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Big Shot: The Baron of Arizona

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Samuel Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona is an exaggerated tale “based on the true events” from the life of James Reavis (Vincent Price), a real estate clerk turned swindler who forged a property claim on a vast swath of land across Arizona and western New Mexico in the 1870s. Despite this premise rife with promise, it is Price’s performance as Reavis and the hints of Fuller’s unique camp sensibilities that save this otherwise often tedious film.

This is a story infinitely preoccupied with origins: of Reavis himself, his quest to falsify the genealogical origins of a poor young orphan, of the state of Arizona, etc… so it doesn’t seem a coincidence that it’s primary players were in the process of reinventing themselves. Samuel Fuller was making the transition from screenwriter to director.This was only his second feature at the helm (the first being 1949’s I Shot Jesse James) marking the beginning of a prolific career directing low budget genre pictures with notable artistry and a unique point of view (Shock Corridor, White Dog, etc…). Vincent Price found himself his first starring role as the Baron after an early career jam-packed with character roles, but before he made his name as the king of schlock horror. Both would go on to reinvent  themselves more than once (and to be fair, this was Fuller’s third or fourth life), professionally as well as personally, imbuing The Baron of Arizona with particular historical relevance. But the bones of the film are pretty traditional, making those moments when Fuller and Price let their weirdness shines through all the more interesting.

On the face of it, Vincent Price is unlikely casting. His signature goofy acting style is thrown into stark contrast to the rest of the cast who are more subdued, naturalistic. But as Reavis, Price’s presence is striking. He is larger than life, both physically and metaphysically. Somehow he seems to loom at least three feet above everybody else in the film, his voice booming, his hands approximately the size of small horses. He’s appropriately mythical: Reavis’ legacy is rife with tall tales and hearsay. As a con artist, he relies on charisma and misdirection to get what he wants. It works. He cons a pretty young lady, then a whole monastery in Spain, and, for a short while, the United States government. He would be the villain in the story, and he nearly is, if it weren’t for Price’s signature eyebrow acting. All those eye rolls to the audience not only make him funny and lovable, they reinforce his status as the only one in on the joke. Eventually his fraud is uncovered, but not before Reavis manages to collect the equivalent of $150 million from innocent citizens of these frontier territories.

Historically, Reavis’ misdeeds took place on a much smaller scale – he never even left North America – but it’s understandable that concessions must be made for the atomic age audience. The weirder moments in the film: the extended sequence where Reavis cons a monastery, when he takes up with a band of gypsies, or even the claustrophobically constructed Western town that serves as the setting for the flurried denouement are the most promising. Overall, despite the cross-continental capering, The Baron of Arizona drags. Fuller obviously is still finding his feet here. Thankfully, his very particular star is ready for the limelight. It’s a bit disconcerting to see Price so fresh-faced and debonair, but all the hallmarks of what everyone knows and loves about his acting style is up front. He truly steals the show, eyebrows shimmying like a mirage luring us into a desert of tedium, offering a first taste of greater future accomplishments.