Our last Friday With Yvonne De Carlo sees her starring in her most passionate project yet, entitled…..Passion! As with Frontier Gal (1945), De Carlo’s films placed generic plots in convenient genres demanding specific plot paths with the finished product feeling surprisingly fresh by emphasizing narrative over setting. Unfortunately, the plots are never executed nearly as well as they should be, but where else but a De Carlo film would you find a feature that plays like the Death Wish series in the old West?
Juan Obregon (Cornel Wilde) returns home to find his lady love, Rosa (De Carlo) has born his child. Prepared to do right by her, his lady is viciously murdered by Don Domingo (Richard Hale). Desperate to avenge his wife and child, Obregon teams up with Rosa’s twin sister, Tonia (also De Carlo) for some good, old-fashioned revenge.
Passion is a Taco Bell Western, in that, like most Westerns of the time period it’s a lot of white people with Spanish names dropping the occasional “hacienda” – you gotta “hah” when you say it – or speaking in weird pigin Spanish. This isn’t one of the most heinous offenders of the Spanish language I’ve watched, but you’ll smile every time you’re supposed to believe Cornel Wilde is a Mexican.
I’ve yet to understand Cornel Wilde’s appeal. A take on more dynamic performers like Tyrone Power, Wilde lacks the enthusiasm that made Power such a fun performer to watch. Like the last time I saw Wilde in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Juan Obregon’s so wooden which doesn’t work for a character fueled by vengeance. He learns about the “heifer”who wears “your brand” – a lovely way to describe one’s girlfriend and child – with all the appreciation of someone daydreaming, failing to muster up any chemistry with De Carlo, either as Rosa or Tonia, and in certain shots you can see Wilde’s wedding band. (That last part isn’t a knock against his acting, just an observation.)
Like many of these B-movie programmers Passion handily moves between serious drama and staunch action, with emphasis on the latter than the former. Rosa and the baby are set up as lovely statues waiting for the wrecking ball to come through – in this case, Don Domingo with his “no witness” line straight out of Death Wish (1974). Bound more by DNA than anything passing for love (or passion), Juan sets off to avenge them. Honestly, Tonia’s motivations are far clearer than Juan’s.
Since the film starts in medias res – as with Frontier Gal, the hero learns of a child years later – characters impart the information to Juan and the family’s inherent existence should sufficiently motivate. But since Wilde’s acting leaves a lot to be desired, you’d assume he’d act this way towards anyone wrongfully gunned down, and, seriously, the entire town, not just Juan and Tonia, should want to bring these murderers to justice. Speaking of, Raymond Burr plays Captain Rodriguez, a local sheriff hunting down Juan for killing the men who killed his family – wonder if the creators of The Fugitive (1963) watched this? Rodriguez’s motivations are as dubiously written as Juan’s. There’s no proper explanation for why the real murderers aren’t arrested, short of needing to sustain the film’s runtime and mentioning Tonia’s recognition of one of their voices isn’t enough. And, when the hunt adds in Rodriguez, he doesn’t bring the real killers in as absolve Juan for his misdeeds.
Story-telling logic in these movies is a moot point that Passion amends through expressive cinematography and one of De Carlo’s more unique characters. The last four weeks have given us De Carlo in two roles: saloon girl and femme fatale (who visits saloons). De Carlo failed to live up to the promise of her looks, or Hollywood wouldn’t allow her the chance. Playing dual roles she inhabits her role as the beautiful clotheshorse we saw in Salome, Where She Danced (1945), and shrugs off those roles like a dirty coat by playing Tonia.
Her close-cropped hair and dungarees give us a woman you’ll do a double-take on, if only to make sure it’s still De Carlo. Like most Westerns, or any movie with a tomboy, Juan chuckles when Tonia considers herself a lady. I mean, are you kidding me, she’s wearing pants! What’s sad is how ineffective Tonia is. Possibly out of fear that no one would believe De Carlo capable, Tonia’s relegated to horse-back riding and being letched on by drooling brigands. Despite Rosa being her twin sister, and the child her nephew, Tonia’s never given the catharsis she seeks. As the man, Juan’s the only one allowed to go out and seek revenge, both proof of Hollywood’s patriarchy and the vaunted position of men in the Western genre. Tonia is superfluous and her coming along with Juan is seen as a hindrance.
It’s a shame that De Carlo’s movie career saw her defined as victim or villain, beautiful in either regard. Tonia’s, by far, the role giving her the most agency, but the Western genre pens her in like a sheep. Immortalized as Lily Munster on television, De Carlo found her niche as the beautiful matriarch of a house of (comedic) horrors. A far cry from where she started!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.