Monday, July 18, 2011

Vera Cruz Blu-ray Review

Legendary screen icons Gary Cooper (High Noon) and Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) team up for a magnificent, action-packed western from director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) and screenwriters Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb.  With sweeping vistas and larger-than-life heroics, it’s a tale as bold and rugged as the characters it so brilliantly depicts.  Cooper and Lancaster portray Benjamin Trane and Joe Erin, two daredevil mercenaries who journey to Mexico in search of adventure and cold hard cash during the 1866 revolution.  But they get more than they bargained for when the wealthy and beautiful Countess Duvarre (Denise Darcel) hires them to escort her (and a fortune in gold!) to Emperor Maximilian’s fighting forces in Vera Cruz.  The trail is fraught with danger, betrayal and murder… and when Ben is swept up in the revolutionaries’ fervor, he and Joe find themselves at odds with the Mexican Army and each other!

Film (4 out of 5 stars) 

Vera Cruz is set during the Franco-Mexican War where war broke out between France and Mexico after Mexico stopped paying interesting to its creditors which included France.  At this point in America, the Civil War was in its last throes and former Confederate Colonel Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) has become a mercenary in order to raise funds to rebuild his plantation that was destroyed during the fighting.  When his horse breaks is injured, Ben comes across a man named Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) who sells him a horse after they haggle over the price.  When Ben shoots the horse to put it out of its misery, Joe immediately notes it and sees it as a weakness that can be exploited later.
When the Mexican army approaches, Ben is unconcerned until Joe informs him that the horse he just bought was a stolen horse from the Mexican leader.  Ben still thinks he can talk to them about it until they start shooting at him and he decides to follow after Joe.  After they lose their followers, Ben and Joe form an uneasy alliance which grows into a grudging friendship between them.  They are flip sides of the same coin – Joe is an amoral opportunist who will let nothing stand in his way, while Ben will hire his gun for money but still has scruples that Joe discarded long ago.
When they come across a Mexican village they are invited to join the rebel leader of the Juaristas, General Ramirez who wants them to join because it’s a noble cause.  They are also invited to join the Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romano) for cold hard cash and it’s no surprise which offer the mercenaries take.  After expressing disappointment in their decision the General tells them that they are all his prisoners and they realize that they are surrounded.  Our first real inkling of just how ruthless Joe can be is when he holds the village children hostage to guarantee their escape.  This type of brute force diplomacy employed by Joe runs counter to Ben’s more reasonable approach and their differences will eventually come to into conflict.
The Marquis takes them to a grand ball to introduce them to Emperor Maximilian (George Macready) who requests that they provide protection through Juarista territory for the Countess Maria Duvarre (Denise Darcel) who is on her way to Vera Cruz.  Ben surprises Joe with his negotiating tactics which gets them more money than he expected and his respect for him grows. Joe has never met anyone that he considers to be his equal or worth his attention until Ben.  Ben can shoot just as well as he can, and in his own non-violent and quiet way gets better results than Joe’s threats.  Ben too understands and accepts the kind of man Joe is but he also knows that he could be double-crossed at any time due to Joe’s unpredictable and self-serving nature.
It’s not long before they notice that the weight of the wagon carrying the Countess is far heavier than it should be and they discover a chest of gold coins hidden within it. While they make plans on how to split the money, the Countess catches them at the wagon and confesses that she is after the gold too.  She thinks they should split the money three ways and offers to get them out of the country for her contribution.  Unknown to all three of them, the Marquis hears every word they said and starts making his own plans.  With a combined total of three million dollars in gold just waiting there, every one of them starts thinking how to get all of it without sharing it with the others.  And so begins the double-crosses and triple-crosses and weaselly behavior which I love to see.
With everyone vying for the gold, Ben and Joe must deal with the Marquis and his troops, the Juaristas, the Countess, and each other in the end.  When Ben decides that the gold should remain with the Juaristas to rebuild their country, it’s only a matter of time before that nobility gets in the way of Joe’s greed.  This isn’t your typical western as it has a clever script that keeps you wondering who is going to cross who and when throughout the second half of the movie.  This was also an unusual movie for it’s time since the violence level is ramped up more than it’s contemporaries and the role of the devious and ruthless Countess was ahead of it’s time as well.  Director Robert Aldrich does a great job keeping the tension up and he shows more cinematic flair in this than in most of his other movies.
The biggest contribution to the movie’s success is its main stars – Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Both of them are iconic actors and were different kinds of actors.  Cooper radiated calm strength while Lancaster had a far edgier and irrepressible aura.  Both of them do phenomenal work here  and their different styles work perfectly for the movie. Cooper’s Ben is a decent man that has been forced to become a hard hired gun after the war took his life away from him.  Cooper does a fantastic job in portraying the friendship that he knows will inevitably end badly yet he still hopes for the best.
I think this is my favorite role of Lancaster’s as his Joe is just fascinating to watch since he’s so mercurial that you never know what will happen.  It doesn’t help that Joe smiles a shark-like smile throughout the movie no matter what mayhem is going on.  It’s the smile of a confident sociopath that will show no hesitation in killing anyone (including Ben) if need be.  It’s a star-making role and Lancaster pulls it off with aplomb.   It wasn’t until the end of the movie and I was watching the credits that I realized that the Marquis was Cesar Romano which was a shock to someone who had only seen Romano as the Joker on the Batman TV show.  I even went back to see Romano’s scenes to see the man without the white makeup and I instantly recognized him then.  He also does a great job in a small role and it was good to see his other work. In addition to Romano, there were also so small roles for the up and coming Charles Bronson and also Ernest Borgnine who was in so many movies that I believe was the Samuel L. Jackson of  his day.  I had never heard of this movie before I got it but I sure am glad that I asked to review it.  This is a well made western with a lot of twists and turns which is something you don’t see often in western style movies.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p (2.00:1) transfer is decent for a movie from 1959, but it had some rough spots especially at the start of the movie where there was a lot of specks, noise, and damage. Fortunately, it gets better from that point on and I was fairly pleased with the picture quality. Detail was frequently excellent especially during some close up shots. Black levels weren’t as dark as I would have liked but they were acceptable.  Flesh tones were a little muted but natural looking and consistent.  Colors were also a little muted but then again the visual palette veered towards earth tones without any big splashes of color so that’s understandable.  This was the first film released in the “Superscope” wide-screen process which was a precursor to Super 35mm.  While it was shot at a conventional 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the film was later cropped to 2:1 in post-production and then given a Cinemascope compatible (2x) squeeze and blown up to normal frame height. The Superscope process was designed to acheive anamorphic prints from the usual standard flat 35mm negatives.  This Blu-ray approximates the original 2:1 release print aspect ratio.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars) 

Vera Cruz’s DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is above average as well but it’s a shame that it’s not a full blown 5.1 track.  Despite that, this mix is still very good for its age.  All of the sound effects sound clean and stand out especially all of the gunfire in the movie.  Explosions also sound good but this mix could have utilized the LFE channel and the rear speakers better.  The score by Hugo Friedhofer is balanced well with the rest of the mix.   Dialogue is clear and easily understood and overall this was a pretty good track considering the age and the fact that it’s a 2.0 mix.  It should satisfy most fans of the movie.

Special Features (1 out of 5 stars) 

The only extra on the disc is the film’s theatrical trailer which is presented in high definition which is a real shame.

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars) 

I wish that the lack of extras didn't bring down my final score so much since I really enjoyed the performances and the movie a lot more than I thought I would.  It had an interesting script and enough twists to make this seem fresher than most cliché filled westerns.  The character development was handled very well and watching Joe note every kindhearted gesture that Ben did so he could try to exploit those perceived weaknesses later was fun.  I highly recommend the movie if you are in the mood to see a western with a little something extra to it.
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