I have zero interest in bullfighting, as teasing and torturing animals (er, "fighting") just isn't my thing. Despite that, I was drawn to see BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY for a number of reasons, and I thought it was an excellent movie. The bullfighting scenes themselves I found tedious, simply because of my lack of interest -- someone who enjoys the sport would be enthralled, as the scenes were superbly filmed -- but the overall film was outstanding.
BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY was produced by John Wayne and directed by Budd Boetticher. Boetticher, a former bullfighter himself, filmed the movie filmed on location in Mexico. Thanks in large part to the atmospheric locations, the film feels very authentic and "real," right down to the flies which can periodically be spotted flitting around on screen. It's beautifully filmed -- some of the black and white images of the characters against cloud-filled skies are stunning -- and extremely well acted. In short, it's a completely "different" kind of movie, which incidentally was Oscar-nominated for Best Story.
Although the film was unfortunately pared down to 87 minutes for its original theatrical release, UCLA has restored the film to 124 minutes. I taped and viewed a copy of this "director's cut" which aired on TCM.
Robert Stack plays Johnny, an American skeet-shooting champion on an extended sojourn in Mexico who takes up an interest in bullfighting. (Stack does his own skeet shooting, as well as some of the bullfighting stunts.) Johnny is mentored by a great matador, Manolo Estrada (Gilbert Roland), who has promised his pregnant wife (Katy Jurado, in her English film debut) he will soon retire. Meanwhile Johnny has also fallen in love at first sight with Anita de la Vega (Joy Page), the "lady" of the film's title.
The performances are uniformly fine. Stack captures Johnny's youthful, sometimes foolish bravado as well as the strong, honorable man he is becoming. I found Stack very appealing as a fully rounded character with both weak and strong points. (I was never quite clear how he and his friends had so much time available to spend in Mexico; independently wealthy?) Roland and Jurado are simultaneously charming and moving; Jurado in particular has several dynamic scenes, including a lengthy tirade in Spanish. In fact, there's a great deal of Spanish in the film, which lends to the authenticity of the setting.
Page is a unique leading lady who has a bit of the waifish look of a young Audrey Hepburn (think ROMAN HOLIDAY, which was released a couple years after this film). Page is perhaps best known for her role as Annina, the young wife helped by Rick in CASABLANCA. She was the stepdaughter of Jack L. Warner and married Warner Bros. producer William T. Orr in the mid-'40s; she only acted sporadically.
The supporting cast includes Virginia Grey and John Hubbard as Stack's American friends.
BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY has been released on video, but I would approach a VHS copy with caution; the tape was released in the '90s and I suspect it is the shorter original studio release version of the film. The movie has not yet had a DVD release but I am hopeful one might be released in a Special Edition, as was done for SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, which was also produced by Wayne and directed by Boetticher. It would be interesting if it included both the theatrical release and director's cut so film fans can compare the two versions. This movie demands a commentary and/or documentary on the film's production.
The trailer is here.
Leonard Maltin, in his 3-1/2 star review, writes: "The movies' best treatment of this subject, a fine, mature drama with unforgettable bullfighting scenes and an appealing love story as well."
Glenn Erickson writing about seeing the film on TCM, in his January 21, 2008 entry at DVD Savant: "The movie's nothing less than magnificent, an ode to the tradition of bullfighting that explains its glamour and roots in the Mexican - Spanish culture. The film stars Robert Stack, Gilbert Roland, Katy Jurado and Joy Page, and although it doesn't change my mind about the blood sport it was a big surprise -- one doesn't expect to find too many more hidden masterpieces like this one."
I agree. This is a film well worth seeing.
April 24 Update: Just two days after I wrote this post, leading lady Joy Page passed away at the age of 83.