Aldrich, Leone and Vera Cruz: Style and Substance over the Border

Uploaded 30 June 2000

As coincidence would have it, Robert Aldrich’s western Vera Cruz and Robert Warshow’s seminal essay on the genre, “Movie chronicle: the westerner” both appeared in 1954. [1] And both, in their own way, star Gary Cooper. Vera Cruz is a picaresque tale of two American soldiers of fortune in Mexico – Cooper and Burt Lancaster – who sell their services to the Emperor Maximilian, who needs mercenaries of few scruples to assure the safe passage of a gold shipment through rebel territory. Shot on location in Mexico in Superscope format, it is a film of considerable pictorial exuberance and epic form. As with much of Aldrich’s work, the term “baroque” has been used to describe the film’s style.

The genesis of Vera Cruz is a tale in itself. Both the story treatment and first draft of the screenplay were written by Borden Chase. The actual historical incident the film is based on -Maximilian sending a carriage with a secret compartment full of gold and a countess on board from the capitol to Vera Cruz – was brought to Chase’s attention by producer William Alland. According to Chase it was “a hell of a story” and he “went down to Mexico to write it for [producer] Harold Hecht”.[2]  Hecht was half of Hecht-Lancaster Productions which had recently produced Aldrich’s first western Apache (USA 1954) starring Burt Lancaster (the other half of the Hecht-Lancaster company).

According to Chase, the first draft was tailored for Cooper and Lancaster who had both agreed to star in the film on the basis of the story treatment. (Chase was an exceptional writer of westerns. Among his credits are: Red River, USA 1948; Winchester ’73, USA 1950; Bend of the river, USA 1952; The Far Country, USA 1955; – the last three for director Anthony Mann – and Man without a Star, USA 1955. He also wrote the south seas adventure His majesty O’Keefe, USA 1953, for Lancaster). Though Chase lays no claim to the screenplay beyond its first draft – it was soon to pass into the hands of others- Vera Cruz shares with his other credits the “journey” narrative form and the theme of the uneasy alliance between two men. While Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb are offically credited for the screenplay, Aldrich has pointed out that:
Vera Cruz was total improvisation because the script was always finished about five minutes before we shot it, and we’d sit right down and work it out and then shoot it as we went along. I’m not sure that’s the right way to work. [3]

Whatever the truth behind the process, it did not stop François Truffaut devoting most of his 1955 review of the film to discussing the “ingenuity” of the screenplay which he called “a painstakingly constructed mechanism of weights and balances like a Swiss watchworks.” [4]  What Truffaut marveled at was the screenplay’s classical perfection: the harmony of its parts with the whole, its narrative symmetries, and sustained control of rhyming elements. As to style, he added, “Aldrich’s direction is a little showy and full of effects. Some are excellent and others superfluous, but they all serve the story.” [5]  Interestingly, Truffaut’s implied criticism of Aldrich’s direction sets up a contrast between the classicism of the screenplay and the not-so-classical “showy…full of effects” style which later critics will come to call Aldrich’s “baroqueness”. Often, what critics meant by that were vague notions about excessive ornamentation or the perceived mannered pictorialism of his mise en scene. Even today, the question of Aldrich’s ‘style’ remains an issue.

Robert Warshow’s “The westerner” is an essay about style. Looking back on the genre’s development from the vantage point of 1954, he notes a certain progressive dissolving or unravelling of its classical form. For Warshow, a sign of change in the genre can be as readily detected in the poetry of an actor’s face as in anything else : “As lines of age have come into Gary Cooper’s face since The Virginian (USA 1929), so the outlines of the western movie in general has become less smooth…” [6]  When he makes the general observation that the westerner is a “classical figure” there is little doubt it is Cooper’s persona that is his point of reference for the genre as a whole. Written in a somewhat elegiac tone, there is in Warshow’s essay a sense that the genre’s classical style had reached a limit point and that a new ensemble of elements had emerged. To better understand these new elements, he casts a backward glance at The Virginian, for Warshow an example of the genre in its pristine classical form. Warshow understood the western to have been the most classical of American genres; whether by 1954 it would remain so was an open question. If the genre’s classical phase was ending, or indeed had ended, what new ensemble of features were reshaping it?

Fundamentally, Warshow’s critique of the genre was less formalist in orientation than it was sociological. Classicism, in his view, had as much to do with the kinds of myths and cultural values the genre espoused as it did with the overall formal properties of style. That is why he gives so much attention to the archetypal hero – Cooper’s “classical figure”- and the ensuing loss of moral certainity in American heroism the westerner was coming to represent. As the nature of the moral drama changes, so too does the genre’s pictorial rendering of its iconographic features – guns, violence, landscape, horses – and, more generally, actors and performance style.
Without wanting to maintain an order of priority, the object of this paper is threefold: to understand Vera Cruz as a textual system in its own right, as the ensemble of “generic” features it sets into play; to comment on Aldrich’s particular use of mise en scene and the kinds of conclusions we can draw about his “style”;; and to argue that the film is an Ur-text for the spaghetti western genre (in particular Sergio Leone’s films), often seen as a decadent or baroque variant of the American classical form. (As to this last point, I make no claim for its originality. In his ground-breaking study of the genre, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone , Christopher Frayling has already sketched out some of the ground for reading Vera Cruz‘s influence on the spaghetti westerns; I wish to extend some of his observations.) [7]  My approach will be both schematic and fragmentary.


[T]here is no poverty in Western movies, and really no wealth either: those great cattle domains and shipments of gold which figure so largely in the plots are moral and not material quantities, not the objects of contention but only its occasion. [8]
Money is nothing, circulation is everything. [9]

Gold. Three million in coins hidden in the floor of the coach which our characters escort from Mexico City to Vera Cruz. The gold is the film’s open secret. Soon enough every character twigs to its presence, lusts after it, schemes to possess it. Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) more than most. Contemptuous of sharing it (“Not me, I’m a pig.”) he wants it all. Lancaster’s cheshire-cat grin is a wonderful thing, but frightening – broad, white crocodile teeth gleaming in the hot Mexican sun. As an open sign of voraciousness, his toothful grin spells primal greed, but that is less an explanation for his scheming than it may appear. There is another more puzzling question: what does Joe want to do with the gold once he has it?

Joe is surrounded by characters with very specific aims. Emperor Maximilian, whose gold it is, wants to buy arms and men from Europe to preserve his reign. The Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) sees it as a means to a life of luxury in Paris. (She is ostensibly Maximilian’s decoy, a ruse to have the gold transported under cover of her frilly petticoats. But she won’t sit still for it: she would rather be a queen with her own moves than a pawn in another’s game.) The Juarista rebels, the film’s silent majority, want the gold to further their struggle against the empire. Theirs is the noble cause, the politics of good against evil. They come and go from the action, yet like the invisible eye of history they are ever-present at the edges of the frame, watchful of the progress of events. While theirs is a future in the making, Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) on the other hand is motivated by nostalgia, the desire to resurrect a noble past: “There’s nothing destroyed that can’t ever be rebuilt”. For him, the gold is a means to finance the repair of his plantation after the devastation of the American civil war (as a Confederate commander, he made the mistake of fighting his last battle on his own land). And for Joe? Joe wants for the sake of wanting, pure and simple. For him, money is experienced as an absolute object. A thing in itself as if totally cut away from its use value, stripped of its economic imperative. It is not a means to an end, it is an end in itself. But why?

“Frozen desire”: that is James Buchan’s eloquent term for money. [10] Desire is an invisible thing, like the wind in the trees, only known through its effect on other things. Money gives material form to desire: in effect it is the metaphoric currency of desire. More importantly, it makes desire see itself, as if holding up a mirror to it. Joe is pure desire and therefore pure money. His identification with it is absolute. It is his narcissistic mirror.

Interestingly, money is the sign under which the spaghetti western will later announce itself. Though a steady trickle of Euro-westerns precede the release of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Italy/Spain/Germany 1964), it is this film that establishes the box office viability of the genre resulting in the countless films that follow it. Leone’s film – effectively a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (Japan 1961) – features an anonymous anti-hero who sells his gun to the highest bidder and then plays both ends against the middle to acquire more and more dollars…and again we ask, for what purpose? The roll call of titles of films that feature bounty hunters, soldiers of fortune and dollar-chasing rogues of whatever persuasion is testament enough to the influence of Leone’s film and the genre’s obssessive interest in money-driven stories: A River of Dollars (Italy 1966), 100,000 Dollars for Ringo (Italy 1966), A Few Dollars for Django (Italy 1968), One Silver Dollar (Italy/France 1965), For a Dollar in the Teeth (Italy/USA 1966), 10,000 Dollars Blood Money (Italy 1967).

Less often noted than it should be, the films that comprise Leone’s aptly titled “Dollars” trilogy – Fistful of DollarsFor A Few Dollars More (Italy/Spain/Germany 1965) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Italy/USA 1966) – are great absurdistcomedies on the theme of money. In the final sequence of For a Few Dollars More, Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no name” loads a cart with the dead bodies of a gang of outlaws, all the while calculating the bounty each one brings. Noticing a shortfall in his tally, he realises there is one more outlaw to shoot, which he summarily does. Collecting the bag full of money from the gang’s last bank robbery to boot, this grim reaper and his cart of human cargo head off into the horizon. [11] Human flesh reduced to dollar signs. The image is both obscene and absurdly comic. Furthermore, in the final sequence of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the search for the gold coins ends in the vast no-man’s-land of a cemetery with one character strung from a tree with a noose around his neck while precariously balancing himself on a small wooden cross. One slip and his neck will break. At his feet are sacks of coins, his share of the booty. Another absurdly comic image. The irony of the “Dollars” trilogy is that wealth is often left in the hands of those for whom it is functionless. What would these rootless drifters and seekers of adventure do with such wealth? Like Joe Erin, they are neither empire builders nor investors in a future. Note also how often in spaghetti westerns money is associated with the spectre of death: hidden in grave-yards, stored in coffins, or at the extreme, the dead weight of human bounty as an indexical sign. The “hidden treasure hunt” story so beloved of the genre in its early stages is a fable about money removed from circulation. Given that money’s destiny is to circulate, freezing it in a secret resting place effectively renders it a dead thing.

Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly contains a passage titled “L’estasi dell’oro”. The title has been variously translated as “The ecstasy of gold” or “The rapture of gold” or “The delirium of gold” . This musical passage accompanies the moment in the film when a character, sensing the imminent discovery of the gold coins, runs in a frantic spiralling movement around the circular cemetery looking for the name on the grave that contains the buried treasure. It is the film’s most frenzied moment, a tour de force of camera movement and music; as the ever-accelerating movement of character and image blur one into the other, the representational element of the image dissolves into a blur of abstraction (whip-panning). For a moment it is made to seem as if the character were chasing himself or his shadow. In Vera Cruz, when Joe Erin sees the gold for the first time he greets it – “Well, hell-O” – a private, personal greeting: he has come face to face with his character’s inner core, his desire, his very (alter-) image.

Yet money has two sides in this narrative, and Ben represents its other face. Appropriately, it is Ben who “echoes” Joe’s “hello” as he emerges from shadows in the background of the frame.
Between Ben and Joe stand two ideas about money. On the one hand as use-value for Ben to heal the wounds of the civil war. On the other, for Joe, as ecstatic object, a purely symbolic mirror of narcissistic desire.

Warshow has called the westerner the “last gentleman” and the telling of his story “the last art form in which the concept of honor retains its strength.” [12] Cooper’s Ben Trane is a gentlemen and a classic hero precisely because he puts a moral frame around money. Finally, he will leave it to the Juaristas and their noble cause. Joe will have nothing of this. For him, money has no morally correct destiny, it is always up for grabs. The cynical, amoral anti-heroes of the spaghetti westerns follow in the footsteps of Joe Erin, and they ain’t no gentlemen.

The two-timing plot

Vera Cruz is above all a dazzling lesson in story contruction. [13]

The beauty of Vera Cruz is in the scheming that takes place to acquire the gold coins. Or, more precisely, the plotting. Let’s restore to this word its double meaning: plot, as in the ordering of story events and as in the hatching of a scheme. As they quest after the gold, each character in Vera Cruz becomes a spinner of plots, a nexus point for a myriad of both actual and potential plot moves. At the very least, they are always caught in a three-fold bind: in a plot of their own making; in a counter-plot of someone else’s making; and in the master plot of the story’s making, of which they are always already its actants. The film unfolds in such a way that story content and story form are made to mirror one another, an inbuilt “reflecting” pattern. Like looking at the internal mechanism of a clockwork movement (Truffaut’s analogy), structuring a story around the double sense inherent in the term “plot”, as Vera Cruz does, exposes the mechanism of classical story-telling.

The parable of Ace Hannah which sutures its way through the film – an anecdote told once by Joe and then endlessly cross-referenced by the characters – is one signifier of what I have called the “reflecting” mechanism, or, to adopt Richard Combs’ term, the “game-playing structure” in Vera Cruz. [14]  That double level of commentary was perhaps what led Truffaut to claim that the film had “introduced irony into the genre”. [15]  The story of Ace Hannah is in essence a ghost plot: it shadows the master narrative and haunts every move Ben and Joe make.

When the inevitable final showdown arrives, Ben’s words to Joe will be, “Guess you meant that Ace Hannah story after all”, as if in conscious acknowledgement of the finality of the ghost plot.
Ghost plots of another kind figure prominently in the films of Leone. In For a Few Dollars More – a film Frayling claims is significantly modelled on Vera Cruz – there is a literal “ghost” plot that shadows the story. At first it is glimpsed in fragmentary flashbacks, then finally revealed in its full scope at the moment of the final showdown. This device returns in a more majestic form in Once Upon a Time in the West (Italy/USA 1968) as the mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson) returns as the spectre of a story long forgotten by Frank (Henry Fonda), a story which seals his fate. How could it be otherwise? As a hybrid form, there is already a ghost in the machine of the spaghetti western: the history of its American prototype without which it could not have existed.

The chain and the fold

So accustomed is one to reading academic definitions of the “classic” plot or narrative as a “chain of events in cause and effect pattern” that we give little attention to the metaphoric associations such an expression calls forth: linkage and rigidity. Alternatively, the equally common usage of the phrase “the unfolding of the plot” offers another set of associations or analogies: the pliability and pleating of story events. The chain analogy gives rise to metallic connotations, the pleating one to fabric. Each analogy has its own measure of truth. Let us look more closely at the narrative form of
Vera Cruz in the light of the respective analogies of the chain and the fold.

A steady flow of the American civil war’s human debris crosses the border into Mexico in search of fortune and adventure. The title sequence – which is also the film’s prologue – shows and tells us no less. Distant figures on horseback riding through rolling hills, valleys, pastoral ideals – “classic” western backdrop imagery. And then an intertitle – “…And some came alone”. In a few brief shots the narrative has delineated it’s hero, Ben Trane, its principal agent – different because he is singular, singular because he is different. And yet, for this film, at its most structural level, the hero does indeed seem like the first link in an ever-expanding chain, or like a string on which are threaded more and more pearls. A pure game of multiplying and adding, as if our hero, having started as a singular entity, becomes in the course of the story a magnet attracting a caravanserai of humanity.

It is easy enough to chart the accretion of characters (starting with the introduction of the hero), given that it seems to be the formal principle of the film’s sequencing: Ben first meets Joe at a roadhouse; Ben then encounters Joe’s gang in a village cantina and is soon rejoined by Joe; Ben, Joe and his gang confront another gang of American mercenaries in a town square and, after an altercation which results in Joe’s shooting of the other gang’s leader (“Anyone else string with Charlie?”), the two gangs merge; they are surrounded by General Ramirez’s Juaristas; they are then escorted to Emperor Maximilian’s palace by the Marquis and his troops; and then they meet the Countess, the Emperor’s guards, a coach full of gold and…so on and so forth. Every narrative encounter the hero makes is a port of call in which he – one could equally say ‘they’ given that by this stage Ben and Joe are symbiotically bound – willingly or unwillingly takes cargo on board, until saturation point arrives and the game changes to one of shedding narrative baggage. Importantly, each narrative encounter binds itself around a transaction or negotiation of some kind. Each additional increment of persons around the hero has an inevitable and necessary economic dimension. And each economic alliance is matched by its obverse, the moral alliance. In such a scenario the hero sets off a chain reaction, binding characters and events.

And yet, in the realm of analogy, that description of events as a chain can be rethought through the idea of the “fold”. As such, the story would be understood as analogous to spreading fabric. Initially compressed within the hero, as if he were some multiple layered fold, and then extended as the hero’s journey unfolds. The choice is a question of which concept is more metaphorically dextrous, richer in accounting for the kind of story-effect a film like Vera Cruz sets in play. Does the idea of folds and pleating correspond to anything in the concrete actualisation of story into mise en scene? Can an image be said to have creases? Robert Bresson, stylistically the least baroque of filmmakers, would seem to think so: “Flatten my images (as if ironing them), without attenuating them.” [16] Interestingly, Bresson’s analogy brings together our two metaphoric poles, the metallic and the fabric.

Human drapery

Let us consider Aldrich’s use of mise en scene. Darkness. Suddenly two foreground figures part and another image appears. It takes a moment to realise how this effect was accomplished. Two waterboys stand shoulder to shoulder, backs to the camera, blocking its view. In a flash, like a curtain parting, one figure moves to the left of frame, the other to the right, revealing the street of a Mexican town as Ben Trane rides into the now-vacated centre of the frame. It is a small moment early in the film, but significant, for it is the first in an increasingly masterful series of “veiling/unveiling” effects used by Aldrich throughout the film. The most extravagant of these occurs in the sequence in which the American mercenaries are offered commissions both from Maximilian’s representative, the Marquis, and in turn, General Ramirez, the leader of the Juaristas. As Joe and the gang ride into the town plaza the space has already been turned into a designated arena of action, both open and yet enfolded by the anonymous mass of onlookers to the spectacle, who are themselves enclosed by the surrounding walls. The space of this scene is highly deceptive. Hidden in the folds of the crowd are other pockets of space concealing characters of consequence to the unfolding action. The crowd, used by Aldrich as a form of human drapery, repeatedly opens and closes again as if answering a curtain call. Each of the representive groups of characters is in attendence from the beginning (the Marquis, General Ramirez, the rebels, the children held as hostages) but they are veiled. Such a visual trope can be and is used by Aldrich in any sort of space whatsoever. For example, at Maximilian’s palace, the crowd will part and suddenly the lavish ballroom becomes a firing range as Ben and Joe engage in an impromptu exercise in marksmanship. Again, as in the example of the town plaza, space is hidden in the folds of the crowd awaiting to be unveiled. Like folding and unfolding, the field of action can be spatially contracted or extended at will.

Critics have identified in Leone’s style a particular narrative trope he calls the “reveal” shot. [17]  Leone is fond of producing “revelatory” moments in which a shot, scene or action reveals itself to have dimensions not initially expected. The effect is often accomplished by withholding space, as if the viewer is presented with a tiny pictorial detail prior to the unveiling of the full canvas. When Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) steps off the train in Once Upon a Time in the West (Italy/USA 1968) into what seems a small end-of-the-line railroad station, Leone’s camera executes a majestically slow ascending crane shot which will reveal, behind the station, the full panorama of a thriving, industrious community. In Leone’s cinema there is a whole world in the wings, just off-screen, awaiting its moment. The example above is a rather elementary instance of the reveal device, its function being purely pictorial. Leone puts the device to best effect in moments of surpreme dramatic significance as in the flash-back revelations that structure such films as For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck You Sucker (aka A Fistful of Dynamite Italy/USA 1971). In Vera Cruz, the moment the American mercenaries refuse General Aguilar’s offer, Aldrich executes a virtuoso quasi-360′ panning shot(s) using Joe Erin as the axis of point-of-view. In what seems a miraculous apparition, the rebel soldiers take up positions on the town’s ramparts in an ever-spreading concertina effect. It is a “reveal” shot par excellence. Certainly the reveal device does not have the gravity in Aldrich that it has for Leone. Nevertheless, is it too fanciful to believe that the “revealing” strategy Leone had come to adopt in so many of his films had it origins in this moment of Vera Cruz?

In the early 1960s Aldrich went to Italy to make a bible spectacular, as they were then called. The year before, Leone had made his first feature, The Colossus of Rhodes (Italy/Spain/France 1960) after years spent building a reputation as one of the finest assistant directors in the Italian film industry (as Aldrich had done during his Hollywood apprenticeship). Yet, according to Frayling’s biography of Leone, in 1961 “Sergio took a surprising career step backwards, by agreeing once again to become a second-unit director”. [18] Why?:

The film was Sodom and Gomorrah; the great attraction this time was that he would be working with Robert Aldrich. Here was a chance to work with the man who had made the great “double-cross” western, Vera Cruz. More recently, Aldrich had made The Last Sunset, featuring one of the great “settling of account” sequences, in its final duel between tortured, black-clad Kirk Douglas and angry nice guy Rock Hudson. Leone had also admired Aldrich’s films of the mid-1950s: Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Knife and Attack!. [19]

Leone was no doubt an avid student of the American western genre; but more particularly, at the level of mise en scene, he was equally attentive to the individual styles of given filmmakers, and Aldrich was accorded privileged attention.

This is why one senses in Leone the echo of an effect first glimpsed in Aldrich, but now further refined and elaborated upon by Leone. In Aldrich the “reveal” device has a more mise en abyme quality. When Joe discovers the gold, the sequence segues into a shot revealing Ben’s presence, which in turn segues into a shot revealing the Countess’s presence, which finally leads into a shot of the Marquis, who keeps his presence secret from the others. One surprise follows another, like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat. This is similar to the cemetery scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly where one character finds himself surprised in the act by the appearance of another character and then, in turn, by yet one more.

On another level, Aldrich is fond of counterpointing of a “theatrical” effect with a “cinematic” effect. The space of action in the town plaza sequence is a theatre in the round as characters take positions as if on a stage; the use of the crowd as both spectators and curtaining device makes the theatricalisation of space self-evident. Joe, especially, knows himself to be an actor on stage and so the value of putting on a good show when shooting an antagonist. To this point, the shots have a classicalmise en scene: compositional balance, centred framing, uniformity of perspective lines. Suddenly, all this is ruptured by the introduction of the virtuoso 360′ panning shot. It is an exhibition of a cinematic rendering of space, no longer derived from theatre. Leone’s corrida (the circle of action) is another theatre in the round but emptied of spectators: as his characters take up their stage positions, the theatrical space is pulverised by his celebrated montage sequences cut to the tempo of Morricone’s music – close-ups of hands, eyes, holsters, guns- all serve to rupture the proscenium wholeness of theatrical space. The means differ but the principle remains the same: the counterpointing of theatre and cinema.
Heroes for sale

Really, it is not violence at all which is the “point” of the Western movie, but a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence…A hero is one who looks like a hero. [20]

Just make me the hero [21] .

Ben rides into Mexico on a lame horse. Almost immediately, in the first of the film’s many monetary transactions, he attempts to buy a horse from Joe.

Ben: “How much?”
Joe: “100 dollars, gold.”
Ben: “That’s mighty hard.”
Joe: “So’s walking.”
The deal done, Ben turns and shoots his lame horse.

Ben: “His leg was broke.”
Joe: “Three legged horse’ll bring a price down here.”
Ben: “He was suffering.”
Joe: “Got a soft spot.”
Ben: “Only for horses.”

It is a scene that instantly sets in play the ethical and economic terms of the story. At the end of the film, in their final confrontation, the terms remain the same: gold and “That old soft spot, eh, Ben?”. Vera Cruz is a film of delightful symmetries. And its most perfect symmetry is between hero and anti-hero.

Morality aside, Vera Cruz is the story of two “heroes” and the two styles they embody. Dramatic characters at one level, at another they are signifiers of a classical and baroque style. Actors and their performance mode have long been seen as avatars of style; this allows Warshow to use Cooper as a linchpin in defining classical traits. He is not alone. David Thomson, echoing Warshow, says of Cooper’s persona :

The iconography of classical American virtues of simplicity and honor being racked by violence, corruption and compromise is traced in a succession of images of Cooper, his stride becoming ever more spindly and perilous with the years. [22]

By the time of Vera Cruz, Cooper was long established as an enduring icon of the genre; Cooper’s film career began in the late 1920s; Lancaster’s began in 1946. Lancaster’s persona was shaped equally by two seemingly antithetical genres which nonetheless find synthesis in Joe Erin: film noir (The Killers, USA 1946; I Walk Alone, USA 1948; Criss Cross, USA 1949), and swashbucklers (The Flame and the Arrow , USA 1950; The Crimson Pirate , USA 1952; His Majesty O’Keefe ).

Lancaster’s movements have an athlete’s muscular, sinuous, kinetic grace, whereas Cooper’s are elegant: an economy of gesture, energy conserved. When Joe draws his gun, the event is an elaborate ritual: the act itself and the act as performance. In the town plaza – we keep returning to this moment because it is one of the film’s most significant scenes- Joe confronts an antagonist by turning his back, walking away, then drawing and firing not with his gunarm extended in front of his body as is traditional, but with his gun hooked behind his back, a gesture of cunning virtuosity. Then he holsters it with an elaborate twirl, a flourish, a cadenza of gesture which is the signature trait of his style: baroque, in fact. His exhibitionism compliments his narcissism [23] . Significantly, at the decisive moment when Joe fires, Aldrich cuts to a medium shot of Cooper in which we register only the slight, subtle movement of his fingers tapping his gunbelt. The contrast is all-important. It is what Aldrich’s mise en scene has been doing all along, demonstrating something in counterpoint: Cooper’s classical poise in contrast with Lancaster’s baroque excess. At the film’s end, the two face off in the most poetic of final showdowns. Both having fired, Joe does his trademark grin and holsters his gun with his signature reverse twirl. Ben stands motionless. For a moment, the outcome remains uncertain. A beat later, Joe falls dead. Even at the moment of death, style prevails.

The final significance of Aldrich’s Vera Cruz is two-fold: it redirects the American western, reworking its classic conventions as it simultaneously points to a new direction in style. In turn, that style will form the basis of influence for the spaghetti western as that genre looks towards it own baroque exercises in style. That is no small achievement.


[1] Robert Warshow, “Movie chronicle: the westerner”, The Immediate Experience (New York: Atheneum, 1974). First published in Partisan Review (March/April, 1954).
[2] Jim Kitses, “Borden Chase: an interview” in The Hollywood Screenwriters, ed. Richard Corliss (New York: Avon, 1972), 147-167.
[3] Richard Combs, “Robert Aldrich (1953-1961)” in Robert Aldrich, ed. Richard Combs (London: BFI, 1978), 53.
[4] Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 97.
[5] Truffaut, 98.
[6] Warshow, 143-4.
[7] Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).
[8] Warshow, 128-9.
[9] Paul Virilio, Politics of the Very Worst (USA: Semiotext(e), 1999), 106
[10] James Buchan, Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money (London: Picador, 1998).
[11] See Bill Krohn on Aldrich’s “deathcart” in Sodom and Gomorrah, elsewhere in this issue.
[12] Warshow, 141.
[13] Truffaut, 95.
[14] Combs, 17.
[15] Truffaut as quoted in Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 111.
[16] Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography (New York: Urizen, 1977), 6.
[17] Adrian Martin, “Euphoria and liberating laughter: the cinema of Sergio Leone”, Metro 113/114 (1988). See also Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to do with Death, 230.
[18] Frayling, Sergio Leone, 110.
[19] Frayling, Sergio Leone, 110-111.
[20] Warshow, 153.
[21] Cooper’s advice to a screenwriter as quoted in David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (London: Andre Deutsch, 1994), 144.
[22] Thomson, 144.
[23] A point not lost on Jean-Luc Godard. In Anna Karina’a apartment in Une femme est une femme (France 1961), Jean-Paul Belmondo proposes a movie date to her. “We can meet later at the Neptuna. They’ve got Vera Cruz on.” He turns toward the camera and grins. “With my friend Burt Lancaster,” and, just as Joe Erin does in the countess’s apartment in Vera Cruz, Belmondo leans into the camera as if it were a mirror, bares his teeth, and scrubs them with his finger.

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Rolando Caputo

About the Author

Rolando Caputo

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