Thursday, April 16, 2015

Watch This: The Baron of Arizona

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Baron of Arizona (1950)
Written and directed by Samuel Fuller

They say that the truth is stranger than fiction, and while there are obviously many, many great films that tell fictitious stories, it is undeniable that the words "Based on a true story" or "Based on actual events" have graced the opening credits of countless cinematic classics.  Some of the most acclaimed and popular films of recent years, from Argo (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) to Captain Phillips (2013) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), brought fact-based stories to the big screen, and in the case of Argo and The Wolf of Wall Street, had audiences in disbelief that such extraordinary or outlandish events could have taken place in real life.  One of the most remarkable true stories ever told by the movies is the little-known story of 19th-century con artist James Addison Reavis, which is depicted in the equally little-known 1950 film The Baron of Arizona, the sophomore directorial effort of revered American B-movie director Samuel Fuller.

The film stars Vincent Price as Reavis, a clerk in the Santa Fe land office who grew tired of seeing "ignorant" people inherit land in accordance with the U.S. government's policy of recognizing Spanish titles to land grants, and decided to stage an elaborate, fraudulent scheme that, if successful, would have allowed him to claim ownership of most of the Territory of Arizona.  Reavis's story is told in flashback by his former adversary, an Interior Department agent named John Griff (Reed Hadley), who recounts the tale of the scheme to a small group of big-wigs in 1912, just after Arizona has been admitted as the forty-eighth state in the Union.  We are told that Reavis spent years preparing for his scheme by learning languages, studying the art of forgery, and adopting the manners of a cultured person.

As the tale begins, we see Reavis visit the home of an aging Hispanic peasant named Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff), who has been raising an orphaned girl named Sofia since the age of one.  Reavis claims Sofia is the only living descendant of an eighteenth-century Spanish baron named Miguel de Peralta (a fictitious figure created by Reavis), and he produces a forged document which states that Peralta was granted a massive piece of land in America by King Ferdinand VI of Spain, land which Sofia would therefore own as his sole heir.  Reavis then proceeds to put the remainder of his plan in motion.  He brings Pepito and Sofia to live with him in Santa Fe, where he hires a governess to mold her into a baroness.  We see him traveling throughout America and Spain, carving inscriptions into rocks, falsifying birth records for Sofia, and altering historical documents.

After several years, he returns home and marries the now-grown Sofia (Ellen Drew), thus becoming the baron to her baroness.  He then presents the forged documents and his petition to the government, and claims ownership of the "Peralta Grant," which encompasses nearly the entire Territory of Arizona.  It is at this point that John Griff, an expert on forgery, enters the story and begins to investigate Reavis's claim, which he is convinced is false.  Meanwhile, Reavis begins collecting thousands of dollars worth of revenues, rents, and royalties, even before the government has officially recognized his claim, making him a target of hatred and violence.  The tension mounts as the animosity of the local population grows and Griff pursues the truth behind Reavis's claims.

Reavis should not be a likable protagonist.  He is cold and calculating, a shrewd swindler who thinks nothing of feigning love or any other emotion in order to make his scheme a success.  However, Vincent Price is so charismatic and engaging, and his character's plans so audacious, it is difficult not to root for him.  Price would go on to become a horror icon after his later work for producer-directors William Castle and Roger Corman, and it is easy to forget about his earlier career outside of the horror genre.  His performance as Reavis in The Baron of Arizona ranks as one of his best, and serves as a reminder of his extensive talent.

Writer-director Samuel Fuller had a background as a crime reporter, and knew a good story when he saw it.  The true tale of an ambitious con artist was no doubt attractive to him.  The Baron of Arizona was only Fuller's second film, and while parts of it don't work as well (the frame story for the flashback is clunky and too full of expository dialogue), there are many glimpses of the edgy subject matter, humor, and pulpy genre flourishes that would mark his later masterpieces like The Steel Helmet (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), and The Big Red One (1980).

With Price's standout performance, solid black-and-white cinematography from the great James Wong Howe, and a fascinating storyline, The Baron of Arizona makes for an entertaining glimpse at one of American history's most ambitious crimes.

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