This vintage Spanish-Mexican co-production was one of my holy grails and I’ve finally managed to see it.
It’s an entertaining, undemanding, populist adventure, based on a character created by prolific Spanish novelist/screenwriter José Mallorqui, dating from the dawn of the Euro-Western era and marking the genre debut of (for me) one of its most important exponents.
The intricacies - if there are any - of the plot were lost on this monoglot, as was much of the dialogue, but the outline will be familiar enough to anyone who has seen a Zorro film, or the likes of The Magnificent Texan.
It’s 1848, and a foppish Mexican dandy, Cesar (Abel Salazar), returns to California from the East to find the former Mexican territory under US dominion. A local rebellion has been crushed and, after increasing evidence of Yankee cruelty, Cesar takes up the patriotic cause under the guise of El Coyote, a masked gunslinger (no sword - it’s one of the things that makes this play more like a Western than most early Zorro films) with a natty black outfit.
There are no great surprises or innovations here, but Romero Marchent, who took over the reins from the Mexican Fernando Soler, directs with his customary economy. He would never become a fussy director, never a stylist, and that’s evident here, in his third film. That said, there is some visual stylisation, including a conclusion where El Coyote takes on the US military commander in a nocturnal showdown that makes impressive use of shadows and high-contrast lighting (kudos to DP Ricardo Torres). All in all, the director does a thoroughly professional job - the hallmark of his Western output.
The budget seems to have been fairly low (the action is largely confined to one small locality), but Romero Marchent compensates with some effective montages, establishing succinctly the historical context, for example, with battle scenes (possibly stock footage) intercut with close-ups of cannons firing, anguished faces, etc. The action is mild, of course, but the director doesn’t shy away from showing whippings, hanging corpses etc, to establish the brutality of the new regime.
Not a revolutionary work of Fistful of Dollars proportions, then, or even of Gunfight at High Noon scale, but an enjoyable one nonetheless, with solid direction by a man whose importance to the Euro-Western’s development has been generally overlooked. Mainly because, as he has acknowledged, his affection was for traditional Westerns, and this shows in his films (Cut-throats Nine apart). If you like traditional Westerns, of course, that’s no bad thing.
Side notes: Abel Salazar was a popular Mexican actor/producer, best known perhaps for his trashy horror film The Brainiac. He fares better in his self-effacing scenes as Cesar than as the Coyote, where he looks a bit stiff (maybe he’ll be looser in the sequel, shot almost simultaneously). His female lead, Gloria Marin, became his wife in 1958. Also in the cast in Rafael Bardem, grandfather of Javier, and Jesus Franco worked on the screenplay.