Maybe Woody Strode was getting his head polished that day, but I have no idea why Satchel Paige materializes in a cavalry sergeant’s uniform in the scenic but slightly dull The Wonderful Country. I’m just glad he does. Paige doesn’t get to demonstrate Long Tom, the two-hump blooper, or any of the other pitches that left Walter Johnson, Dizzy Dean and DiMaggio awestruck by his talent, but he’s in such fighting trim and sports such a rich, melodious voice that the man could’ve had a real movie career. As it is, this was his only feature credit when he wasn’t playing himself.
Also really good: Pedro Armendáriz’s seven-minute tour de force in the middle of We Were Strangers, a political thriller that John Huston turned out between Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle. The film’s a showcase for solid performances by everyone not named “Jennifer Jones”, but Armendáriz outshines them all with this fat, showy scene. Just roll forward to the 55:00 mark, and watch as Armendáriz, playing a Cuban policeman who enjoys toying with people, unexpectedly turns up at Jones’ house, where John Garfield and his revolutionary buddies are hiding in a back room. As his case of the hot-pants for Jones gets the best of him, the cop loses all self-possession: he gets drunk on rum and sucks down a plateful of crab-legs, all the while lecturing Jones on the evils of revolution and what a great guy he is, and he isn’t done until he’s hit every cardinal point on the emotional compass. The scene hits me as a strange instance of a top star taking backseat to a character actor (an ethnic one at that) for an extended period of time; heck, stars rarely had to sit out a scene so completely even for other stars. Armendáriz was also terrific in The Fugitive, John Ford’s overbaked adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, but not even Ford gave him a chance like this one. (Armendáriz was born in Mexico City, but he’s probably best remembered as the Turkish spymaster in From Russia, With Love.)