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Friday, July 22, 2011

BLOOD AND SAND (1941)

While the title to Vincente Blasco Ibañez’s novel still reverberates with dramatic promise, its tale of the rise & fall of a country lad turned bullfighter has been dulled by decades of ripoffs & repetition. But as reimagined by director Rouben Mamoulian, especially in its restored TechniColor glory, the familiar tropes come up vibrant & believable. At least, for the first half. The prologue is a visual tour de force as young Juan sneaks out of bed to dash thru town, peek at the local bullfighting afficionados then head off into a moonlit countryside. There, he steals onto a rich man’s estate and challenges a solitary bull in a private ring. For a reel & a half, we’re watching a masterpiece: color, pace, romance, Spanish atmosphere, the works. And when we jump ahead ten years, now with Tyrone Power as the young matador, the achievement only marginally dims. Mamoulian uses a Spanish palette (Velasquez, El Greco, di Chirico, Goya) as visual inspiration, but avoids getting trapped by them. Instead, he’s trapped by a woman, Rita Hayworth, who stops the film cold. Rita is properly gorgeous as the rich temptress who drags Juan down from his better instincts, but she seems to have had much the same effect on the film’s creative staff. Suddenly, the film looks (and plays) like Hollywood kitsch. While fine things show up in the second half (a startling slap to John Carrardine, a sultry dance for Hayworth & Anthony Quinn as Power’s friend turned rival, a slaughtered bull for the poor), Mamoulian is unable to keep the film unaffected by the more obvious elements in Jo Swerling’s script. But it’s still hard to shake off the harsh light that blasts into the chambers underneath the arena where the bullfighters wait before meeting up with their fate.

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