Home Video Hovel: El Paso, by David Bax
Before watching Lewis R. Foster’s 1949 Western El Paso, I probably couldn’t have described to you, off the top of my head, what Cinecolor was. But within a few seconds of the opening scene, I could have told you confidently that it was a two-color process. Even before the movie heads out to the dusty west, the teal and orange palette is unmistakable. Well after the two-strip heyday, Westerns still found use for it, given the genre’s dearth of verdant foliage and the process’s inability to render a natural shade of green.
In this case, it’s John Payne galloping under the big turquoise sky as Clay Fletcher, a lawyer and war veteran who heads to Texas on business and is appalled at the lawlessness he finds there. El Paso‘s big question–driven home with a sledgehammer in scene after scene–is whether Clay will stand by his principles or become corrupted by disorder.
In describing Clay as a veteran, there’s one thing I’m leaving out. El Paso takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and Clay fought for the Confederates. The so-called civilized society he’s leaving behind in Charleston was one that had seceded from the union and gone to war to preserve the practice of slavery. The fact that El Paso makes no mention of this is exactly the sort of thing that needed revising when the revisionist Westerns came along a couple of decades later.
It isn’t slavery that is a threat to Clay’s moral character but a greedy and murderous land developer named Bert Donner (Sterling Hayden), who runs the town–not to mention the sheriff and his deputies–like he was the mayor. Clay’s descent into dubious enforcement of the law starts fun, with a lively montage of him learning to draw and shoot his pistols with speed. But it soon devolves into one miniature Ox-Bow Incident after another. Finally, it crescendoes in a legitimately suspenseful shootout with no accompaniment on the soundtrack save for howling winds and gunfire. El Paso is inconsistent, to say the least, but it ultimately puts its two colors and Clay’s two guns to good use.
Kino’s new transfer comes from a 4K scan of the negative and the color separates. The use of multiple elements is obvious as some reels have more scratches than others and there’s sporadic but significant color breathing. The sound, though, is good and clear.
Special features include a commentary by film historian Toby Roan.