Synopsis: In one of his own favorite roles, Vincent Price portrays legendary swindler James Addison Reavis, who, in 1880, concocted an elaborate and dangerous hoax to ascend to the title of “Baron of Arizona” and inherit all the land in the state. Samuel Fuller adapted this real-life tall tale to film with fleet, elegant storytelling and a sly sense of humor.
‘The Baron of Arizona’ is based on a true story, of which I knew absolutely nothing until I actually took the time to sit down and watch it. To be frank, my sole motivation was the continuation of my Vincent Price-related series of blurbs, which has been carrying on for weeks now, on and off.
In fact, Vincent Price is the only reason I even have this film: even though Samuel Fuller is a director one should be more familiar with, I had yet to see any of his films until this one – so he wasn’t much of a draw for me. I’ve had ‘Shock Corridor’ on my radar for a while now, mind you, but have yet to get my grubby hands on it.
The story of James Reavis, who had the amazing gall to try to defraud the United States of the state of Arizona (and came very close to succeeding! ) is as unbelievable as it is true. It has been adapted, perhaps even embellished, for the screen, but the fact remains that this man actually did try to pull off such an impressive scam – something that would have appeared farcical if it had been wholly fabricated.
I was engrossed by this story, even though I knew that it was almost impossible for all of it to be true. Seeing the great lengths at which the fictional Reavis goes to in order to legitimize his claim suggests a tenacity and focus that borders on the maniacal. Every time he pulls a stunt, one can’t help but wonder just to which extent he’ll go next – and we can’t wait to find out. His method is mostly manipulation, but he’s also patiently calculating – to the point of devoting years of his life to the alteration of key documents.
‘The Baron of Arizona’ is a low-budget picture, so the cast isn’t exactly stellar (it’s such a cheapie film that, apparently, Ed Wood was a stunt man in it! ). Some of the performances are so unrealistic, actually, that they’re amusing. For instance, the sequence when Reavis is confronted by John Griff, the man in charge of proving him a fake, and a peasant that he once bribed, has everything that can be wrong with a scene: it’s poorly staged by both the screenwriter and the director, and then the actors take turns giving soap operas a good name.
But not Vincent Price. He did his best in that scene and in most of the picture; Price acquits himself nicely, being convincing as the scheming “Baron”. However, there are moments when his delivery could have been better – especially when he tried to be commanding. Still, he evidently relished the role (which, it is claimed, was one of his favourites), and his performance, as well as most of the cast’s, is in accordance with the the era’s style.
Fuller pieced the film together in a pretty standard way, as far as I’m concerned. There were some lazy editing choices, though, like showing us previous sequences to remind us of characters we’re seeing for the second time, that sort of thing. And the last 10-15 mins seem to have been chopped together with little concern for fluidity; it was as though we were suddenly on a race to the finish – something that felt sloppy to me.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Still, irrespective of its flaws, ‘The Baron of Arizona’ is such an incredible story that it grabbed and kept my attention the whole way through. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes dramatic films and to those who like fact-based fiction. It may not bear that much resemblance to the original tale (I have yet to fully research James Reavis, so I couldn’t say for sure), but it has an ounce or two of truth and it has enough gumption to defy disbelief. That makes for riveting cinema.