Virginia City (Michael Curtiz, 1940)
I have come to know that anytime Michael Curtiz directed a film, for the most part I'm sure, I should watch it. I have come to know that any time Errol Flynn starred in a film, for the most part I'm sure, I should watch it. The same can be said of a few of the other co-stars in Virginia City, most notably Humphrey Bogart and Randolph Scott. There is no doubt about it, the filmmaking team for Virginia City is a huge draw, and I was not disappointed by any of them. As I mentioned at the conclusion of my review of Dodge City, Virginia City seems like a natural sequel to that film, also from Curtiz and Flynn, but it is not. Instead, what we get with Virginia City is a thrilling original film built around a really strong concept for a western.
Kerry Bradford (Errol Flynn) is a Union officer imprisoned at notorious Confederate Libby Prison, run by Vance Irby (Randolph Scott). After he and his prisonmates orchestrate an escape, Bradford returns to Union lines, only to be sent on a mission to Virginia City, Nevada to investigate a possible windfall of money from Southern sympathizers to the Confederates. On the way, Bradford falls for Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins), an entertainer in Virginia City, and also the Confederate spy who suggested raiding the rich Comstock Lode near Virginia City to aid the Confederacy. Bradford also has an encounter with notorious bandito John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart), only narrowly escaping. Once in Virginia City, Bradford must contend with a familiar face, Irby, the bandito Murrell, and the woman he is falling for, Julia, all before the South attempts to rise again with its new source of income.
For my money, this is the best performance from Errol Flynn that I have seen (I must admit, I have only seen a handful). He feels so genuine and truly invested into his character, which only makes his charisma and heroism pop off the screen even more. To be certain, he is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, all of whom also give very good performances. Randolph Scott as Flynn's rival works perfectly. The two play off each other quite well, especially within the love triangle with Miriam Hopkins. There are some thrilling sequences in this film, and some really great ideas. Curtiz' camerawork is quite good, especially during the daring stagecoach robbery scene, undoubtedly inspired by John Ford's Stagecoach.
The first half of this film is truly great, engaging cinema, with full bodied characters and true, riveting stakes. But for some reason, it seems to lose its way a little bit in the second half. Once the film turns its head away from the Civil War spy games at play in a Western setting, and the film becomes more of a chase, with Bradford attempting to catch up with Irby, who is getting away with the gold, it is far less exciting and interesting. It comes with the story of it all, but it lacks in execution, with the stakes and energy seeming to fall somewhat flat in the latter portions of the film. Flynn and Scott are still giving riveting performances, but it feels as though all of the air has been sucked out of the film.
Maybe the mastery of the first half of the film overshadows the rather bland and standard second half, giving the film no chance to sustain the type of intrigue and sense of fun spy games as the first half. But ultimately, the first half of the film feels almost too perfect to not consider this a very good, entertaining foray into the western genre for these two common collaborators (Curtiz and Flynn). It is a strong script, setting up all the twists, turns, characters and relationships. And it is definitely a film I would recommend for fans of Flynn or westerns. I would like to revisit it someday if only to enjoy the first half of the film again, really top notch filmmaking and among my favorite time spent in this marathon thus far. It's really just too bad it couldn't sustain it to become one of the truly memorable westerns of all-time.*** - Very Good