Filmlog: The Bullfighter and the Lady

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Dr. Fleming wrote in the comments section of his article on Budd Boetticher’s Decision at Sundown that Netflix has 90% of titles a film lover can reasonably expect to find.  I would only disagree that, for anyone who loves classic films, a subscription to Turner Classic Movies is also indispensable (no matter how reprehensible Turner may be), because many of the truly inspired movies of the past are not otherwise available.  One must peruse TCM schedules for titles, which are posted online up to three months in advance, making informed choices easy.

What is probably Boetticher’s best nonwestern is part of the Turner collection, The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951).  Released originally at eighty-seven minutes, it was an excellent film, albeit with some odd, choppy editing.  Several years ago I learned that Boetticher’s cut ran 124 minutes; I saw that version the other night.  If TCM plays it again, be sure to watch because, among its manifold virtues, it is one of the best sports movies ever produced.  That the sport is bullfighting may add a dash of exoticism into the mix, but that is mostly incidental.  The story and spectacle can easily be enjoyed by someone, like me, someone not usually allured by the Plaza de Toros; but the story will appeal to anyone, also like me, who finds learning about something out of the way appealing.  For learn about the basics of the bull ring we do—in loving detail.  Gilbert Roland, a most under appreciated actor long assigned to minor character roles, costars as an aging toreador who agrees to give lessons to train as a matador a young eager sportsman from the States, who in turn offers skeet shooting lessons to the old bullfighter as trade-off.

Robert Stack plays the gringo; Stack is an actor who is usually as leaden as an alchemist preparing for work.  This may be the only completely satisfying performance of his career, with the possible exception of The Mortal Storm.  He even finds a way to modulate his voice and keep in character rather than simply reading from the script and sounding like a laundry soap ad.  That the person he plays (for the most part) was standing in front of him during the shoot probably had much to do with it.

Except for the flashes of love story (the lady of the title) and dashes of melodramatic flourishes from “win-the-big-game” movies, this tale is largely Boetticher’s autobiographical experiences before he was asked in 1940 to be technical advisor on bullfighting for Blood and Sand.  He loved movies so much, he stayed in Hollywood for the next twenty years making films—and could tell a story with the best.  Stack, incidentally, often sounds like Boetticher even though their natural speaking voices were quite dissimilar.

Most of our attention, however, focuses not so much on the actors, although they increasingly take on the dimensions (achieved by lighting and composition) of classical gods, but on learning the sport itself.  On paper this might sound like little more than watching an arty instructional manual, but this is not the case.  We are drawn into the mystique of the ring by someone who heartily desires to share his love of subject to anyone who will listen, and who can tell the story of why we should care as well.

To add that this is also a film whose other subject is machismo itself would certainly be true, but most likely would mislead.  That word has become a decadent, politically correct term intended to signal rebuke against anything the culture of death despises as manly.  Even when discussing Mexican culture, that term has become  somewhat besmirched.  Let us, therefore, say that Boetticher has made a movie about manliness.  A picture about bullfighting that opposes a culture of death?  How G.K. Chesterton would have loved that paradox.

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