Two Films – The Barefoot Contessa and Behold a Pale Horse (2 cents)

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, writing in 1954 and 1964, was not very kind either to The Barefoot Contessa or Behold a Pale Horse, two films shown this weekend at the National Gallery of Art as part of a mini-festival to show how American film makers viewed Spain and Spanish customs. I generally agree with his harsh view of The Barefoot Contessa, but totally disagree with his remarks about Behold a Pale Horse.

One at a time.

The Barefoot Contessa, starring Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart and Rosanno Brazzi, and Edmund O’Brien, is a rather tedious, slow paced movie about Maria Vargas (Gardner), a young woman who makes her living doing gypsy dancing in Madrid clubs, and who is “discovered” by an American billionaire making his first movie, his PR assistant (O’Brien) and the film’s director (Bogart). She moves to Hollywood, makes three films, becomes the toast of the town and decides that she is out of place, and really belongs back on the streets of Madrid. She never gets to Madrid, though, because, during a jaunt to Monte Carlo, she meets and falls in love with an Italian count (Brazzi), returns with him to Italy, marries him, discovers that he is not all he appeared to be, and meets a sudden end. Crowther says that Gardner never emits the sparks that are necessary for the role, and I agree. Clearly times have changed, and tastes in women in film as well, but I really wanted to get Gardner to wipe all that bright red lipstick off her mouth, get rid of that black outline eye makeup, and get a more casual hair style. Humphrey Bogart, her director and confidant, also acts as the primary narrator of this flashback-film, is Humphrey Bogart – I know I am supposed to think he’s a genius, but the fact is that I just think he is Humphrey Bogart. O’Brien, as the PR aide, is simply over the top – in fact, he is somewhat over over the top. Rossano Brazzi shows off his excellent posture.

What did I like? I would give an award to the interior decorator, who designed the furnishings for the various houses and offices in the film – how could they get the image of the 50s so perfect? I think it’s more than because the filmed during the 50s, because they didn’t just get the 50s as they were; they figured out how week, sixty years later, would imagine the 50s to have been. That’s genius. Also, I loved the colors – they weren’t natural colors, to be sure, they were super-natural. And I loved the scene at Gardner’s California House, where two moguls, one American, one Latin American, got into a loud argument about the American way of (uber-wealthy) life – it could be shown today as a debate between Republicans and the rest of us, with every criticism being turned into a mega-attack on America, Americans, and the oh, so superior American way of life.

But I wouldn’t want to have to sit through the silly plot (there were continual hints that this was simply an updated Cinderella – why, I am not sure) of this 138 minute film again, although (based on what I see on Rotten Tomatoes and, many film goers would disagree with both me and Bosley Crowther.

Behold a Pale Horse is a different story. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, Pale Horse is a black and white adventure film, starring Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, and featuring a charming 8 year old actor named Marietto Angeletti.

The disastrous Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with the victory of the Franco forces, and the loss of the Republicans. A large number of Republican soldiers were exiled from Spain at the end of the war; crossing the Pyrenees, they settled in the towns and villages of the French Pyrenees. Included in this emigrant community were some who could not accept the end of the war, and continued sporadic guerilla actions against the Spanish border towns for years. The most notorious of these banditos was Manuel Ariguez (Peck), who over a period of twenty years had conducted a series of raids across the border. Guardia Civil Captain Vinolas (Quinn) has been chasing Ariguez for years without success. His best chance comes when Ariguez’ mother becomes seriously ill; a courier is sent across the mountains to so inform Ariguez with the expectation that he will want to see his mother before she dies. The courier has been used the past, and Ariquez believes he is a friend, not an informer. He will learn otherwise the hard way.

Ariguez’ dying mother refuses normal Catholic rites, but tells a young priest (Sharif) that he needs to go to her son (he is about to go to France for a trip to Lourdes), and tell him not to return. Torn between his duties to his church and to Spain’s fascist government, Father Ramon does not know what to do, but decides to contact Ariguez and tell him that his mother has already died, and that there is no reason for him to return to Spain.

Peck is a rough, beaten-down, former fighter in poor health, and quite irascible. Quinn is a haughty Spanish enforcer determined to get Ariguez. Sharif is a morally strong young man, who would like to see his country heal, an apolitical priest whose parents were killed during the civil war by one side or the other (“What does it really matter, which side?”). Young Angeletti is the son of another former Republican fighter, one who remained in Spain, and who has recently been murdered by Vinolas – he is sent to France to live with an uncle. His father was a friend of Ariguez. He looks him up, and tells him that there is only one thing he wants. He wants Ariguez to return to Spain and kill Vinolas. After telling him that he is no longer a fighter, after learning that his messenger friend was in fact an informer, and even though his mother has already died, Ariguez decides to return one more time and seek out vengeance.

Was he successful? You’ll have to see the film to find out. Take it from me, it won’t be a mistake, in spite of what Crowther said when the film premiered in 1964.

One odd thing. Angeletti was so good in his role as a catalyst for much of the action, and as an example of the next generations of Spaniards, that you would wonder what his career would be like. It seems, however, that he has disappeared from view. I found a number of internet queries asking whatever became of him. But no one seems to know. He just vanished from public view.


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