“In the movie business, a good ending must sometimes hold sway over the truth.” – Samuel Fuller, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking
Before Samuel Fuller wrote and directed his own films he was a gutsy go-getting newspaperman. Fuller first worked at the New York Journal as a copyboy and eventually graduated to the role of crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, a tabloid newspaper that naysayers nicknamed the “pornoGraphic” due to its explicit content.
During the Great Depression Fuller took his journalism skills on the road and traveled west collecting sensational stories about America, the current crisis it was facing and the rich history that preceded it. One of the stories that captured Fuller’s imagination during his cross-country journey was the strange tale of a nineteenth-century con man named James Reavis. Reavis forged a string of false documents asserting he owned over 18,000 square miles of the Arizona Territories and went to great lengths to convince the U.S. government of his claim. The story of Reavis and his remarkable crimes became the basis of Fuller’s second film, a quasi-fictional account of the events titled The Baron of Arizona (1949).
Shot for $135,000 in just 15 short days, The Baron of Arizona is an economical marvel considering its extensive scope and luxurious appearance. It was released by Lippert Pictures, an independent company started by Robert L. Lippert, that produced Fuller’s earliest feature films including I Shot Jesse James (1949) and The Steel Helmet (1951). The Baron of Arizona is typically overshadowed by Fuller’s first and third film but it’s an exceptional addition to the director’s oeuvre for several reasons.
To begin with, it’s a historical drama with Gothic overtones and sumptuous costume designs. Fuller seems to take great delight in its period setting while using the Wild West as a framing device for some impressive set pieces. And although it was made outside of the Hollywood system the film shares much in common with big-budget studio productions due to its formal script and structure. Throughout his career, Fuller was often labeled a Hollywood “primitive” who avoided classic filmmaking tropes in favor of simplistic narratives and no-nonsense visuals but The Baron of Arizona defies that narrow characterization.
Despite Fuller’s traditional approach to the material, the film crackles with life thanks to some snappy dialogue, impressive cinematography provided by James Wong Howe and a lively central performance from the film’s leading man, Vincent Price.
Fuller played fast and loose with historical facts while making the film, using the true story of James Reavis (Vincent Price) as a building block to construct a fascinating portrait of an ambitious American who attempts to carve out a place for himself in the New World by any means necessary.
We’re introduced to Reavis on a dark and rainy night in 1872 when he arrives on the doorstep of the young Sophia (Karen Kester, later Ellen Drew) and her guardian (Vladimir Sokoloff) to persuade the unsuspecting duo to take part in his nefarious plot. Like a villain from some tawdry penny dreadful, Price charms his way into their lives while unleashing an elaborate plan to defraud the U.S. government and claim the state of Arizona for himself. His scheme involves swindling gullible individuals such as Sofia and her guardian as well as manipulating archaic laws and falsifying a chain of legal documents that will appoint him the Baron of Arizona.
Besides a standout sequence that takes place in and around an old Spanish monastery and recalls some of the best horror films Price appeared in later in his career, most of the action takes place in drawing rooms and courtrooms. However, as the film builds towards its finale the Baron and his credulous cohorts find themselves attacked by enraged Arizona residents who want to lynch them for their crimes.
In a lengthy sequence beautifully shot by Howe and carefully orchestrated by Fuller, we watch in horror as the would-be vigilantes take the law into their own hands. The Baron is dragged kicking and screaming into his opulent office and a noose is thrown around his neck while a large map of Arizona looms in the background. The escalating tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife but Price’s character manages to spit out a lengthy plea for forgiveness and this last-ditch “Hail Mary” pass saves his sniveling hide. It’s an extraordinary scene and a precursor to the bold, risky and no-nonsense style of filmmaking that would ultimately come to define Samuel Fuller.
Fuller’s characters tend to be antiheroes that are hard to sympathize with and Price’s Baron is no exception. Despite this, the film works because Price is such an affable bad guy that you can’t help rooting for him.
As good as Price is as the smooth-talking Baron, he wasn’t Fuller’s first choice for the role. The director originally wanted Fredric March for the part but he refused so Fuller approached Price after seeing him on stage in a Broadway play. The two shared cigars while Fuller explained the plot to Price, who jumped at the chance to star in the film.
After its release, critics praised Price’s appearance including The Los Angeles Times which said, “Vincent Price makes the Baron a brilliantly resourceful, fascinating fellow, and his adventures absorbing.” While the Baron isn’t one of the typical horror film rogues that Price would make popular in films such as House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Haunted Palace (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964), fans of the “Master of Menace” should enjoy his animated performance. Its baroque touches recall his work in The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and Dragonwyck (1946) but The Baron of Arizona allows him to really flex his acting muscles as he seduces multiple women, cons numerous men and attempts to outwit an entire country.
The Baron of Arizona is currently streaming on FilmStruck along with many other Samuel Fuller films and it is available on DVD from Criterion as part of their Eclipse Series #5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for FilmStruck/Criterion and published on December 22, 2016