Richard Dix and Thelma Todd (see below) and the 1965 film Murieta, filmed in Spain and distributed by Warner Bros., which starred Jeffrey Hunter and Arthur Kennedy (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70; F6.3351).