A Western Oddity

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

S. Sylvan Simon’s “Lust for Gold” starts off as a contemporary tale of a crime committed in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. A rather smug author and treasure-hunter has made it known that he has solved the mystery of the location of the fabled Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. When a young go-getter announces himself as a grandson of the 19th prospector Jacob “Dutchman” Walz who first discovered the mine, has an authentic map, and would like to go partners, he is given a not-so-polite brush-off. Deciding to follow the author anyway, he becomes a witness to his death at the hands of an unseen sharpshooter. When he treks back to town to report the killing a avuncular sheriff’s deputy and a suspicious sheriff hear him out. Absolved of any responsibility in the man’s death, he promptly announces his determination to take up the quest, undeterred by the notion that a killer seems to be at large.

From this point the film could develop into a standard whodunit–who is the assassin?–or a simple adventure story–will the young fellow with nothing but a tattered, old family heirloom map to guide him explore his way to riches? Instead, Simon has the grandson visit an old peoples home to learn more about his enigmatic ancestor–and we find ourselves in the middle of a 1940s Columbia western. We also meet our star Glenn Ford who will play Walz. The previous year Ford had waded into the waters of western villainy playing a cultured, but psychopathic Federal judge in “The Man from Colorado.” Our first glimpse of his Walz promises more of the same. Unshaven and rude he terrifies an annoying child with his rifle, then plots with Edgar Buchanan to follow a pair of prospectors who seem to be on to a good thing.

Ford had played with Buchanan previously in “Framed” and would appear with him again in Fritz Lang’s “Human Desire,” each time they essayed a father-son type relationship, with the gabby Buchanan dispensing pearls of wisdom to the tight-lipped Ford. Here we seem to have more of the same. But clearly Ford and Buchanan must have something else in mind other than claim-jumping and murder–except that they don’t. So we’re suddenly confronted with a murderous Ford who lacks the alibi of war-induced psychosis or the charm of his later western badman, Ben Wade. As if killing the two prospectors isn’t reprehensible enough, once the mine is secured, he shoots his partner Buchanan as well. Now all the gold is his, and no one will take it from him.

Enter co-star Ida Lupino. When Walz arrives in town to display his new-found wealth, she feigns disinterest. She’s perfectly happy running her little bakery. Except that that she isn’t. She hates the West, hates the townsfolk, hates her husband who has buried her here attempting to escape a murder charge back east. For her, Walz represents more than Wealth. He represents Escape–perhaps even a permanent divorce from her clinging husband. As the third leg of this wobbly triangle Gig Young radiates surface charm and inner weakness. Dominated by Lupino, he will be no match for the brutal, violence-prone Walz. Pretending to be a widow, Lupino wastes no time playing Beauty who charms the Beast. Everything is going according to plan until Young’s increasing jealousy at watching another man romance his wife threatens to blow her plan sky high.

Lupino would seem a lot more rancid were it not for the fact that we’ve already seen how Ford came by his wealth. One of the men that he killed, a Peralta was the last of a band of Spanish brothers who amassed the horde. But they themselves plundered it from the Apaches who in turn slaughtered all of the Peraltas except for the last of them. Clearly no one who has touched this gold has clean hands, and if Lupino succeeded in her plot, and Young dispatched Ford, she would be no worse than Ford himself. But “Lust for Gold” is a Glenn Ford movie from Columbia, not an Ida Lupino movie from Warner Brothers or The Filmmakers.

Ford gains a bit of audience sympathy when he finally realizes what Lupino’s game is. For all of his meanness he is a stranger in a strange land, a man whose native language is German, hence his nick-name The Dutchman, and Lupino plays on this by revealing that her mother was German, even cooing some German endearments to him. The fact that a countrywoman–a fellow stranger–could be just as greedy and deceitful as the Mexicans and Anglos he is surrounded by inflicts a deeper wound than any bullet fired by Young could do. The vengeance he prepares for the deceitful couple is sufficiently ghastly for a 1949 film. He indeed shows them the way to his mine, then takes their pack animals and the water, leaving them to perish in the wilderness, with all that plundered gold to comfort them. An earthquake cuts short their suffering but also re-buries the entrance to the mine. (Technically not a mine at all, simply a cave in which the Peraltas had stashed their plundered Apache gold.)

This concludes the flashback and one would think that the revelation of so much treachery and tragedy would give the young descendant second thoughts, but then the movie would have no ending. He must return to the Superstition Mountains, following the hints he gleaned from the recitation of his ancestor’s misdeeds, and he even discovers the key clue–but the assassin is waiting for him. It is the friendly, helpful deputy sheriff, but before he can arrange an accident for the lad, he is himself killed by the sheriff and a second deputy (Jay “Tonto” Silverheels, no less) who suspected him from the start. So what began as a forties mystery with a gold-hunting backdrop, ends as one. The Ford-Lupino-Young tragedy is relegated to a colorful western legend.

“Lust for Gold” is an interesting example of a hybrid western. Advertised as a straight period western, it may have thrown audiences with its contemporary wrap-around structure. Perhaps more unsatisfying was the manner in which Ford’s Walz just fades out of the story. A “Duel in the Sun”-type love-death finale for Ford and Lupino might have been satisfying, but if Ford was buried in the earthquake that claimed Lupino, however would his descendant have inherited the map?

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