Vengeance Valley

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“The Skipper” was how I knew Burt Lancaster as a kid. His real name was unmanageable to a three year old. He was just “The Skipper” because that’s what his crew of pirates with hearts of gold called him in The Crimson Pirate. I watched so much Burt Lancaster when I was three or four (who’s kidding, I still watch about two Burt Lancaster films a month even now). The Crimson Pirate, as beloved as it is, did not stay in my head the way Lancaster’s quickie B-Western Vengeance Valley (1951) did. Being famous in my family for my love of “The Skipper” while also being somewhat surprised by this revelation I started second guessing myself. I can vividly remember the Saturday afternoon I first watched the chase scene where Lancaster pursues Robert Walker, but that isn’t the image that remains vital in my mind.

There’s a scene right after Joanne Dru gives birth to Robert Walker’s illegitimate child. Lancaster arrives, before his brother Robert Walker, to see the newborn child. Lancaster looks rugged, dressed for the cold, unshaven, his large frame towering over Joanne Dru. There’s hardly any dialogue. Lancaster removes his gloves and takes his nephew in his arms. The stoic features of Lancaster’s face give way to a vulnerability that is utterly disarming. Dru looks at him, a face full of hurt, ambiguous. Then Walker appears in soft focus behind Lancaster and Dru, who are now so close that if not for the baby it would be a love scene. Walker’s appearance throws off the composition, casting a threatening presence into the tender moment. That is what has stuck with me.

Director Richard Thorpe embeds the rolling hills of grass and the Rocky Mountains with the picturesque specificity of a painting. In juxtaposition to these compositions are the dirty and rough details of the film’s interiors. The surroundings of the cowboy characters are as uncivilized as they themselves are. This lends an authenticity to the environment. The outdoors are beautiful and poetic in technicolor, the indoors are corrupt and worn out. So the contrast is that between the authentic and the idealized. Just as the actors play their characters to an operatic effect, the narrative moves with the grandiose sweep of American fantasy.

More interesting still is the lack of close-ups in Vengeance Valley. Thorpe only very rarely isolates an actor’s face in frame. Thorpe prefers a more theatrical approach, emoting the stage. In this respect, the performances become more intense, standing unadulterated before the audience. It is from this that all the urgency of Vengeance Valley derives.