Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lust for Gold

What is a Western? Is it determined by geography? If so, where are the boundaries—west of the Mississippi to the Pacific Coast of the United States? Then why is The Man from Snowy River, which is located in Australia, considered a Western? Maybe it’s a movie that takes place in the latter half of the nineteenth century? But if so, what about Brokeback Mountain, which is set in the mid-twentieth century?

These questions were going through my mind as I watched Lust for Gold, a 1949 black and white movie starring Ida Lupino (Mia in What’s In It for Mia?) and Glenn Ford and co-starring Will Geer (Seth in Smiler With a Gun). The film starts off in the 1940s but then flashes back to a scene in the mid-1800s involving Mexicans and Apaches before reverting to the present. Soon, though, Lust for Gold flashes back to the late 1800s and most of the movie takes place during this time period, with the final part of the movie occurring in the present time again.

Set in the area around Phoenix, Arizona, and the Superstition Mountains nearby, the parts of the move that take place in the twentieth century are narrated, in a somewhat overwrought style, by the grandson of Jacob Walz, a Dutchman who supposedly found a gold mine worth twenty million dollars. The grandson is searching for the lost mine and becomes caught up in a murder, which a sheriff and his deputy, the character played by Will Geer, try to solve.

The section of Lust for Gold that is set in the late 1800s is much more compelling than the other parts of the movie. Jacob Walz is played by Glenn Ford in a decidedly non-heroic role, and Ida Lupino plays his love interest, Julia Thomas, although she is already married; in reality she is after his gold. It’s very enjoyable to see a much younger Lupino in this movie, which is based on the book Thunder Gods Gold, by Barry Storm.

Lust for Gold reminded me of What’s In It for Mia? in an odd sort of way: Lupino’s character finds a drunken man in front of her shop and brings him inside, who wakes up disoriented in her bed; this is just what Charlotte did in the ASJ episode, when she found Kid and Heyes unconscious by the side of the road (as a result of Mia's machinations). However, the same disdain Mia had when she wasn’t happy with people's behavior is evident in Lupino’s face in Lust for Gold, and she is condescending towards others and also not above resorting to blackmail to get what she wants. Julia Thomas is a nasty person and when, in one of the climaxes, she finds herself between a rock and a hard place, literally, it is a testament to Lupino’s acting ability that one can actually feel slightly sorry for her.

Walz in some ways resembles Danny Bilson and in fact, other aspects of Lust for Gold remind me of Smiler With a Gun and not just because Will Geer is in this movie. It is not revealing too much to say that Walz kills for the gold, just like Danny. There’s also a scene involving Julia and her husband caught in the hot sun without water, while Walz watches them suffer. Walz buys up much of the town where Julia lives and someone makes a comment about “getting as excited as a poker player filling an inside straight flush,” which also reminded me of Danny’s poker skills and ownership of a gambling establishment.

Will Geer, who is so much younger in this film that he is unrecognizable except for his voice, also plays against type in Lust for Gold; in a way, his character is the opposite of Seth because he is definitely not a kindly man. There is not one but two scenes with rattlesnakes, but the outcomes are quite different from what happens in Smiler.

I suppose, since about two-thirds of the 90-minute Lust for Gold occurs in the nineteenth century and all of it takes place in the southwestern part of the U.S., it can be classified as a Western, but it takes almost half an hour before the characters Jacob Walz and Julia Thomas make their appearances. It is only then that the pace of the film quickens and the action, betrayals, and cliffhangers make Lust for Gold a fun movie to watch.

Website for Lost Dutchman State Park (watch the Introductory Park Video to see what the Superstition Mountains look like now and to hear about the search for the mine):