Based on a western short story from the great Elmore Leonard, Valdez is Coming takes place in a small town on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Wealthy Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher, who later played Chief Fletcher Daniels on Hill Street Blues) claims that he’s spotted the man who murdered a friend of his. Tanner and his gunmen have the man and his wife pinned down in a cabin. The man is African-American while his wife is Native American and Tanner’s use of racial slurs quickly confirms that there’s more to his animosity towards the couple than just a desire to see justice done for his dead friend.
Because the sheriff is out of town, Mexican constable Bob Valdez (Burt Lancaster) is summoned to the scene of the stand-off. Saying that he needs to see proof that the man is who Tanner claims he is, Valdez goes down to the cabin and manages to calm the man and his wife down. However, one of Tanner’s gunmen, R.L. Davis (Richard Jordan), opens fire on the cabin while Valdez is talking. Thinking that he’s been betrayed, the man opens fire on Valdez and Valdez is forced to kill the man in self-defense.
Feeling guilty about the man’s death (and also suspecting that the man was innocent of the crimes for which Tanner accused him), Valdez starts a collection for the dead man’s widow. When he asks Tanner to donate $100, Tanner responds by having Valdez tied to a wooden cross (symbolism alert!) and sent into the desert. Valdez nearly dies before he’s set free by a conscience-stricken Davis.
Still determined to get justice for the man that he killed, Valdez sets out after Tanner and his men. Valdez kidnaps Tanner’s young bride, Gay Erin (Susan Clark), and lets Tanner know that he can either pay the $100 or he can die like a coward.
An American attempt to capture the feel of a Spaghetti western, Valdez is Coming has an interesting plot. I liked the fact that, even after nearly being crucified, Valdez was still more concerned with making Tanner pay his fair share and getting justice for the people Tanner had hurt than with getting any sort of personal revenge. The supporting characters also have more depth than is typical for a film like this. Gay Erin is not as innocent as she first appears to be and R.L. Davis may work for Tanner but he’s still has enough personal integrity not to leave Valdez to die in the desert.
Unfortunately, the movie itself is slow and ponderous. A big problem is that Burt Lancaster is miscast as Bob Valdez. Valdez is a Mexican constable who has served in the U.S. Calvary. Because he’s Mexican, the man in the shed is willing to briefly trust him. Tanner continually underestimates and refuses to negotiate with Valdez because Valdez is a quiet and reserved Mexican. Almost everything that happens in the film is in some way connected to Tanner’s refusal to negotiate with Valdez because Vadez is a Mexican. Burt Lancaster is in absolutely no way Mexican and the unfortunate decision to have him wear brownface makeup only serves as a reminder of how miscast he is in the lead role. The movie also concludes with the type of ambiguous ending that was very popular in the 70s but which is frustrating to watch today. After 90 minutes of Valdez demanding that Tanner either die like a coward or pay $100, it’s frustrating that the film leaves it as an open question as to what eventually happened.
Valdez is Coming had the potential to be a western classic but it was done in by miscasting and questionable directing. It’ll best be appreciated by western completists.