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A very good director who never got his due, Gerd Oswald is now best known for his episodes of The Outer Limits. The team of Oswald and cinematographer Conrad Hall nailed that show's alternately nervous and dreamy mix of monsters and mystery. Oswald started in television but switched to film with excellent noir work in A Kiss Before Dying and Crime of Passion. But most of his 50s films were low budget UA efforts without big stars or the benefit of Conrad Hall- level camera artistry. Critic Andrew Sarris praised him as a director of "sleepers" unlikely to win wide critical attention. Looking at the western The Brass Legend, I saw a director struggling to distinguish his show from the shoot 'em up fare being offered every night on television. 1957's Valerie goes all out to be different, with a script that's been likened to a sagebrush Rashomon. Don't get your hopes up, as the movie is no match for Akira Kurosawa's art house masterpiece. But do expect something different.
Leonard Heideman and Emmett Murphy's script is ambitious, to say the least; its convoluted time sequence is unheard of in cheap 1950s westerns. Rancher John Garth (Sterling Hayden) and his ramrod enter the Horvat hhouse, and when they come out, Louis and Lili Horvat (John Wengraf & Iphigenie Castiglioni) are dead and their daughter Valerie (Anita Ekberg) is gravely wounded. Valerie is John's wife of a few months. John and a surviving ranch hand Mingo (Jerry Barclay) are put on trial for murder. Local sentiment is on John's side: everyone likes him, but the Horvaths were immigrant foreigners and Valerie was considered a tramp. We hear first from the reverend Steven Burke (Anthony Steel), who is suspected of being Valerie's lover. He explains that he only visited the Garth farm at John's request, to talk to the disturbed Valerie. All he learned was that she seemed very afraid of something. Finding her unconscious and alone at the ranch house, John took her to town, where she moved back with her parents.
John Garth's lawyer claims that Valerie (who is still unconscious in the doctor's office) was debauched and evil, and raises grave doubts about Steven Blake's honesty. John Garth's testimony tells a completely different story. He says that Valerie only married him because she thought John was rich, and preferred his brother Herb (Peter Walker). According to John she refused to sleep with him and seduced the Reverend Blake. John says that he thinks his food was poisoned on the night Steven took Valerie away. He claims that Valerie's father shot at them, and they had to defend themselves.
When it is revealed that Valerie was pregnant, John tells the court that he cannot be the father. The prosecution is must go to Val's bedside to hear her version of the story, which is of course quite different. Mingo and John never figured that she would be capable of testifying. The sleepy town of Limerock will never be the same again.
Valerie gets high marks for effort but circumstances were against its director. The script is sound enough to have provided the basis for a much more elaborate production, with big stars. United Artists and producer Hal R.Makelim instead had the budget of a second feature cheapie, and it shows. The lighting in the interiors is indifferent and the exteriors are the same rental ranch locations that appear in dozens of westerns, without so much as a paint job. A close-up of Garth's fireplace clearly shows that it's never had a fire in it before. When we see John Garth's herd of cattle, Oswald cuts to a (nicely matched) stock shot. The only hint I saw of a director's influence was Oswald's establishing Valerie's arrival at the ranch by shooting through the tines of a farm tool. The metal hoops suggest that the Garth spread is a prison.
The visuals of cinematographer Ernest Laszlo include too many dull day-for-night scenes. It's not his fault: the budget didn't allow the extra time to light individual setups. Laszlo did fine work for Robert Aldrich and Stanley Kramer, but he also shot films for Bert I. Gordon. Albert Glasser's music tracks add a spooky feel to some scenes, making Valerie seem at times to be an Edgar Allan Poe vamp who went out West. But for all we know, the music came from Glasser's files of stock cues, used on many movies.
The script's overlapping testimony flashbacks do not promote the idea of subjective truth, as seen in Kurosawa's Rashomon. Witness B contradicts witness A, until witness C's testimony comes with evidence that establishes the truth beyond a shadow of a doubt. The interest comes in seeing the same events re-staged with different interpretations. And this is where Valerie can't make good on its promise. Finding the right way to play these scenes requires extra time that a low budget film can't afford. Anthony Steel and Peter Walker have smaller parts and are able to handle the task, but workaday star-for-hire Sterling Hayden clearly isn't given enough direction to make his John Garth very interesting. Without direction Hayden tends to go on acting autopilot, and what we get is a very shallow performance where he's dull and neutral in some scenes, and a nasty maniac in others. Anita Ekberg's Valerie spends a lot of time as a woman of mystery, who looks upset but never explains her feelings. A stunning beauty but a frequent target of criticism, the actress brings the latter part of the show to life, when Valerie's predicament and feelings finally begin to make sense. It's one of her better American movies.
Valerie is not an action western. In The Brass Legend and Fury at Showdown director Oswald teased us through the slow parts because we could tell that a nifty fast-draw confrontation was never too far away. Here the only shooting comes at the conclusion, and it's all over in a flash. Many scenes look rushed and perfunctory, as if the production had to be rushed to cover so much story content. Other westerns of this kind usually burn screen time with at least one or two sequences of people simply riding horses from point A to point B, and back again. Valerie is all drama.
Sterling Hayden made six feature films in 1957, and the shooting of this one probably went by in a blur. The actor was in the last phase of his post-HUAC career, before he pulled up stakes in 1960 and took to sailing around the world. He wouldn't surface again until Stanley Kubrick invited him back for Doctor Strangelove. Swedish actress Anita Ekberg kept looking for the brass ring while stumbling along in starring roles in very cheap movies; her ship came in when she went to Italy and Fellini's La dolce vita. Leonard Maltin and the reference books have little use for Valerie, but it certainly deserves credit for ambition. The story just isn't suited for a fast B-picture schedule.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Valerie is an acceptable B&W transfer that is not enhanced for widescreen. This flat version has headroom top and bottom that should by rights be matted away. Fans accustomed to old television airings may be pleased. MGM is now another studio that will not remaster a library title for home video, so ordering one of their Made On Demand titles is something of a gamble -- it might be a beautiful new transfer in the correct format, or simply an encoding of whatever is on the shelf. We have been promised that the new era of streaming and downloading will make available everything in the studio vaults, but even a glimpse of what's available on Netflix shows that the quality isn't very good -- certainly not good enough for the big-spending home theater enthusiasts eager to see more vintage movies.
The original poster shows how much faith United Artists had in Valerie -- they sell the sex angle and downplay the fact that the film is a western. And where's Sterling Hayden?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.