Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Charro! (1969, Charles Marquis Warren)

Perhaps a reason so many Presley films are unengaging was the fear of drawing him as a man with something to lose.  Since Blue Hawaii, the biggest problem with the formula was not that the stories were stupid, but that the claptrap had no consequence.  In his musical-comedies that didn't have an outright happy ending (in Easy Come, Easy Go, his sunken treasure being worth less than he imagined; in Speedway, he loses the big race and still owes back taxes, but, you know, hakuna matata; in Spinout he walks away from three love interests, but is more a man for it), anything lost was never beyond what was deserved.  The films drew Elvis as an unstoppable celebrity and if not everything fell into his lap, he still had it all.
What I can admire so much about Charro! is that, despite a regular face of doubt and second-guessing (if Presley was unsure about his acting chops in Flaming Star, it's not unreasonable that he'd wonder if he could pull it off again twenty-three films assembly line films later without a director on his résumé that gave a lick), he has something to lose both in and out of the picture.

Elvis plays ex-gunman, Jess Wade, attempting to go straight after a life of crime.  His decision isn't well-received by his former gang and Jess is branded with a scar to resemble a wanted felon.  This isn't the typical Elvis fisticuffs, the action and violence is real consequential, and Elvis doesn't come out on top.  Written (and directed.  And produced) by veteran Western penman Charles Marquis Warren ("Gunsmoke", "Rawhide"), Charro! has a feel of a somewhat lesser pedigree.  It doesn't quite have the grit of a low-budget spaghetti Western, but feels more refined than slapdash TV fare.

It borrows familiar Western tropes, and does so fairly rewardingly.  Jess has an uphill battle to prove that he's fled his criminal ways, partners with an emasculated sheriff and stands, High Noon, against his terroristic former gang.  Though never as refined an actor as he once hoped, Presley can say a lot with a look.  His performance is winning-- he never hits a boner, but, at worst, can look a bit uninspired and jaded.  Ironic, as Charro! is the closest he was ever given to the dramatic, syrup-less roles he once desired.  Perhaps a marathon life as financial pawn had taken its toll.

I have to be a little apologetic for the corny climax which has the gang laying waste to the town from a tucked-away hideout with Emperor Maximilian's stolen gold-plated cannon from the Mexican revolution.  It's ludicrous, but played straight, and I'm willing to forgive the slight of writing given the strength of the relationships.  True to the Western, the most loyal relationship is between men: Jess and Sheriff Ramsey.  The mutual respect between men is stronger than Ramsey's relationship with his own wife, and even Jess rides into the sunset leaving his love interest behind, if only for now. 

Hot off filming his "'68 Comeback Special", Elvis looks healthy and happy.  He plays Charro! like he has something to prove, and does it remarkably without the tendency to overact.  Further establishing itself from the formula, the film contains no musical numbers, only the theme over the opening credits, and a haunting and effective score by Hugo Montenegro.  Elvis even grows a beard for the role, and its probably the coolest he's ever looked.

Like the work of Joseph H. Lewis, Charro! is an economical, well-intended, true-to-genre picture that, while never canonized, takes itself seriously.  Though it never got the accolades Presley sought, Charro! stands as important evidence that, though he would never have a shot at being the top-tier actor he was paid to be, perhaps he should have been given the chance. -- ***/four stars

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