Jan 20, 2008

Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)

Here's a word I don't use lightly or often enough, but it applies. "Masterpiece."

Tonight TCM showed the restored, 124-minute version of Budd Boetticher's 1951 epic Bullfighter and the Lady, a thrilling piece of gritty melodrama (produced by John Wayne!). When Republic Pictures released the movie, they had cut more than 30 minutes out of it. Towards the end of Boetticher's life, the film was restored to its original full length, thereby realizing the filmmaker's true intentions. I have not seen this movie before in any duration, so cannot account for what the studio removed for the release version. But suffice to say, this two-hour cut is an American masterpiece- one of the most breath-taking commercial pictures from the golden age of the studio system.

While perhaps Boetticher is better remembered today for the string of gritty westerns he made with Randolph Scott (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome), he was a bullfighter before entering the movie business, and got his big break as a technical advisor for Tyrone Power's matador epic Blood and Sand (1941), and spent a decade directing B noirs and thrillers, before getting the opportunity to venture to his surrogate home of Mexico to make this motion picture.

32 year-old Robert Stack plays Johnny Regan, an American upstart in Mexico who takes bullfighting lessons from aging matador Manolo Estrada (Gilbert Roland) in order to impress a young lady (Joy Page) whose suitor was injured in the ring. Throughout the film, Regan creates much heartache and misunderstanding (unintentionally or not) because of his ignorance of Latin culture in general. He is truly a stranger in a strange land who too often lets his bravado make up for lack of experience.

Boetticher and cinematographer Jack Draper create an ambiance that is by turns docu-realistic and dream-like. The deep focus chiaroscuro photography, with rich tones and long shadows, and the striking composition, turn nearly every shot into a separate work of art. The excellent footage within the ring is properly gritty. With so many scenes of natural light (in the ring, on the streets, in pastures), and where sequences often play without any English translation, one quickly forgets this is a movie, and believes we are really there in the crowds next to the camera.

This story of twentieth century bullfighters perhaps finds its cinematic equivalent in, of all things, sword and sandal epics, where these matadors are gladiators in an arena who play with their lives for sport. The scene with the glowing, sweaty, rippling bodies of the matadors in the steamroom recall similar moments of beefcake eroticism in any big-budget toga movie you can think of. A clever framing device of shooting the matadors in low angles against the sky recalls the striking composition of Sergei Eisenstein (and many outdoor scenes here surpass what he attempted in Que Viva Mexico), and makes the modern-day matador look like a warrior out of mythology.

Perhaps the most telling scene is when they visit an older man whose book on bullfighting remains unfinished because he failed to answer the question of why matadors do what they do. That answer is not revealed explicitly here, but to see Robert Stack's open-faced radiance after being in the ring is to suggest that the appeal of such a dangerous vocation is that one truly feels alive after dancing with death. In a film about male virility, this inference may not be far from the truth. (In fact, the two-shots where Stack and Page exchange longing glances are extremely erotic.)

Budd Boetticher returned to the arena later in his career for the 1972 documentary Arruza about the famed matador, and is likewise hard to find. Having scanned all of the titles in his filmography, I sheepishly confess to having seen only three of his forty features. This is why I love this job-- there is always new work to discover. In an age where more obscure films are being resurrected on DVD each week, the work of Budd Boetticher is a perfect candidate for rediscovery by a new generation. As for Bullfighter and the Lady in specific, this cries for a Criterion release (in its full version of course) with a documentary of this auteur as a bonus. In the meantime, this masterpiece plays again on TCM February 6. Warm up the VCR.

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