Turner Classic Movies
Baron of Arizona, The
Written by A.J. Hakari   

If there's one genre that I'll never tire of, it's con artist movies. I can't help but be pulled in by their clever hooks, complex plots, and cheerfully criminal spirits. Thus, it was only natural that I fell head over heels for The Baron of Arizona (1950), a lost classic from the great Sam Fuller (Shock Corridor) that's found new life on DVD thanks to the Criterion Collection. Years before anyone even heard of Danny Ocean, Fuller directed Vincent Price in this extremely engaging tale of a man who took a shot at perpetrating the swindle of the century - and almost got away with it.

In a story so crazy, it could only be inspired by true events, Price plays James Addison Reavis, a Santa Fe file clerk in the late 1800s who, after seeing land being bequeathed to people who had no clue what to do with it, concocted the ultimate scheme: claiming the entire Arizona territory as his own. One might think it would be more than a little difficult to steal what would become a whole state, but Reavis is more than prepared to set this grand plot into motion.

After cooking up a phony story of a land grant assigned by a Spanish king, Reavis seeks out an orphan girl and sets about building her up to be the "heir" to all of Arizona. The con goes through years of work, sending Reavis everywhere from a Spanish monastary to a gypsy camp in order to get all the details of his plan perfectly right, coming to a close when he arrives back home, with the intention of marrying the now-grown "baroness" (Ellen Drew). But the real test comes when Reavis makes the actual claim, and with the entirety of Arizona at stake, the U.S. government isn't prepared to give it up without a fight.

One might think with a concept as preposterous as the one at the heart of The Baron of Arizona, the flick has to be a one-trick pony, a story that will use its gimmick as a crutch more times than it needs to. But although the premise does seem to be of the throwaway, "strange but true" variety, Fuller and company aren't about to let this picture become that simplistic. Fuller gets a lot of mileage out of the sheer scope of Reavis' chicanery, such as when the man joins an order of monks for a couple of years just so he can get access to a special book vital to the plan. But the one thing that The Baron of Arizona manages to pull off perfectly (for the most part) is that it hardly ever sentimentalizes or over-simplifies the story, allowing the con to unfold in all of its detailed glory and keeping the viewers on edge in anticipation as to what Reavis is going to do next.

the_baron_of_arizona.jpgDedication is the name of the game in The Baron of Arizona, in both how its main character sticks to his scheme and how Price pours himself into the part. Price plays his role completely straight; as far as Reavis is concerned, he really is owed Arizona and is bent on claiming it at all costs. Most admirable of all is how he manages to generate sympathy for his character, despite not just his humongous hustle but also in how unpleasant he gets at times in the name of pulling it off (including preying on a lovely gypsy's desire to abandon her people). It's tough to play a jerk whose fate you're concerned about, but Price pulls it off perfectly; you simply have to admire the character's gall to even try to try his hand at a con of this scale. Not as successfully executed are Reed Hadley's government expert being positioned as Reavis' foil and a climax that drags on for a little too long, but they amount to little more than mere blips on the film's flaw radar.

Simultaneously a breezy cinematic delight and a tale of a man's almost obsessive devotion to pulling off an epic crime, The Baron of Arizona is a real hidden gem. It's a flick that draws you in on the weirdness of its premise but has you staying for more with one of the most spry scripts of the 1950s and one of the greatest performances of a very, very underrated actor.

Director: Samuel Fuller

Writer: Samuel Fuller

Cast: Vincent Price, Ellen Drew, Vladimir Sokoloff, Beulah Bondi, Reed Hadley

Rating: No MPAA Rating (fine for youngsters)

Classic Movie Guide Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Run Time: 97 minutes

Studio: Lippert Pictures

Format: Black-and-white, fullscreen

Photo credits: Lippert Pictures




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