We all remember the hot guy in high school, right? You know the one I’m talking about. The hot guy. The guy you kinda-sorta-stalked in the library. The guy you waited all day to get a glimpse of in your 3rd period Economics class. The guy with those eyes, those lips, that hair. The guy who had everything. Except a personality.
Well, Rouben Mamoulian’s Technicolor melodrama Blood and Sand (1941) is a lot like that hot guy from high school. It’s hypnotic to look at, but the magic ends the minute it starts to talk.
The film promises much, but in the end just doesn’t deliver. At least, not what it promises to. Aesthetically speaking, it’s a triumph. When it comes to visual eye candy, few films are prettier to look at and it is every bit as visually splendid as Technicolor masterpieces like The Red Shoes and Gone with the Wind. But unlike those films, Blood and Sand’s beauty is only skin-deep. And, like that hot guy in high school, audience interest wanes as soon as we are expected to care about the story.
This film’s merit lies in its stunning color photography, for which it won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, which is also why the new Blu-ray release from 20th Century Fox’s is a total winner: the film has received a glorious transfer with results that are nothing short of dazzling. It also, shrewdly, gives us something to care about by focusing on the technical achievements that made such visual decadence possible with audio commentary from Cinematographer, and former ASC prexy, Richard Crudo. Crudo’s academic approach to the mechanics of the film’s smoke-and-mirror wizardry are far more interesting than anything actually happening in film. When given this historic context, Blood and Sand, (I really never thought I’d say this) gets quite interesting.
Adapted from the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (its second such incarnation– the first, in 1922, was also a mixed bag but benefited from the magnetic Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi) it is the story of impetuous young Juan Cardillo (the ridiculously handsome Tyrone Power) an illiterate man of humble means, whose life ambition is to become the greatest matador in Spain. The tenacious torero succeeds, with the undying support of his wife (the ridiculously beautiful Linda Darnell), but the sweeping adulation leads Power to believe himself invincible and makes the fatal mistake of buying into his own publicity. Of course, Samson meets his Delilah. A wealthy temptress (the ridiculously sexy Rita Hayworth) easily seduces Power and leads him astray, before surreptitiously leaving him flat. His career in ruins, he finds himself alone, ashamed, and humbled. The inevitable reconciliation between Power and Darnell comes at the cost of the likewise inevitable atonement of sin: He makes a remarkable comeback in the bullring, but is killed in the ring at the very height of his newly found glory.
On paper, this sounds like a perfectly entertaining melodrama, and it has all the trappings of a tempestuous epic, and the fact that it boasts a love triangle comprised of three of the most unfathomably good-looking people to ever walk this planet earth should be entertainment enough. But the fact is, for all it’s spectacle, Blood and Sand is far from spectacular: it’s all sparkle and no soul which makes it mildly engaging at best. Power is visibly passionate. Darnell is duly sensitive. Hayworth is, of course, a total knockout and she truly does scintillate whenever she’s on screen. All three leads were more than capable of delivering weighty performances–Power is fantastic in Witness for the Prosecution, Darnell’s scheming sex kitten in A Letter to Three Wives is top-notch, and of course Hayworth, well, she’s Gilda for heaven’s sake. But in this film, the three don’t quite connect with each other, let alone the audience. The strong supporting cast also tries, but even the great John Carradine (easily the best thing about the film) and Anthony Quinn (who seriously out-swaggers Power here) can’t change the fact that the bloated script slows the scenes to a trot, and Mamoulian appears far more interested in directing the light of shadow across the faces of his actors than in the actual actors. And while one can blame Mamoulian’s direction for the film’s static, spiritless lethargy, one must also praise Mamoulian as the man responsible for its visual prowess.
Queue the audio commentary.
Mamoulian is the director who brought grace and fluidity to the clumsy, self-conscious early talkies (his experience on Broadway married movement and dialogue) and he is also the director who applied a painterly psychology to the motifs in Hollywood’s first full-length Technicolor feature Becky Sharp. He was a filmmaker who excelled in stylized rhythm, harmony of form, and light, and these artistic sensibilities are in full force in Blood and Sand.
Mamoulian himself was hardly a fan of the story, but was aching to work with color again, and seemed more concerned with the emotional significance of color than with anything else, fashioning a “color script” which treated each scene as a moving painting. Darryl Zanuck gave Mamoulian free rein, and he collaborated with cinematographers Ernest Palmer and the great Ray Rennahan, who was also responsible for the exquisite color cinematography in such films as Drums Along the Mohawk, Down Argentine Way, as well as a little film called Gone with the Wind for which he won the Color Cinematography Academy Award.
Their goal was to “emulate the mood of the great Spanish painters,” as Mamoulian put it, and used palettes from Goya for the bullring, Velazquez for Rita Hayworth’s mansion, and El Greco for the chapel scenes. He was known to pace the stage equipped with a spray gun so that he could change the color of a prop at any given notice. Mamoulian also painted his physical actors in a literal sense. Tyrone Power’s naturally tawny complexion did not work within the El Greco blues and greens in some of the interior scenes, so Mamoulian applied gelatins to the lenses to cast his face in cooler tones. Hayworth was not yet a major star when she came on board as the temptress, and this was to be her first color film. When Mamoulian realized that her brown hair did not work within the color palette he’d scripted for her, he made her dye it copper red.
Hayworth’s hair would become her trademark, and it is ablaze on this flawless Blu-ray transfer from Fox, as are moments of visual splendor. As Power kneels to a crucifix before a battle, the deathly blueish glow of the Christ figure casts a ghostly pall over his face. Linda Darnell, veiled by draping black mourning, is a dramatic 17th century Velazquez portrait . Even a scene with Rita Hayworth serenading Power by guitar–in which she is embarrassingly dubbed– is still an impressive moment of movement, rhythm and color. Mamoulian’s shadows are long (the director had many of them painted, not lit), his fill lights are soft, his spectrum deep and sensuous.
None of this changes the fact that this adaptation of Ibáñez’s intense epic loses all trace of intimacy on film, nor that Blood and Sand is something of an air ball that really misses the net. But the Blu-ray is a slam dunk. Olé.
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