Apache Drums. 1951. USA. Directed by Hugo Fregonese. 75 min.
Screenplay by David Chandler. With Stephen McNally, Coleen Gray, Willard Parker, Clarence Muse. “An unknown masterpiece” (Bertrand Tavernier). Technicolor was prohibitively expensive for the Poverty Row studios, but producer Val Lewton and director Hugo Fregonese, working on a skeletal budget for Universal Pictures, managed to turn dross into gold with this taut and tense Western. In 1880, a dissolute gambler has been run out of Spanish Boot, a booming Welsh frontier mining town, but after stumbling on a stagecoach full of slaughtered dance-hall girls, he must warn the townsfolk of an imminent Mescalero Apache attack. Fregonese and Lewton (who died at 46 shortly before the film’s release) pull few punches in depicting the white man’s bigotry toward the Apaches—a preacher fans the flames of hatred—while also depicting the Indian tribe as a spectral terror whose unseen presence is felt in ominous, urgent drumbeats, much like Lewton’s Body Snatchers and Cat People. The film culminates in an ambush on the town church—rivaling John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 11 in its gripping claustrophobia—and cinematographer Charles P. Boyle uses pools of iridescent color for heightened dramatic effect in the shadowy candlelit interiors. Fregonese’s The Raid screens later this exhibition, on June 17 and 23. 35mm print from George Eastman House; courtesy NBC Universal.