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Pairing with D.P. Ernest Miller on the low-budget 1949 western dustup I Shot Jesse James brought out an unlikely moral fable from Samuel Fuller’s first shot at playing writer-director. But just a year later, with innovative cinematographer James Wong Howe’s low-key eye channeling Fuller’s parade of dark foibles, The Baron of Arizona is no less ambitious than the reaches of the self-styled “Baron,” James Addison Reavis (Vincent Price, in one of his own favorite roles), a common land use clerk turned two-bit charlatan who pursues a scheme in 1872 to defraud the federal government of the entirety of the Territory of Arizona.

As with Fuller’s beginnings as a pulp novelist and budding screenwriter, the Baron’s are inconspicuous; taking issue with a provision that allows for the grandfathering in of claims from minor Spanish-Mexican nobility on land within the Territory, he externalizes his desire for judicious vengeance in a bout of forgery and perjury that will see him raise up a false claimant, an orphan whom he declares is in fact Doña Sofia de Peralta, and subsequently marry her in order to carve an oversized slice of the American Dream for himself. Along the way he teaches himself counterfeiting, crosses the Atlantic to live in a secluded Spanish monastery for three years and is threatened by mobs of lynch-hungry Arizonans homesteaders. All the while he maintains his legitimacy, even stooping to admonish his cherished Golden Goose earlier on in her dirtier, less cultured My Fair Lady days, in the Pricean lisp, “You must never take what is not yours.” Like Robert Ford in I Shot Jesse James, Reavis is not a man of great moral fortitude nor steady character, but Fuller’s focus remains on the man-as-betrayer, even (especially) in moments of great inner turmoil. “I remember that cheap swindler,” reflects someone in the film’s opening minutes. “Swindler? Yes. But cheap…?” another retorts.

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And although Reavis built a grand empire on another’s dime, Fuller and Howe wring impressive cinema from what meager allowances they were allowed; even on the kind of notoriously low budget that Fuller later proved especially adept at stretching. The pulpy, calculative melodrama of Reavis’s story is framed and shot beautifully but modestly, using the same high-contrast shadow effects, restrained atmosphere and deep focus Howe, whose career was fully rehabilitated after Fuller asked him to shoot this film, had pioneered during the silent era. “Pulp” is the watchword, too, as Fuller blends familiar elements from the genre he had previously written in his time as a novelist. Darkness and shadow envelope whole scenes; interrogative dialogue and courtroom drama back-and-forth roll at an abrogated clip. At one point, a grizzled academic-turned-forensic detective circles a cigar-choked boardroom while vested interests guffaw on about “the stench of swindle.”

Ultimately Reavis’ audacity is his undoing and we watch the man whose “claim is a bad cigar wrapped in a rich Spanish leaf” spiral into ever deeper grooves of systematic deceit. All the while Fuller puts his moral stamp on Reavis’ illicit activities, having his characters parrot Aristotle for the second time in his directing career when Reavis teaches the recalcitrant Sofia: “Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but deserving them.” This perhaps is the lasting impression granted by the The Baron of Arizona, that “only peasants cry” and the respect afforded a person by society is not a document that can be forged no matter the skill of the tinkerer. Although in the decade immediately following Fuller would commit himself most to war pictures such as The Steel Helmet and Verboten!, The Baron of Arizona’s pulpier proclivities recur in the noirs The Crimson Kimono, Pickup on South Street and House of Bamboo. In either case Fuller’s moral compass and increasing directorial skill, unlike the gilded wishes of James Addison Reavis, hold steady, and simply can’t be faked.

by Joe Clinkenbeard

See Also: Oeuvre: Fuller- I Shot Jesse James

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