Monday 22 June 2020

Movie Review: The Comancheros (1961)

A rowdy but relatively routine Western with a streak of understated humour, The Comancheros is competently traditional.

It's 1843 in New Orleans. Professional gambler Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) wins a pistols-at-dawn duel, but because his victim was the son of a judge Paul is deemed a fugitive wanted for murder. While gambling on a Texas-bound riverboat he meets and falls in love with the mysterious and independent-minded Pilar Graile (Ina Balin). Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne) interrupts the romance, catching up with Paul and arresting him.

A grudging respect develops between Paul, who repeatedly escapes, and Jake, who repeatedly recaptures him. Meanwhile the Rangers become aware of outlaws calling themselves Comancheros running an illegal large-scale operation to smuggle stolen rifles to the Comanche native tribe. Jake pretends to be a gun trader to connect with middleman Tully Crow (Lee Marvin), then with Paul's help attempts to uncover the secret location of the gang's well-guarded headquarters.

An adaptation of a 1952 novel by Paul I. Wellman, The Comancheros is the last movie directed by veteran Michael Curtiz. In an uncredited assist, Wayne took over the director's chair when Curtiz fell ill. The resulting film is a middling effort, with the two intersecting narrative arcs maintaining decent interest through the efficient 107 minutes. Paul Regret's determination to escape his grim fate merges with the search for the rifle-smuggling bandits, and eventually Pilar emerges as a critical nexus in both quests.

In addition to beautiful scenery and rugged landscapes filmed in Utah and Arizona, the best moments are derived from the thorny friendship between Paul and Jake. The gentleman gambler and the grizzled Ranger come from two different worlds, Regret representing the urbanizing east and Jake a product of the frontier. From tolerating each other to developing a mutual dependence, their barbed bond keeps The Comancheros grounded amidst all the otherwise stock elements.

And most of the rest of the movie is pretty basic. The Comanches are archaically depicted as savages without any context or voice. Background snippets that could have rounded out Jake's character are tantalizingly introduced then summarily abandoned. And the titular outlaws, represented by a wheelchair-bound leader (Nehemiah Persoff), threaten to become intriguing but are reduced to a kill-hungry encampment.

John Wayne is in relaxed form and Stuart Whitman provides a spry counterpoint. Lee Marvin enjoys a relatively brief but impactful and animated role as a forcefully drunk, semi-scalped dangerous scoundrel. Michael Ansara is suitably intimidating as the most brutal of the bad guys, and the cast also features a who's who of veterans in small roles, including Jack Elam, Bruce Cabot, Edgar Buchanan and Henry Daniell

Hints of potential collide with limited ambition, and The Comancheros settles down somewhere between almost forgettable and vaguely memorable.

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