Saturday, November 12, 2011
From the Rental Vault (1961): The Comancheros
Wayne plays Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger during the later days of the Republic of Texas. He's been sent to apprehend Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a gambler wanted because he dueled and defeated the son of a vengeful judge. Paul Wellman's 1952 novel used Regret as the lead character, and in fact Whitman is onscreen driving the action for awhile before Wayne's Cutter shows up. Regret escapes but is later re-apprehended when Wayne encounters him during an unrelated investigation into gun smuggling. The pair find themselves allies in the fight against Comanche raiders, their Latino allies the comancheros and the smugglers, led by Nehemiah Persoff's Graile. Their one chance is the connection Regret has with Graile's daughter Pilar (Ina Balin), but the hatred of Graile's lieutenant Amelung (Michael Ansara) may prove problematic.
Many of Wayne's later "Wayne-centric" movies work out quite well when the movie itself gives the other characters room to work, but The Comancheros really doesn't do that as well as it should. Whitman's Regret is a likable rogue but loses most of his color once he has to play off Wayne's Cutter. Lee Marvin is mostly wasted in a throwaway role early in the movie.
Nor does The Comancheros have a strong enough story to rank with the best of Wayne's best work once he'd hit icon status; important plot points early in the movie get dismissed when it's convenient to do so. Cutter talks about the importance of the oath he took to uphold the law when he tells Regret he's still going to take him in even after the gambler fights at his side during an attack but that importance is apparently gone once several Rangers decide to break it by false testimony on Regret's behalf.
The Comancheros has a great look and it really only lags when it has to stop for some exposition. Director Michael Curtiz knew his way around action movies and high-quality pictures -- he directed The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk as well as Casablanca -- and he had a reputation for keeping the storytelling pedal pressed to the floor. Curtiz was too ill to finish The Comancheros and Wayne finished for him, but without a noticeable dropoff. The movie's main problems were its makeshift story and its unwillingness to let its lesser stars shine as brightly as the center. The combination doesn't make a bad movie, but it leaves The Comancheros firmly in the middle of the pack of Wayne's icon-era work and well below his best.