Saturday, July 26, 2014


Andre de Toth is the fourth horseman of Fifties Westerns, trailing Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Delmer Daves. He may be best known for his 3-D triumph House of Wax but he also made 3-D Randolph Scott pictures. His best-regarded western may be his last, the black-and-white Day of the Outlaw. But Last of the Comanches is certainly his most colorful western. In fact, it's a minor masterpiece of color cinematography. Credit is shared by Ray Cory and Charles Lawton Jr., but comparative filmographies point to Lawton as the master. He's a key cinematographer in the genre, working with both Daves and Boetticher, and with John Ford on 1961's Two Rode Together. His work pops more on Comanches than in any of the others; more than his other films, this one seems designed to show off the color and lighting as much as the actors and action. The screenplay by Kenneth Gamet is like a cross between Stagecoach and the 1943 war film Sahara, which itself might be described as Stagecoach with a tank were it not more directly inspired by the Soviet adventure film The Thirteen. Comanches continues that lineage by focusing on the siege of a fortress for its well. Broderick Crawford commands the action as a cavalry officer pursuing Black Cloud, the titular renegade, into the desert. Trusting the report of a lone mission-educated Kiowa teenager, a motley group of cavalry and stagecoach passengers finds the well and Crawford decides to offer battle to pin down Black Cloud while the Kiowa boy finds the nearest post of fresh cavalry. There's a female (Barbara "Della Street" Hale) and a likely gunrunner for the rest to worry about, but for the most part the script and the acting are free from melodrama. Crawford is particularly good: gruffly authoritative and professional without giving in to the blowhard temptation. He's especially effective in a scene where he interrogates two Comanche prisoners, enticing one with water and separating him from his more obstinate partner to get the information he wants. The general avoidance of histrionics allows the cinematography to claim our attention. Shooting at desert locations, de Toth and Lawton often resort to handheld cameras and rely as much as possible on natural light. These scenes have a naturalist immediacy and brightness that's actually complemented by the relatively few but vivid process shots. The heat of the desert sun is practically palpable. When the party reaches the ruined fort defending the well, it's like a playground for de Toth and Lawton to set up interesting, dynamic compositions. The story climaxes with the cliche of cliches: the cavalry arrives trumpeting to save the day by scattering the Indians. But the film closes on a more mournful note as Crawford recalls the fallen and the camera returns to where each is buried or lies unburied where he fell. Once more the visuals dominate the narrative. The performances are uniformly solid, and in black and white Comanches still would have been a very respectable B picture, but Lawton's use of color makes the film even more a triumph of style than of substance.

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