Surprisingly nimble, and quite enjoyable, Ruritanian swashbuckler. Sony Picture's fun Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Brigand, the 1952 Edward Small production for Columbia Pictures, starring Small's "discovery," Anthony Dexter (who's just right here in a dual role), along with Jody Lawrance, Gale Robbins, Carl Benton Reid, Ron Randell, Fay Roope, and Anthony Quinn (slumming it in one of his last Bs before winning the Oscar that same year). Loosely based on a book by Alexander Dumas (but really much more closely on Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda), The Brigand takes itself just seriously enough to avoid the camp pitfalls of many of those other low-budget adventure Bs, with director Phil Karlson keeping his lines clean and the action spirited. No extras for this acceptable full-screen transfer.
The early 19th century, in the Moroccan desert. Sultan guard Captain Carlos Delargo (Anthony Dexter) rescues visiting Mandorraian ambassador Don Felipe Castro and his young hussy wife, Dona Dolores (Mari Blanchard), from a roving band of brigands. When Don Felipe discovers that Delargo, er, um...knew his wife from a previous posting, they duel, with Delargo killing Castro, right before a dying Castro shoots his unfaithful wife. Such a diplomatic scandal must be addressed, and at the Royal Palace of Lorenzo III, the King of Mandorra (Dexter again), a captured Delargo is presented for execution by Lorenzo's prime minister, Triano (Carl Benton Reid). Noticing the near mirror-image likeness of the two men, it is noted that Delargo's family tree--specifically, his banished Mandorraian princess mother--certainly branches off from Lorenzo's royal heritage. Lorenzo, an amiable fop as interested in dancing and wenching with Countess Flora (Gale Robbins) as he is in politics, is inclined to let Delargo "escape" to save political face, particularly since the Moroccan Sultan (Walter Kingsford) personally pleads for Delargo's life. However, what King Lorenzo doesn't realize is that his cousin, Prince Ramon (Anthony Quinn), is plotting Lorenzo's assassination, with the aid of Napoleon's ambassador, Monsieur De Laforce (Fay Roope). When Ramon thinks he's killed the seriously-wounded King with a backward-firing shotgun, it's up to Triano and loyal Captain Ruiz (Ron Randell) to bring back Delargo and have him sub for the out-of-commission King, so as not to blow the intended betrothal between the King and Princess Teresa (Jody Lawrance), a strategic alliance meant to block Napoleon's ambitions towards Mandorra. Unfortunately, aside from the numerous social faux pas Delargo commits, he also risks the whole subterfuge by falling in love with Teresa.
The Brigand is the kind of unexpectedly entertaining little movie that happens when everyone involved knows their business, inside and out, and they just get on with it. No time for screwing around. No money for fat. Just a pleasing (if thoroughly) familiar story, told well by a group of pros, with efficiency and verve and a reasonably straight face. By contrast, that same year's expensive M-G-M remake of, ironically enough, The Prisoner of Zenda (from which The Brigand is clearly lifted), had far bigger stars (Stewart Granger and James Mason) and all the lavish set designs and decorations Metro could raid from their vast prop inventories, and yet it's a dull, calcified shot-by-shot remake of the far-better Ronald Colman version from 1937. As much as one may wish, when those Academy ratio opening credits unfold, that The Brigand had come out a few years later with more money and some widescreen process and maybe some location photography worthy of a true "epic" swashbuckler...there is something to be said for the small-scaled but on-point results of the competent, economical B movie-making found here --something that legendary producer Edward Small routinely excelled at in his 50+ year career (he certainly had an affinity with the swashbuckling genre, having produced classics such as 1934's The Count of Monte Cristo, 1939's The Man in the Iron Mask, and 1941's The Corsican Brothers, among his hundreds of other titles).
Written by vet Cecil B. DeMille scripter Jesse L. Lasky, Jr. (Union Pacific, Samson and Delilah, and The Ten Commandments, among many others), The Brigand's story should unfold in thoroughly expected fashion for even the most casual observer of the genre. Lack of story originality, though, never held back a B if the dialogue was snappy and the action tight--both of which can be found in The Brigand. Lines, delivered with just the tiniest tip of the tongue in cheek, such as, "Your large...eyes, loaded weapons that just shouldn't be left lying about," (as Dexter sizes up Mari Blanchard's bustline), and, "A man who has lived with a sword over his head...should expect one in his ribs!" are just what we expect to hear in this kind of costumed nonsense. As for the action, it's swift and sure under the zero bullsh*t eye of director Phil Karlson, who would achieve lasting fame that same year for the second of his three releases in 1952: the seminal docu-noir, Kansas City Confidential. Karlson's frames here may not exactly be "informative," but they're clean and proficient, and he knows how to maintain a steady, even internal pace from sequence to sequence as the movie moves surely from one well-blocked scene to the next. A good example of this is the nicely suspenseful scene between Quinn and Reid, when Reid calls Quinn's bluff about the rigged shotgun. Karlson could have blown this up too big and showy, but he keeps it small and nervy...almost like something from one of his noirs, with prime minister Reid the hep-to-it cop needling Prince Quinn's caught criminal.
The performances, too, are well-tuned: not too broad, not too silly. The over-talented Quinn may indeed be wasting his time here, but true to form for this pro (I can't think of a performance of his I haven't enjoyed, regardless of the particular movie's merit), he's there and engaged on the screen, and no doubt elevating Dexter's performance in the bargain whenever they appear together. As for our lead, it is rather startling to see that first shot of Dexter cresting a studio sand dune as we blink to see if we somehow put in a disc of The Sheik by mistake. TCM just had producer Small's Valentino on a few weeks ago, but honestly, after about ten minutes I bailed, so other than an isolated TV spot, perhaps, or his cameo in Thoroughly Modern Millie (which frankly I don't remember), I doubt I've seen Dexter in anything else. So, I was more than pleasantly surprised at how well he came off here in The Brigand (too bad he didn't stick with Small longer, who had him under exclusive contract beginning with Valentino; Dexter's subsequent movie career fizzled badly). Looking like a three-way cross between Valentino, Don Ameche and Brian Donlevy's shoulders, once you get past Dexter's unnerving resemblance to the Great Lover, you begin to discover he's not bad at all, whether playing the stoic-but-sardonic Delargo or the high-pitched, foppish, smart-assed King Lorenzo. Dexter certainly fits the bill physically for a he-man swashbuckler, with his triple-wide "V" build and graceful carriage, shown to excellent advantage not only in the too-few-but-still-exciting swordplay scenes, but also in a couple of dance sequences, ably staged by Karlson and performed with brio by the fleet Dexter. Come to think of it...that's a pretty good way, on the whole, to describe The Brigand: it fits the bill.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.