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NMSU instructor’s grant will preserve, expand southern New Mexico film culture


Orville Wanzer is best known for his genre-bending western “The Devil’s Mistress” (1965), the first feature film made in the Las Cruces area.

Arriving in New Mexico in 1959 to teach English at NMSU, Wanzer brought his robust knowledge of film culture from his hometown of Brooklyn, New York, along with his experience as a projector in the U.S. Navy and a brief stint in Hollywood before he became a professor.

Soon after he arrived in Las Cruces and inspired by the desert landscape, Wanzer set to making movies, and forming a film society sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Soon he was developing a film program for the newly formed journalism department at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which became New Mexico State University in 1960.

By the end of the 1960s, Wanzer had established a film program that included filmmaking and film studies, and was working on his second feature length film.

Weeks before his passing in February 2019, I filmed a series of interviews with Wanzer, having learned of his archive at NMSU and seeing his works at the Institute of Historical Survey Foundation (IHSF) in Mesilla Park.

In collaboration with these archives, along with interviews with his family, friends and former students, I discovered that Wanzer was instrumental in growing an independent film scene in southern New Mexico through various foreign-film series, special screenings and student mentoring. Over the last two years, I have been working to digitize and curate the Wanzer collections at these archives, especially his 16- and 35-mm films housed at NMSU, and his photographic slides at IHSF. 

Last year, I was awarded the New Mexico Historical Records Advisory Board grant from the New Mexico History State Records Center and Archives with IHSF for my proposed “Orville Wanzer Digitization Project.”

Set for completion this summer, this project is focused on digitizing Wanzer’s photographic slides at IHSF for open access viewing, and determining the contents of a rare distribution copy of “The Devil’s Mistress.”

Upon completion, this grant will have increased the Wanzer archives’ accessibility to researchers and the public. This project expands the Wanzer Archive, adding to the historically rich culture of filmmaking, film study and visual arts in southern New Mexico.

A significant accomplishment of the grant has been the discovery of a rare distribution copy of “The Devil's Mistress” on a 35-mm film reel. Donated by Teddy Gregory (one of the last surviving cast members of the film), the reel had been buried in his backyard shed for the last 40 years. According to Gregory, my interest in the film inspired him to excavate this hidden treasure. This once endangered artifact is now safely housed at NMSU special collections with the assistance of Dennis Daily, who is department head of NMSU Archives and Special Collections at the NMSU Library.

The bulk of the grant work has been to digitize 500 of Wanzer’s photographic slides at IHSF. John Freyermuth, former library specialist at NMSU, provided subject descriptions for each photographic slide prior to digitization, including common and scientific names of plant life and locations of New Mexico scenery. A curated selection of these spectacular images is now available for open-access viewing through the New Mexico Digital Collections online digital archive at nmdc.unm.edu.

For more information about this project, contact the Institute of Historical Survey Foundation or contact Smith via her film page inspired by Wanzer’s life and work, “Birth of the Acid Western.” 

Information: Julia Smith at (575) 680-0578 and julia.louisa.1@gmail.com.

Orville Wanzer