Cinema: Burt Force

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Bob Valdez is a Mexican constable who matches his shield: battered and tarnished. The decades of self-deprecation seem a fair resume of his character. Yet when a gunrunner humiliates him to the limits of dignity, the deputy discovers the force that has been dormant in his shield and himself. He announces a vendetta with a terse message—"Valdez is coming"—and the shabby film ignites as he begins a journey to prove himself to himself. Why? Because Valdez is played by Burt Lancaster, 57, who owns a property not available to the Now generation of film actors: a face.

Can it be only the day before yesterday that Lancaster's ivory grin and simian grace made him a star? No, it was 1947, the year of Burt Force with Brute Lancaster. Or was it Brute Force with Burt Lancaster? Hood and hero, buccaneer and intellectual, Lancaster played them all, sometimes simultaneously. His characterizations were usually as delicate as his incisors, but in such films as Birdman of Alcatraz and Elmer Gantry he was restrained and acute.

Valdei Is Coming offers little besides its star. Continual editorials about racism give the film contrived relevance. Edwin Sherin's direction may best be described as functional: the members of the cast do not bump into each other. Still, the late Frank Silvera provides a poignant closeup of a peasant with aristocratic sensibility. The rest of the hard-nosed crew are sufficiently malignant to villainize five spaghetti westerns.

Valdez Is Coming, shot overseas, technically belongs in that category. But with the aging, raging constable, it deserves a better label. Call it a Burt Lancaster picture: that says it all. Stefan Kanfer