I want to take a time-out from my focus on erotica to briefly discuss a movie I saw on the channel Get TV, a 1931 Columbia B-western called Desert Vengeance, starring one of the top cowboy stars of the 20s, 30s, and early 40s, Buck Jones. It was written by Stuart Anthony, produced by Harry Cohn, and directed by Louis King.
Actually, film criticism is something I’ve done throughout my porn career. (My other favorite genres include noir, westerns, 1950s melodramas, sci-fi and monsters, gangster pictures, and sword-and-sandal movies.) Although I started out professionally doing short essays about vintage and current mainstream movies, having studied film history and production in college, when I began writing for porn magazines in the mid-1970s I turned my understanding of cinema to the hardcore genre.
Obviously I had to primarily critique porn for its ability to stimulate, but I also looked for and noted qualities of craftsmanship and skill just as I would in other kinds of movies. For example, I once wrote a piece about how the early 80s porn star Veronica Hart was in some ways the “auteur” of her films just as James Cagney was the “auteur” of the films he starred in. I thought the concept of the “star as auteur” was just as applicable to Hart as it was to Cagney.
Anyway, if you plan on seeing Desert Vengeance, read the rest of this blog post afterward.
What I was struck by in this movie is how two people, played by Buck Jones and Barbara Bedford, pretend to be things they’re not–a “nice” girl and a mining mogul–and end up in a tragedy that seems simultaneously like a Biblical parable (vengeance belongs to the Lord, not us) and an existential fable (we make our own beds and then we have to lay in ’em).
When Buck–who’s really an outlaw (though a lonely one who sincerely craves love)–discovers that Barbara is a con woman bilking him of his money, he goes against that Biblical admonition about revenge. He is going to get even. Barbara and her male accomplice Hugh are not aware that Buck is onto their game, so after the initial scenes in San Francisco, Buck tricks Barbara and Hugh (played by Douglas Gilmore, who seems like a seedier version of Ray Milland) to come out to his desert hideaway to punish them. Buck and Barbara’s relationship has been based on dishonest roleplaying and when it gets down to reality in the desert setting, they see each other more clearly, closer to what they really are. Things turn bleak and painful.
The movie–which, by the way, has its share of shootouts and fisticuffs–doesn’t sugar coat its moral that if you act badly, you may well end up paying for it; but it concludes with a wordless, tender scene between Buck and Barbara that promises not necessarily escape from punishment for their sins, but at least the hopefulness of a sustaining love. After much suffering between them, this scene is unexpectedly moving.
Mostly set Buck’s hideout, an abandoned town called “Skyfields” that has a dingy saloon, a church, and just rooms to sleep in, Desert Vengeance seems to take place in a symbolic wasteland of souls as parched for human kindness as the desert would make them parched for water.
But when Barbara consoles Buck in the church at the end, after all is lost, we get a scene of a bad man embraced by a tawdry but loving woman which has a redemptive punch equal to the moment when floozy Gladys George holds gangster James Cagney in her arms at the end of 1939’s The Roaring Twenties.
Barbara discovers that Buck still loves her, despite his vengefulness.
I highly recommend seeing this unusual and undeservedly obscure western. And I’ve already set my DVR for more Buck Jones movies on Get TV.