Monday, December 05, 2011

It Hits With Slashing Fury

Big thanks go out to the anonymous Crane Shot reader who emailed me to say that this movie I wrote about more than three years ago was available on Netflix's streaming service. To the best of my knowledge, the 1958 melodrama MACHETE received no VHS or DVD release, though I imagine it played late at night in syndication back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Given its intriguing one-sheet and cast, I was curious to see MACHETE, and I'm glad I did. Kurt Neumann co-wrote, directed, and produced this ripe B-picture the same year he directed one of the best horror movies of the 1950s: THE FLY. When he died in August of 1958, MACHETE was the first of three Neumann films to be released posthumously. The guy worked a lot.

Emotions run high when Don Luis Montoya (DR. CYCLOPS himself, Albert Dekker) returns to his Puerto Rico sugar plantation with a new wife: platinum blond Jean (Mari Blanchard). They met on Montoya’s business trip to New York City and were married one week later. Montoya’s majordomo Bernardo (Juano Hernandez) is polite to Jean, but clearly skeptical concerning her motives. Housekeeper Rita (Ruth Cains) looks at her as a rival for the affections of Carlos (Carlos Rivas), Don Luis’ plantation master and adopted son.

Making his thoughts most plain is cousin Miguel (Lee Van Cleef), Luis’ only living blood relative, a snarling malcontent whom Montoya sends packing after he drunkenly attacks Carlos with a machete. Miguel is a real operator, though, and manages not only to talk his way back on to the plantation, but also into Carlos’ job after he convinces Luis that Carlos and Jean are having an affair.

The screenplay, co-written by Collier Young (JUNGLE JIM), is routine melodrama, but Neumann filmed MACHETE on an actual sugar plantation in Aguirre, Puerto Rico, which provides a visual edge. He and cinematographer Karl Struss (DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE) get a lot of local color out of the unusual exteriors to give the drama an extra note of realism. Scenes are connected by documentary-style footage of cane being harvested and transported.

Van Cleef is hilariously transparent as the conniving Miguel, who sure is good at making other people look stupid. Even after his earlier betrayals of Luis, he still manages to make not only his cousin, but also Jean and Carlos, believe he has their best interests at heart—even after making it obvious he wants the plantation for himself.

Neumann never gets a handle on Blanchard’s and Rivas’ characters, however. Jean’s chance run-in with a man she once knew back home teases us of her mysterious past, but this angle is dropped. We naturally assume—because of their quick courtship, Luis’ wealth, and the large age disparity between them—that her interest in Montoya is more avaricious than romantic in nature, but MACHETE never makes this clear, even after her (surprisingly easy) seduction of Carlos. Neumann’s ending indicates he believes Jean to be flawed, but I’m not certain the film merits that distinction. I think the fault lies mostly with Blanchard, who convinced me that Jean really did love Luis, no matter how the story played out, though I also think the afore-mentioned scene of Jean’s encounter did the actress no favors.

Despite its flaws, MACHETE is a potboiler of some interest. The actors are good, if appropriately overcooked, and the Puerto Rican locations give extra production value. The film was made independently under the production banner of J. Harold Odell (who also made the incredible THE FIEND OF DOPE ISLAND), and released through United Artists.

1 comment:

Hal said...

Kurt Neumann also directed COUNTERPLOT (59) in Puerto Rico w/Forrest Tucker and Allison Hayes around the same time as MACHETE. The third of those posthumous releases and also on Netflix Instant. Not that good though IMO.