The Baron of Arizona, director Samuel Fuller (The Naked Kiss, Pickup on South Street)'s second film, is based on the true story of James Reavis, a clerk in Santa Fe, New Mexico that perpetrated one of the most elaborate hoaxes in U.S. history, claiming that he and his wife were the rightful owners of the territory of Arizona in 1883. Told in flashback by Reavis' antagonist (and, ironically, mentor) John Griff, the film is generally fun - if tonally inconsistent - thanks to Vincent Price's performance as the so-called "Baron of Arizona."
During the 19th century, the U.S. honored land grant titles from the Spanish government, and Reavis saw his opportunity to steal Arizona away by claiming to be the "rightful owner." Reavis spent years constructing his story, creating false tombstones, carving a stone proclamation from Spanish King Ferdinand VI, and falsifying records allowing an orphan he adopted to become Sofia de Peralta, the legal heir of Arizona (not then a state). The Baron of Arizona follows Reavis (Price) from his arrival at the home of Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff), announcing that Alvarez's adopted daughter Sofia (Karen Kester) was the heir of Miguel Peralta - an invention of Reavis.
Reavis hired Loma Morales (Beulah Bondi) to be Sofia's nanny, then leaves Arizona to forge entries in the two existing copies of Ferdinand VI's Land Grants; one in a monastery in Alacantra, Spain, and the other in the Madrid castle of the Marquis de Santella. After three years in the monastery and an undisclosed time living with gypsies, Reavis is reunited with the adult Sofia (Ellen Drew), and proposes marriage to here, the final component of his plan.
The Baron and Baroness Sofia de Peralta-Reavis arrive in Phoenix and lay claim to their land, sending the Department of the Interior into a struggle to prove or disprove their paper trail. The Government sends John Griff (Reed Hadley), an expert on forgery (and author of the book Reavis uses to create the false documents early in the film) to crack the case, while Reavis begins charging railroad companies, businesses, and landowners for the privilege to use "his land," raising the ire of locals.
The Baron of Arizona is hampered from the get-go by a frame story set in 1912, immediately after the territory became a state. A much older John Griff recounts how Reavis almost pulled off his hoax from beginning to end, and the narrative accordingly lacks suspense from the get-go. The audience is privy to every trick that Reavis pulls, every bit of deception he uses, and when Griff arrives in the story, there's no mystery to how the "Baron" crafted his con. There's no point in following Griff as he cracks the case (and to the film's credit, Fuller never tries to deviate from Reavis), but because we know he will be caught and we know how the lie was constructed, it's really a matter of waiting for the ruse to end.
Would the film be more effective had it begun with James and Sofia arriving in Phoenix, laying claim to Arizona, and working backwards? Maybe; I can't say with any certainty because that's critiquing a movie for something it doesn't do rather than the film that is. The lack of narrative tension isn't the only problem, however: the film's reasonably jovial tone takes a sour turn late in the film when mob justice leads to a near lynching of Reavis, a scene that directly follows his admission of guilt to Griff. That, coupled with an eleventh-hour change of heart by Reavis towards Sofia (when he decides he truly does love her, without much clear character development) closes the film out on a "love conquers all note," another tonal shift that The Baron of Arizona doesn't earn.
And yet, I left the film enjoying Fuller's second effort nevertheless; Vincent Price carries the entire film as the conniving, devious, yet charming silver-tongued James Addison Reavis. From the moment we meet him until the very end, Price (who was 39 when the film was made) is a magnetic screen presence, capable of selling the manipulative, power hungry, serial-seducing "Baron" as someone you want to see succeed. When Hadley's John Griff arrives, one can't help but cheer for de Peralta-Reavis, even when we know he's totally in the wrong and shamelessly ripping off Arizona's rightful landowners.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag: Hadley has a Joseph Cotton quality to him, and he does the best with what amounts to a dual-role (the elderly, wistful statesman, and the cocky investigator determined to take down Reavis). The film's low budget hurts the most with Ellen Drew's grown Sofia de Peralta, who at no point is ever believable as the half-Spanish / half-Native American the Baroness turns out to be. She seems to have flown from New England to central casting in Los Angeles. For his part, I never questioned that Sokoloff - and actor of Russian descent - was anything but an authentic Mexican, which cannot be said of most of the cast members from the "Spanish" section of the film.
Fuller gives The Baron of Arizona some nice touches; while the film was shot in 15 days at the Corrigan Ranch in California (and partially in Arizona), the Spanish monastery looks authentic enough, and despite a few obvious "in studio" shots (and the least convincing "day for night" scene I can remember), one can appreciate the effort to distinguish the movie from other "period" films of the 1950s. While one shouldn't come in expecting the Vincent Price from his Corman years - the slightly campy, heightened version we tend to associate with his performances - he and Fuller do generate some laughs, particularly in a scene of mis-communication between Reavis, Father Guardian (Gene Roth), and local police, that pays off in an appropriately ironic wagon crash.
Criterion included The Baron of Arizona in their Eclipse series The First Films of Samuel Fuller, and I was glad to have seen the film, warts and all. It's not something I might have been aware of otherwise, and it's certainly worth checking out if you want to round out your Vincent Price experience.