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Lust for Gold

Lust for Gold(1949)

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It's fitting that the gold-and-greed tale Lust for Gold is a little nugget of cinematic buried treasure. Made in the wake of the previous year's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this 1949 release is an overachieving example of the Hollywood studio system's assembly-line moviemaking. Producer-director S. Sylvan Simon's lean, efficient western drama seems to fall somewhere between an "A" picture and a "B" picture. Jerry Vermilye's 1977 book Ida Lupino refers to it as "underpromoted," so perhaps Columbia Pictures treated it as a B-movie during its initial release (and continued to, as the movie skipped the VHS era entirely). But it also features Glenn Ford and Lupino, veterans of many "A" pictures, who give the movie star power.

The presence of Lupino is part of what makes Lust for Gold special. It lets a woman claw in the dirt with the men, and who better to do that then Lupino? Like Barbara Stanwyck, Lupino always brushed off any kid glove treatment for her characters, and mixed it up as good as the men around her did. She made this shortly after letting her Warner Bros. contract lapse, and just after making Road House, in which she played perhaps the most hardboiled character of her career. If her Julia in Lust for Gold is less hardboiled, it isn't by much. She's a married woman in 1870s Arizona with a washout of a husband (Gig Young) and an eye for the gold discovered by Jacob Walz (Ford), a Dutch immigrant who murdered his way into a trove of hidden riches. Julia bullies husband Pete into clearing out while she sets her sights on Walz, who thinks she's single and blissfully unconcerned with his gold.

Julia proclaims her love for Walz and, when he's not around, tells Pete she's getting the gold to upgrade their future together. When Walz finds out she's hitched and Pete injects himself into the situation, it sets up a brutal showdown in the remote canyon where the trove of gold is. At different times in the climax, Julia pledges her love to each of the men, but we know she's only out for herself. That frontier treachery - which would be right at home on Deadwood - is what makes her so interesting to watch.

Besides Lupino, the other interesting wrinkle in Lust for Gold is that its two stars appear entirely in flashback, and that it's split fairly evenly between a present-day story and the 1870s scenes. The present-day drama has to do with the legends lingering from the 1870s action and the continued search for Walz's elusive gold, which was originally the stash of three Spanish brothers. In the present-day action, a number of men have been shot while exploring the canyon, and the latest to start poking around is Barry Storm (William Prince), Walz's grandson. Although Prince is fairly bland - he followed this by playing ultra-bland Christian in Jose Ferrer's Cyrano de Bergerac - the present-day tale has spark, too, as he enlists the help of the local sheriff (Paul Ford) and his deputies (Will Geer, Jay Silverheels) and gets into a thrilling little scuffle with the murderer at the movie's end. (Barry's frequent narration presents the 1870s legend and the lost gold as fact, and the movie adapts a book by Barry Storm, but I don't know whether naming the character after the author is just a bit of ballyhoo added to the story.)

Lust for Gold zips along so smoothly that one of the few snags, besides the sometimes jarring switches between real exteriors and studio sets, is the Dutch/German accent Ford's Walz suddenly picks up during the mid-section of the movie, and then drops again. This gives Ford's otherwise strong performance, one of the rare times he played a heel, an odd edge. Maybe this on-and-off accent is a consequence of producer Simon taking over for original director George Marshall (Destry Rides Again), and the two differing on whether Ford should use the accent. So although Lust for Gold is very good and arrives as part of a quintet of Ford westerns Sony has just released, it's perhaps least interesting as a Ford vehicle. Still, despite the no-frills Lust for Gold disc perfectly suiting this no-frills movie, it's a little puzzling why Sony didn't cobble together a featurette on Ford's career to be shared by these discs to familiarize younger viewers about him, as his last significant big-screen starring vehicles came 40 years ago.

For more information about Lust for Gold, visit Sony Pictures. To order Lust for Gold, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman