Bigger than life screen legend, Burt Lancaster, plays it decidedly low key in this filmed in Spain western that sees him playing the title character. A man who won’t take no for an answer when he feels he or someone else has been wronged.
Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, the set up is a strong one over the film’s opening segment. Burt is a badge wearing Mexican Constable along the U.S. border who comes upon a picnic like atmosphere of a black man barricaded in a log cabin with an Apache woman. On the hill above the cabin, Jon Cypher, and the men he employs are using the cabin as target practice in an attempt to kill the man within. Cypher claims the man inside is the one who killed the husband of Susan Clark. Since her husband’s death she’s taken to sleeping in Cypher’s bed.
Lancaster is a man of quiet solitude and on his own doing approaches the cabin looking to talk the man out who claims he is a victim of mistaken identity and can prove it. Just as Lancaster seems to have calmed things down, a slippery Richard Jordan, under the orders of Cypher takes aim and misses the mark prompting the man inside the cabin to turn his anger towards Lancaster who he believes has attempted to set him up. With little choice, Lancaster, cuts the man down with his shotgun.
All for nothing as Cypher admits to his error in judgement and Jordan chides Lancaster for killing an innocent man. Burt’s not happy.
Looking to make things somewhat right with the Apache woman, Lancaster, will approach Cypher looking for $100 that he figures will help her make ends meet now that she is minus a husband. He’s soon to discover that he’s looked down upon by Cypher and run off by his hired guns including Hector Elizondo who are overseen by the man who does the hiring, Barton Heyman.
Following a conversation with old friend, Frank Silvera, Lancaster heads back to Cypher once again with head slightly bowed looking for the money to make things right. This time Cypher unleashes his cruelty upon Lancaster and has him tied to a makeshift cross like a Christ figure left to wander the harsh terrain with the cross upon his back. Looking as if he’s going to die in the heat, Lancaster, will apparently be left to his fate by a goading Jordan. For his part, Jordan, has been run off by Cypher for failing to kill the man in the opening segment.
Lancaster proves to be a man of great pride and a stubborn resolve. He’s also a man with a past having served in the military as a killer of Apaches. Perhaps the film’s greatest verbal exchange is when Lancaster and Heyman meet face to face.
Heyman : “You ever hunt Buffalo?”
Lancaster : “Apache”
Heyman : “I knew it. When?”
Lancaster : “Before I know better.”
This scene surely adds to the reasoning behind Lancaster’s attempts to do right by the Apache widow.
“Tell him Valdez is Coming.”
This to Elizondo who delivers the message with his dying breath. Our leading man is armed to the teeth and won’t stop for anything less than the $100 and when cornered takes Cypher’s woman, Miss Clark, as a hostage looking to make a trade. The woman for the money. Clark would also be enlisted to costar with Lancaster in the 1974 mystery, The Midnight Man, one of only two films he directed over his long career. The other being 1955’s underrated The Kentuckian.
What follows over the second half of this ninety minute feature is a plot that may have served as an inspiration to countless films that followed. A professional gun on the run who turns from being the hunted to the hunter as his pursuers follow him into a territory he is more familiar with. 1972’s Chato’s Land for example or even First Blood which I’ve often said is a thinly veiled reworking of Chato.
Something else not lost on me are the similarities between Valdez and Mr. Majestyk. Considering both were originally penned by Elmore Leonard, maybe not too surprising. For me the comparison started with the fact that Jordan’s loud mouthed wanna be tough guy is so akin to Paul Koslo’s low budget thug trying to impress Al Lettieri’s powerful gangster in the 1974 Bronson hit. Here Jordan is equally conniving, looking to impress Cypher but in the end he’s just as cowardly as Koslo was. Lancaster like Bronson has made an enemy of a powerful man with a small army at his command and in both plots, our heroes will lure the villain into his own personal killing ground. Going a step further both Cypher and Lettieri have a love interest who are not so sure they like their choice in men by the time the final reel comes around.
Like many of Lancaster’s 1970 outings he was past his prime box office years but he still has the magic of a “movie star” when he’s on camera. Even in this low key role with a bushy mustache, long sideburns, unshaven face and a paunch over the belt line, he’s once again delivering a physical performance on camera and those piercing blue eyes are still shining bright.
Richard Jordan was at this time a busy young actor playing opposite some well known box office heavies. He’d also pair up with Lancaster in the superior Lawman the same year as this release. The aforementioned Chato’s Land opposite Bronson and Palance, a pair of must see Robert Mitchum titles, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and The Yakuza (1975) and even tangling with John Wayne in 75’s Rooster Cogburn. Sadly this fine actor died far too young at 56 in 1993 of a brain tumor which had forced him to pull out of the big box office smash, The Fugitive. His final film being 1993’s Gettysburg.
Looking to add this Lancaster flick from first time director Edwin Sherin to your dance card? It’s fairly easy to locate on both DVD or blu ray.
Burt Lancaster is always a pleasure to watch. I didn’t think he’d be believable as a Mexican at first, but just looking at those stills of him proved me wrong.
I liked his performance here. Underplayed and “deadly” effective.
I like Lancaster when he plays in a low key. I rewatched Vera Cruz the other night and all I kept thinking how much better it would be if he played it toned down a bit. And of course it would have been so much better if Elmore Leonard had been involved.
He loved to flash the teeth in that one and I think it plays loud also due to the fact that he’s starring opposite Coop who rarely seemed to play anything broadly. A contrast in styles but maybe that’s intentional on Burt’s part. Anyway, Burt’s quite good here.
Actually my favorite latter day Burt and in fact his last Western is CATTLE ANNIE & LITTLE BRITCHES. Often cited as a comedy Western it is in fact proof that you can make a gritty authentic Western without blood splattered gore and violence. The recent Kino Blu Ray is a beauty of a transfer and Mike you will love it-Burt at his latter day best plus a non hammy Steiger! I too really like those two Winner Westerns that you mention CHATO’S LAND and LAWMAN ‘though much credit must go to screenwriter Graham Wilson.
It’s on my to get list. I haven’t seen that since a TV broadcast ages ago. One of the rare Burt flicks I don’t have here o the shelf so will be soon fixing that oversight. Yes Wilson wrote two accomplished screenplays with some great dialogue in both scripts.
Whoops! Sorry Mike the above should read GERALD Wilson.
I do remember being very excited for this one esp as I was doing a Burt Lancaster film catch up. I ended up thinking it wasn’t as good as I had hoped but do recall the end being top notch. So true on the similarities between Mr Majestyk and Chato’s Land and even First Blood. Great observation that. What is cool as F… is the poster. That sun blasted out figure with pistol and shotgun is way too cool. Oh course you have it in the vault? For sure! 🙂
Sadly it’s not here in the vault but I’m always on the look out for it and any Lancaster title I’ve yet to secure. I like the film as a whole and that’s mostly due to Burt’s slow moving but steadfast performance.
I remember first reading Elmore Leonard’s novel, and kept thinking of a young Robert Redford in the part of Valdez. And maybe that’s why I didn’t like the movie as much as I’d hoped…that, and the fact that nobody seems able to translate Leonard’s grit and humor to the big screen successfully. And reading your review, the film story sounded different from the novel (save for the ‘wearing the cross’ bit). I haven’t read the book in a while, and I might be wrong, but it seems to me it played out differently than the movie. If you’ve never read the book, I’d say give it a go…or any of Leonard’s Westerns and crime novels if you can.
Honestly I’ve only ever read Majestyk and that was a teenager. So to be truthful it’s like I’ve never read one cause I don’t remember that it all these years later. I guess I should try one. As for films I do love Get Shorty which I know was one of his for more recent fair and of course 3:10 to Yuma was such a great western with Glenn Ford. Novels are quite often different from books so usually hard to compare in many cases.