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Black Hat, Bad Guy

By Annaliese Griffin

The good guys wore white; the bad guys wore black. There was no CGI to swell an army’s ranks, only extras. Plotlines were girded with a steely moral vision. By subway rather than horseback, The Reeler braved a torrential downpour on Wednesday to see Vera Cruz, one of Robert Aldrich’s most celebrated Westerns. Screening as part of BAM’s Overlooked Aldrich series, Vera Cruz stars Gary Cooper as Ben Trane, a former Confederate soldier traveling through Mexico. While trying to find work as a soldier, Trane happens upon Joe Erin, an affable sociopath played by Burt Lancaster and the uneasy pair finds employment with Emperor Maximillian as hired guns.

The Western front: Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in Vera Cruz, one of the gems in BAM's ongoing Overlooked Aldrich series (Photo: BAM/Photofest)

Backed by an ill-mannered crew of American cowboys-cum- opportunists looking to cash in on the Mexican civil war, a group that’s studded with usual suspects like Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson, they are assigned to guard a convoy that Maximillian is sending to Vera Cruz. Three million dollars in gold, a double-crossing countess, a rebel temptress with a heart of gold and constant attack from the revolutionary army hoping to retake Mexico from the Emperor complicate the trip somewhat.

The director’s daughter, Adell Aldrich, longtime script supervisor and devotee to her father’s directorial accomplishments, introduced the film and took part in a discussion and Q&A with film critic Bruce Bennett afterward. Aldrich reminded the audience that making a movie was a much different undertaking in 1954, when Vera Cruz was released, than today. “Every time I see the films of this generation of filmmakers -- and they are few and far between -- they had no gifts like today’s filmmakers,” she said in a preamble to the interview. “That’s real. That’s the real army. They didn’t have video assist. There was no Industrial Light & Magic. There was no video to see what you’re doing. This is raw filmmaking, and there was no time for a director to make a mistake. The director had to choreograph every scene -- every inch of it -- and still be able to put his nuances into how he wanted to guide you, the audience, (and) what he wanted to say.”

What Aldrich wanted to say in Vera Cruz comes down to Ben Trane’s code of self-determination and civility. There’s no winking Billy Ocean smirking that he “only lied about being a thief,” no trite Crash-style confrontation between Trane and the one black member of the American posse. Aldrich explained that in her father’s era, moral underpinnings were inherent to storytelling. “It’s a film, not unlike all the other films my father did that’s about morals that about values, that’s about betrayal,” she said. “So it almost knocks my knees out every time I see these films be they my father’s, be they the other directors’ of this era, to know how hard it was to make these movies. You feel the sweat, you see the dirt, you smell what they’re doing.”

When Bennett inquired about Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone’s relationship to her father’s work, specifically asking why Leone never publicly credited him as an influence, Aldrich didn’t hold back. “Well, there’s history to this question,” she said without hesitation. “My father did a film before this called Sodom and Gommorrah, in Rome -- much bigger scope than this. Sergio Leone was hired to do the second unit on the film. He had not done anything of worth at that time. It was -- it should have been -- an honor and a pleasure to get this job. As I said earlier, it took three days back then to see what we call the rushes or the dailies of what you shot. On the third day … the producers and my father see the film of the second unit. It’s not right; it’s not particularly good. So my father walks across the studio to where they’re shooting it at lunchtime and approached (Leone). He was really more interested in eating his lunch and talking to his friends, so immediately he was fired. So that’s a little bit of the history.”

Aldrich did, however, invoke her own moral code when an audience member asked her to describe the famously rocky relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. “Everything you’ve heard about it is true," she replied. "I don’t think it’s necessary to defame … but my father was more of a psychiatrist on that film than a director.” She declined to dish further, saying that Leone was open for critique, as he had never given her father his due.

Two screenings remain in the series: Twilight’s Last Gleaming on July 25; and Ulzana’s Raid on July 31. Visit BAM's Web site for more details.

Posted at July 12, 2007 3:10 PM

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