Though B-Western icon Buck Jones is cast way against type, as a movie The Avenger (1931) is vastly superior to Sony's other concurrent Buck Jones release of Unknown Valley (1933). Unknown Valley has an admirably unusual story but directed in a style several years older than it was, like a crude early talkie. The Avenger, on the other hand, is atmospheric and lively with many imaginative touches. Almost certainly the credit for that belongs to its director, Roy William Neill, best remembered today for his gloriously moody Sherlock Holmes films for Universal during the 1940s.
Like Unknown Valley, The Avenger was one of eight B-Westerns Jones made for producer Sol Lesser's Beverly Productions, releasing through Columbia Pictures. They were Jones's first talkies, for which he was paid the princely sum of $300/week, small potatoes for a popular star even then.
Though seemingly chosen at random, The Avenger does look absolutely terrific on DVD given the film's age and obscurity. And unlike many B-Westerns from this period, the original titles have not been replaced with reissue credits and are intact.
The story of The Avenger is adapted from the popular legend of Joaquin Murieta (Jones), a Mexican seeking vengeance against racist Americans. In the movie, Murieta is the son of a wealthy Spanish family whose property is stolen by three conniving gold prospectors, Ike Mason (Edward Peil, Sr.), "Black" Kelly (Otto Hoffman), and Al Goss (Walter Per) who with their henchmen falsely accuse Murieta's brother Juan (an uncredited Paul Fix in an early role) of stealing horses in order to jump his claim. As Murieta looks on, helpless, Juan is hanged and Murieta "let off" with a brutal whipping.
Years later Murieta, now sporting a mustache while losing his thick Spanish accent, returns, seeking vengeance against the unscrupulous trio. As the notorious "Black Shadow," he robs the local stage of their gold shipments and a $5,000 reward is posted for his capture. While romancing Helen Lake (Dorothy Revier, Milady de Winter in the Fairbanks The Iron Mask), the daughter of Capt. Lake (Edward Hearn) of the U.S. Army, in black chalk Murieta brazenly writes the following on a wall in the middle of town:
"When death calls
- The Black Shadow"
(Mild Spoilers) One-by-one, Mureita engineers situations in which the villains and their henchmen, not Murieta, end up shooting them by mistake. But can the Black Shadow finish them off before his machinations are discovered?
The Avenger cast Buck Jones against type and this is not entirely successful. In the opening scene he actually serenades Helen aboard a stagecoach with a fine tenor voice (probably not Jones's) and he speaks with a theek Spanish accent ("Perhops these weel help you," etc.) Years later, when he returns to the unnamed mining town, Murieta speaks with no accent at all, except when he's the Black Shadow, and the accent returns. Jones, a great B-Western personality but not a particularly good actor in parts like this, isn't exactly believable.
The movie, however, is very imaginative for its budget level, mainly due to Roy William Neill's direction. In the early scenes the cast wear clothing appropriate to the 1860s; Al Goss, for instance, sports an ostentatious stovepipe hat like Abraham Lincoln. But, years later, the costumes are more in line with the West of the 1880s. Most Bs wouldn't have bothered with such details.
Neill's direction uses sound in this comparatively early talkie quite well. In one scene, as Murieta stalks one of the trio at his saloon, chorus girls off-screen can be heard practicing Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna," oblivious to the revenge killing about to happen only a few feet away.
The movie is strikingly photographed. For instance, Murieta rides off in silhouette against an overcast dawn. And the action set pieces are inventively staged. One particularly good sequence, one I've seen in no other Western big or small, Murieta is trying to make his getaway from town as a posse block his every escape route in a Western movie equivalent of rundown play. Filmed from high angles, it's very effective and exciting. Late in the film, Murieta becomes the victim of a lynch mob but suddenly turns up elsewhere, having effected an escape from them somehow. Though the circumstances are later explained, it was rather daring of Neill not to show the audience this, resulting in genuine surprise when Murieta suddenly and inexplicably turns up alive.
Video & Audio
The Avenger sources pristine original film elements complete with Columbia's original credits. The black-and-white, full-frame feature runs a bit over an hour and appears complete. The mono audio (English only, not subtitle options) is also fine. The disc has no menu screens, simply starting up after the usual FBI and INTERPOL warnings, restarting the picture as soon as it ends. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
A surprisingly entertaining early-talkie B-Western, The Avenger has the added bonus of a sparkling video transfer showing off the film in the best possible light. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.