I was surprised and delighted to get my hands on The Baron of Arizona, not because it’s a particularly good film, but because it stretches the limits of what a western can be. An early work by Samuel Fuller, who also wrote the script, it stars none other than Vincent Price as James Addison Reavis, a real historical figure. Reavis was a swindler who hatched an incredible plan to gain ownership of the entire territory of Arizona. While the western is often concerned with exteriors and grandiosity, this film is largely set indoors, in Spain as well as America, and focused on following the complex machinations of an (initially) amoral man.
Though it has an original story, The Baron of Arizona is fairly slow and cheaply made and, to its own detriment, puts little emphasis on the characters other than Reavis. It’s up to Price to carry the film, and fortunately he was an incredibly charismatic actor no matter the part. He gets to do something different here to both his earlier typecasting as layabout playboys and his later iconic horror roles. He delivers his most fervent scene in this film with a noose around his neck, the performance only bettered by the rope having being tightened enough to constrict his voice.
Unfortunately, the film tries to redeem Reavis, contrary to the historical record. This conflicts with the amount of time we’ve spent following him play at being a forger, romeo, Gypsy and even monk over the course of many years as he pursues his goal. It also highlights that fact that the script hasn’t been terribly interested in the people who remain devoted to Reavis, including his wife Sofia (Ellen Drew), who he’s falsely established as being the heir to Arizona, and Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff), her adoptive father. These two find something to love about the erstwhile Baron, but even though all the actors play their parts well, we haven’t seen enough ourselves to be convinced.
Despite its flaws in pacing and characterization, The Baron of Arizona remains intriguing viewing for fans of Vincent Price and of the western. Price could convincingly take on a great many roles, and the genre can be bent howsoever a creative mind wishes. This film stands as proof.