Sunday, June 16, 2019

Budd Boetticher Steers a Memorable Bullfighter

1951’s The Bullfighter and the Lady provides a rewarding cinematic experience, with director Budd Boetticher effectively conveying a vivid sense of time and place via on-location filming of this conventional yet (in Boetticher’s hands) diverting tale of a Chuck Regan, a young American who becomes fascinated by the world of bullfighting, primarily to win the heart of his lady fair, Anita. The film has been resorted to its intended 124-minute director’s cut on Olive's 2013 Blu-Ray release, after initially being shown at 87 minutes in order to fit on double bills. Although at two-hours-plus the movie’s standard plot devices, including romantic misunderstandings and reconciliations, the best friend/mentor who suffers in order to increase the hero’s nobility, and said hero’s 11th-hour chance of redemption in the face of seemingly impossible adversity, become too obvious, the longer allows Boetticher the opportunity to build an impressive atmospheric tone centered around the Mexican locales and natives unusual in a studio production of the time (working at low-budget Republic possibly helped curb the Hollywood gloss and grant the proper verisimilitude to the film), while enabling key performers the benefit of adding a measure of complexity to their roles.

As Chuck Regan, Robert Stack found an ideal fusion of personality and role. Sporting blond locks and a sincere, personable demeanor, the Hollywood veteran (even in 1951, as Stack had mingled among tinsel town’s elite for several years before providing Deanna Durbin with her first onscreen kiss in 1939’s First Love) and reliably staunch leading man has perhaps his most indelible part, and is at the peak of his physical beauty besides; Stack is so perfectly handsome in Bullfighter it’s a bit ridiculous, and depressing to us mere mortals. Beyond looks and natural charm Stack, who was always a solid, workmanlike actor, clearly is striving to be fully vested in every scene. He’s focused, down-to-earth and professional, and has the audience on his side through each dilemma Chuck faces. Although Stack may not possess the emotional depth of a contemporary such as Montgomery Clift, his stoic remoteness in some close-ups actually proves an asset, adding an air of mystery and movie-star glamour to some key scenes as the viewer wonders what exactly is making the character tick behind his still, serene countenance. 

Although the clearly American Joy Page is nobody’s senorita as Anita and her part falls mainly in the “young ingénue” category, her earnestness matches up well with Stack’s, and Page’s often grave manner lends some individuality to her character (this trait also aided Page in her most famous role as the serious-minded young newlywed who wants to get out of Casablanca with her unlucky gambling husband) while also helping to convince this tougher-than-expected maiden might actually be able to withstand the irresistible Stack’s advances, at least momentarily. Gilbert Roland is a perfect fit as the  legendary matador Manolo Estrada, who learns skeet shooting from Chuck (not coincidently, Stack was a national champion in this sport) in exchange for teaching the novice the skills needed in the bullfighting ring. In one wonderful sequence superbly set up by Boetticher Estrada, with a group of young children on a wall behind him, watches Chuck practice; when the youngsters start cheering some of Chuck’s moves, Estrada turns and immediately silences them, then turns back with the satisfied look of a man in complete control of his environment, and Roland pulls the scene off with aplomb- here, as in his many sequences with Stack and real-life matadors in the bullring, he really does seem to be the master of this kingdom (Roland had studied bullfighting before beginning his lengthy acting career). 

Rounding out the cast are Virginia Grey and John Hubbard as the Floods, a theatrical couple who accompany Chuck to Mexico- as Lisbeth, the flirtatious wife with an eye for matadors, Grey attracts attention with her constantly-changing hair color; unless I’m imagining things she went from blond-to-brunette in every other scene, and these shifts prove interesting to watch, in any case. As Estrada’s devoted wife Chelo, Katy Jurado and her huge, baleful, beautiful eyes make a considerable impact a year before her breakthrough in High Noon. Boetticher gives Jurado a standout scene wherein Chelo chastises a heckler who’s berating the injured Estrada for not performing a pas de deux with a highly-agitated bull, thereby allowing Jurado to display the calm-yet-forceful presence that would serve her well in some of her subsequent Hollywood films (Jurado was somehow overlooked by the Academy for Noon, but would later score an Oscar nod for her work as another loyal, if more passive, wife in 1954’s Broken Lance). 

Guided by Boetticher’s adept hand (he also co-produced the film with John Wayne and co-wrote the story) and the fine work of an engaged and engaging cast, The Bullfighter and the Lady presents an involving narrative that incorporates many realistic, insightful touches illustrating the intricacies and challenges existing in an unusual profession; although I don’t care for any sport that harms man or animal, Bullfighter is an engrossing drama that holds up better than many a grade-A studio production of the era.  


Post a Comment

<< Home