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Fox Home Entertainment presents
"I always figured to die. The question is: when?"
DVD ReviewIt's hard to know just what to make of the career of Michael Curtiz. He's the director of one of the most beloved and celebrated films of all time—Casablanca—and his résumé is peppered with notable work in other genres, including musicals (Yankee Doodle Dandy) and film noir (Mildred Pierce). But is he on anyone's short list of great directors? Is there a discernible Curtiz style? Or was he a workmanlike craftsman who rose or fell with the level of his material?
Auteurists can duke that one out, and this DVD release of the director's final film won't do much to clarify the debate. It's an odd little Western, and bears a peculiar title card in its opening credits: "Action sequences directed by Cliff Lyon." It's hard to imagine any director handing over the reins, let alone giving up screen credit for some of the work, but it's sort of in keeping with this film.The action begins with a duel at dawn, just outside of New Orleans, in the 1840s—Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) triumphs, but it's a Pyrrhic victory, for his dead opponent is the son of a hanging judge, looking to do away with the noblesse oblige that allows these showdowns to continue. Regret goes on the lam, and lands on a riverboat, where he catches the eye of the lovely Pilar Graile (Ina Balin)—is she after his money? Or does she just like him?
We're asking a different question: where's the Duke? Finally, John Wayne shows up, as Big Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger with orders to deliver Regret back to Louisiana. Jake takes his prisoner before Regret can puzzle out the woman, and the next chunk of the movie is sort of like Midnight Run on horseback. It's a strangely circuitous tale—much to Jake's embarrassment, Regret escapes, and the Ranger is assigned to another case, in which he goes undercover as a gun runner, allowing him to team up with the hilariously dangerous Lee Marvin as Crow, who encountered the Comanches and survived a scalping.
All the strands of the plot eventually come together, but frequently it feels like you can't tell the players without a scorecard. The title of the film refers to a group of whites who ride with the Comanches—the Native Americans are portrayed as nameless, faceless savages, as is so often the case in Hollywood Westerns. (The Mexicans don't fare much better—they're not shown as being as bloodthirsty as the Comanches, but they are just as drunk.) The Comancheros have their own little outlaw society living in the most remote and barren parts of Texas. It's the independent spirit of the American West pushed to an absurd extreme, and the tightly knit band of Comancheros, with their near-messianic faith in their leader and brutal and rigid rules, resemble David Koresh and his followers more than a little.
It's surely not the best and most cleanly told Western you'll ever see, but there are some strange little things in it, like the odd pleasure of seeing John Wayne undercover in an absurd stovepipe hat; even better, he refers to his prisoner, who calls himself "Monsieur Paul Regret," as "Mon-sewer." This is a strange capstone to Curtiz's career, and feels like Wayne is treading water, but then again, nobody saddles up with the grace and esprit of the Duke.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: The film has that weirdly oversaturated early '60s look, and some pickup matte shots contribute further to the visual disorientation. Transfer to DVD looks pretty fair, though with some scratches on the print.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Elmer Bernstein's grand, brass-heavy score sounds fine on the 4.0 track, and there are many, many instances of horse hooves clomping about. Dialogue is always clean and comprehensible, though there is some hissing.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring North to Alaska, The Undefeated
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Extras Review: A very brief clip (:51s) from Movietone News celebrates the opening of the film in Shreveport, Louisiana, with a rapt audience and the composers of the title song. One of the original trailers is in English; the other, in Spanish.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsA peculiar Western that puts the genre through its paces in rather labyrinthine fashion, this isn't the first film you'll want to reach for, but John Wayne seems to be having a reasonably good time here, and if you don't mind not always sticking with the plot, you may do the same.
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