Friday, July 12, 2013

BLOOD AND SAND: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1941) Fox Home Video

Tyrone Power’s appeal as a romantic swashbuckler has always eluded me. I prefer the actor as the contemporary lady’s man in movies like In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1939), The Razor’s Edge (1946), Nightmare Alley (1947) or Witness for the Prosecution (1957). These movies unequivocally prove that given the right script Ty’ Power could do more than simply play the part of a matinee mannequin. They remain a showcase for Power’s formidable skills behind the smile. Realizing I am in the minority on this score, I’ll conceded that Power skyrocketed to super stardom as 20th Century’s most bankable ‘fox’ as a swashbuckling hero.  Without question, he had the matinee idol good looks to pull it off.
But I personally have never found him entirely convincing in cod piece and tights, unlike say, Errol Flynn or even Stewart Granger later on. No, Ty’s fine-boned features, those dark and flashing eyes caught in a piercing glance or panged stare from behind a black mask or flaming pink and yellow cape have always seemed just a little too effete; Power’s Valentino-esque build somehow lacking Flynn’s wiry masculinity or Granger’s manly robustness. The costumes tend to wear Power instead of the other way around. It is perhaps foolish to make the comparison. For Tyrone Power is not Errol Flynn – or even Stewart Granger – nor is he attempting to be a knock off of either. He is his own man, creation and entity within the echelons of golden age Hollywood.
Rouben Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand (1941) is not a swashbuckler – per say – although it does typecast Power as the romanticized toreador of old Spain; Jo Swerling’s screenplay about dapper dons of the bullring and the sultry senioritis who worship their virility from the sidelines veers dangerously close to cliché at times, but on the whole it remains remarkably faithful to the Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novel ‘Sangre y arena’ from whence all of the flourish derives. Visually, cinematographers Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan have adopted a very Flemish approach to the subject matter; the Technicolor production exhibiting some fairly stunning use or light and shadow to create its Greco-esque sense of foreboding. Richard Day and Joseph C. Wright’s art direction is first rate, as is Alfred Newman’s romanticized score – full of pomp and pageantry, but also exhibiting a refrain of haunted, damned love. Even at the writing of this review I can hear the clickety-clack of those castanets in my brain.
It all looks and sounds incontrovertibly ravishing. But this leaves the heavy-lifting to Robert Bischoff’s editing. Regrettably, he is not entirely up to the task of moving the story along. The pacing just seems off, or at least excruciatingly slow – Bischoff so enamored by the eye-popping feast of Technicolor that he has forgotten movies were meant to…well…move! Occasionally, the story picks up steam. It has to. Apart from Tyrone Power, other standouts in the production include Anthony Quinn, Laird Cregar, John Carradine, Linda Darnell and, of course, Rita Hayworth – who makes the most of her brief but potent turn as the callous viper wreaking havoc on our flawed hero’s delusions of grandeur.
At its crux Blood and Sand remains something of a curious hybrid between the male-dominated action/adventure yarn and the decidedly female-orientated syrupy melodrama; its sumptuousness prettified and feminizing the ‘butch’ elements. It must be pointed out that the backdrop never fails to enthrall. There is a lot to take in. And great care has been exercised to extol the right timber and mood for the piece. But the story never goes beyond its amalgam of platitudes and threadbare morality. These are hammered home for the audience; as to why fame and poverty can make for exceptional strange bedfellows, while exorcising the movie’s oft’ overplayed message that ‘absolute power corrupts’ to the detriment of its overall entertainment value. We get it, Juan Gallardo (Tyrone Power) was never meant for the life of a great man. He possesses all of the skill and conviction – both well-deserved and readily on display – yet none of the good sense to recognize when his pride and ego have all but run away with his heart and his head.  
Linda Darnell’s virtuous and aristocratic sweetheart, Carmen Espinosa and Rita Hayworth’s sexually wicked socialite Doña Sol des Muire are two sides to what the movie misperceives as the Janus-faced hypocrisies of the female animal. Juan should desire the first and excoriate the second. Tragically, vanity intercedes and he soon becomes the romantic fop whose heart is dictated by his loins and whose skills in the ring are enfeebled by his overall lack of intuitive understanding that in betraying Carmen he has also betrayed himself for the sake of an inconsolable passion. Juan Gallardo is a piteous character, really; a self-made man whose youthful struggles and obstinacy cannot shield him from his own insecurities. These are only compounded by time and experience. No amount of victories in the ring can raise his inner confidence and hence, he begins to search for the shallowness of praise from without to massage these inner demons.
It is a fool who believes his own PR. Critic Natalio Curro’s (Laird Cregar) sycophantic praise is but a malignancy that deprives Juan of self-reliance. All victory, as they say, is fleeting even if Juan refuses to believe in this natural ebb and flow.  Increasingly, Natalio comes to realize how much authority his praise wields. Like an alcoholic unable to wean himself from his addictions, Juan allows himself to be swayed, and then lulled by Natalio’s flattery – its inevitable betrayal, devouring his confidence as a great bullfighter in one fell swoop of harsh rejection. The guile behind Doña Sol des Muire’s fickle desire further undermines Juan’s manhood; an absolute implosion of his professional and personal life come crashing together. Juan is left to enter the ring for his penultimate showdown with his legend casting its own giant shadow across the present, only to further diminish and distinguish itself apart from his past that now seems more the compendium of aspirations and achievements in someone else’s lifetime.
The story is, in effect, bookended by one great tragedy – a goal that can blind the eye and deprive the soul of its truest sense of self and destiny.  Juan Gallardo (played to perfection as a defiant urchin by Rex Downing) desires to resurrect the memory of his late father by following in his footsteps as a prominent bullfighter. Sneaking out to the local cantina by night, Juan is easily dazzled by the steamy spectacle of hot-blooded men and lusty senioritis indulging in song and drink. It is, of course, a boy’s fantasy – one incredibly desperate to become a man and using the unquantifiable edicts of fame and female adulation as his measuring stick to define success. Juan is confronted by the latest star of ring, Manolo de Palma (Anthony Quinn) and the sensationalist muckraking of his ardent champion Natalio Curro (Laird Cregar) who fancies himself a sort of ‘star maker’ and patron of the arts. Natalio chides Juan about his own father's lack of talent. This spurs the impoverished boy to travel to Madrid in pursuit of his own fate. Before this bittersweet departure, Juan makes a promise to his beloved Carmen (Ann E. Todd as a little girl); that he will return worthy of her father’s house and her hand in marriage.
Time passes: ten years to be exact. Juan (now played by Tyrone Power) returns to Seville a matador of some repute; using the monies accrued from his recent victories to elevate the social stature of his impoverished mother (Alla Nazimova) whom he sets up in a great house. Juan is generous to a fault, lavishing his sister Encarnacion (Lynn Bari) and her fiancé Antonio (William Montague) with enough money to start their business and properly wed. Juan’s personal manservant is Garabato (J. Carrol Naish); an ex-bullfighter reduced to the tatters of a beggar by his own ill-planning and fool’s folly. In effect, this character mirrors the destiny that awaits Juan – although Juan cannot see himself in Garabato’s weathered visage, despite the old man’s clairvoyant insights and prophetic pleas.
But Juan has conquered the world…or thinks he has. He keeps his promise to Carmen (now played by Linda Darnell) and the two are blissfully happy in their marriage for a time. This contentment is paralleled by Juan’s ever-increasing fame in the bullring. After a montage of victories, Juan has become Spain's most acclaimed matador. Even Curro has become his follower – or is it his nemesis?  Born to poverty and still illiterate, Juan now finds the doors to cultured society opening for him; a world into which his secretive discomfort begins to fester and grow.
Juan’s mother attempts to warn him about Doña Sol des Muire. She is a destructive creature, seeking him out only for the momentary flush of amusement that his popularity and monies can provide. But Juan has mistaken des Muire’s attentions for affection and is rather easily led astray. Neglecting his responsibilities to home, friendships and even his own profession, Juan becomes a figure in des Muire’s decadent lifestyle.  But he falls from grace in the public’s estimation, particularly after a humiliating bout in the ring. This leaves room for Manolo to slip in and catch the tailwinds to his own ascendance as the next great matador.  Having tired of her plaything, des Muire’s casts Juan aside. He returns to Carmen and his family to beg for their forgiveness.
Juan tells Carmen that he will forgo the flashiness of the life he once knew after one final match to prove to the world that he is the greatest of all bullfighters. Tragically, like his father before him Juan’s prayers for success go answered. He is gored in the ring with a tearful Garabato angrily surmising that the crowd, not the bull, is the real beast of the arena. They made Juan Gallardo what he is and was, and in the end they took it all away to give to the next best thing. As Juan lies dying in Carmen’s arms the crowds loudly proclaim Manolo the greatest bullfighter in Spain, his shadow falling on a tiny patch of Juan’s blood soaking into the sand.
Blood and Sand makes valiant attempts to be an epic tragedy. Yet it never rises above its maudlin trappings as anything better than just another run-of-the-mill tearjerker, albeit an exceptionally well-cast one with stunning production values. Our hero’s inability to decipher the difference between true loyalty and that which can be bought for the price of a cheer in the arena do not elevate our Juan Gallardo into a heartrending failure, but a failed amateur who momentarily sold his heart for the fleeting joy to hear the roar of the crowd in his ears. His attempt comes across as neither heroically flawed nor catastrophically desperate; just plain joylessly silly and misguided.
And yet, Blood and Sand is salvaged from itself by its supporting cast – each performance solid and true. Anthony Quinn, as example, fits the bill – and build – of a brave matador. He not only looks the part – he is the part. We can’t say the same for Power’s pretty-boy or John Carradine’s stone-faced compatriot; the latter utterly ridiculous in his glittery garb. Honestly, Carradine’s about as ill at ease in his sequined britches as a pharmacist made to dress up at a costume ball. Rita Hayworth delivers a moody turn as the fickle temptress. It isn’t her best work, but it’s more than competent. One can easily see why Columbia’s head, Harry Cohn wasted no time recalling her to his own studio where Hayworth steadily rose in prominence throughout the decade and beyond. Linda Darnell, sadly underrated in her own time and all but forgotten by movie goers today, is a lyrical presence in the movie as the ever-devoted Carmen – just perfect!
With so much going for it Blood and Sand ought to have been a better movie than it actually is. In its time it was a resounding success, furthering Tyrone Powers’ stature in Hollywood and ensuring that Fox would pump out more like-minded fare with Powers typecast as everything from a pirate king to a Captain from Castille. Again, it’s nothing that Ty does – or doesn’t do – but he just seems the wrong type for this role, undeniably working hard to pull it off and achieving at least solid competence for his efforts. But a movie hero – even a flawed one – is supposed to do more than exist. He ought to excel. I just don’t see that sort of commitment from Power in Blood and Sand. I admired all of the background craftsmanship throughout this movie that made it so utterly lavish,surreal and beautiful. But I did not much care for his performance.   
It should be noted that all incarnations of Blood and Sand are not derived from 3-strip Technicolor fine grain elements for the simple reason that no such footage exists. Regrettably in 1976 Fox decided to ‘transfer’ all of its highly flammable nitrate stock by simply combining the individual records into a single dupe negative without first testing to see if the net result was satisfactory. As a result of this shortsightedness virtually all of Fox’s Technicolor masterpieces have been at the mercy of these less than stellar print masters. To add insult to this injurious assassination of film art, the original 3-strip elements were later junked – rumor has it, by being taken into the middle of the ocean on a barge and cast over the side. The only salvation herein, and it is a minor concession at best, is that Fox’s nitrate print masters all went to UCLA; custodians better equipped to maintain and preserve them for future posterity.
We own UCLA a lot, and Blood and Sand’s exemplary hi-def Blu-ray image has definitely benefited. While this is decidedly NOT glorious Technicolor it remains colorfully Technicolor-esque; an aping of both the original film’s clarity and vibrancy. Now, for the good news. Those unaccustomed to what true Technicolor looks like will be extremely pleased with the results. Blood and Sand sports a rather impressive dual-layered 1080p rendering. Thanks to the many digital tools currently available we get a fairly rich visual experience; occasionally looking slightly thicker than it should and with flesh tones unrepresentative of what true Technicolor could reproduce. Blood and Sand also seems just a tad softly focused, fine details taking a minor hit. The image looks too smooth and lacks a texture of grain.
Contrast is strong though and colors – while untrue are nevertheless closer to their original intent than ever before. The work that has gone into making Blood and Sand look this good ought to be commended. So, kudos to Schawn Belston and Fox’s present regime of socially conscious archivists.  They have done the very best with what they had to work with and the results speak for themselves.  The DTS audio yields to the shortcomings of vintage tracks. But Alfred Newman’s underscoring is a wow for sure and sounds better than ever before. Extras are limited to an audio commentary – the same one imported from Fox’s original DVD release of Blood and Sand.  Bottom line: the film is a so-so affair. But the transfer is miraculous. If you’re a fan you will want to snatch this one up.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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