Monday, December 14, 2009

Valdez is Coming

I DVR’ed this 1970 Western in part because it’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel, and in part because someone (George Pelecanos?) recommended it on his web site. It took a little to get used to Burt Lancaster as a Mexican, but he got the job done, and I’ve never been a huge Burt Lancaster fan, so that says something.

Lancaster plays Bob Valdez, the deputy for the Mexican part of an Arizona frontier town. Valdez is a low-key, obsequious sort until events force him to kill a man who was unjustly suspected of murder. The dead man—who was black, which also entered into the issue—left an Indian woman, and Valdez wants $200 to get her back to the reservation.

The town turns him down; too much money. They’ll come up with half if Valdez can convince Frank Tanner to pay half, since the whole episode was his fault to begin with. Bob has no luck with him, and things get progressively worse until Tanner has his hands dangerously humiliate Valdez by tying him to a cross and setting him loose to walk home.

He gets a little help and gets home, where we learn mild-mannered Valdez was a serious badass in his youth. (This is a Western; what did you expect?) he wants the hundred dollars and he’s going to get it, even after the woman goes to the reservation on her own.

The story and characters are better than the movie’s execution; credit Leonard’s book for that. There’s a lot of stereotypical Western stuff in there, though the use of the landscape to show distances is well done. (The film was shot in Spain.) Lancaster’s physical presence is enough to make Valdez’s transformation back to his former self believable, and you root for him even though he takes Tanner’s almost wife hostage to make an escape and to hold in exchange for the money.

There are little touches of Leonard’s writing all through the movie, if you know where to look. Valdez isn’t dressed up as anything romantic. He’s just doing what he thinks is right. He had to kidnap the white woman to make an escape, and he’s not apologizing to her or anyone else about it. The bad guys are just bad guys: they’re not psychos or caricatures, just guys doing a job. Their jobs just happen to include terrorizing and killing people. (Except for John Cypher’s Tanner an Richard Jordan’s Davis, both of whom had too much ham with their eggs from the location caterer.)

A scene near the end has some classic Leonard dialog. I can’t set it up too much without spoiling the ending, but Tanner’s right-hand man, El Segundo, is talking to Valdez after overtaking him:

El Segundo: [after pausing and nervously clearing his throat] Tell me something... Who are you?
Valdez: I told you once before - Bob Valdez.
El Segundo: [referring to Valdez's earlier marksmanship against his men] You know something, Bob Valdez, you hit one, I think, 700-800 yards.
Valdez: [with certitude] Closer to a thousand.
El Segundo: What was it? Sharps?
Valdez: [nods] My own load.
El Segundo: You ever hunt buffalo?
Valdez: Apache.
El Segundo: I knew it. When?
Valdez: Before I know better.*
El Segundo: You know how many men you kill these last two days?
Valdez: Eleven.
El Segundo: You counted.
Valdez: You better.

Vintage Leonard. Made the whole movie, along with the final scene.

Valdez is Coming isn’t a Western classic, but it’s well worth the time.

* - Dialog down to this point taken from IMDB.

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