RSS

Monthly Archives: December 2008

Buchanan Rides Alone

Poster

When one thinks of the Boetticher/Scott films the image that generally springs to mind is that of a tough loner haunted by a past hurt and struggling to make his peace with the present. The drama is typically played out against a sparse backdrop with a small cast, among whom there is a woman who has a significant role. Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) dispenses with all these elements, and stands out as a unique entry in the series. It has a lighter, almost comedic tone, women barely figure, and Randolph Scott’s character has no back-story to speak of. For all these reasons I deliberately left it to the end of this short series of pieces on the recently released Ranown titles. I think that, for anyone planning to watch these movies as a group, it is probably better to save Buchanan Rides Alone for last. After the sombre, and sometimes tragic, mood of the other pictures it rounds things off in an upbeat fashion.

The movie derives from a story entitled The Name’s Buchanan, and the line is used by the hero (Randolph Scott) when he rides into a small border town on his way back to west Texas, having made his money fighting in the Mexican revolution. The town in question has effectively been sewn up by the three Agry brothers, who hold the positions of sheriff, hotel proprietor and judge respectively. The most powerful is the judge, Simon Agry (Tol Avery), although they’re all equally corrupt, grasping and manipulative. The killing of the judge’s son by a young and wealthy Mexican sees Buchanan wrongly accused of complicity, and he finds himself drawn into the machinations of the brothers who pragmatically view the family tragedy as a means of extorting a hefty ransom. What follows is a series of crosses and double-crosses as the members of the Agry clan jockey for position and try to gull each other out of said ransom. It is this greed and sibling rivalry, rather than any especially adept maneuvering on Buchanan’s part, that finally brings about their downfall during a botched prisoner exchange. Unlike Boetticher’s other westerns, the motivation for Scott’s character is not based on any grudge but merely on his efforts to secure the release of the Mexican and recover his own money.

Randolph Scott finds himself in yet another predicament 

Buchanan Rides Alone afforded Scott the opportunity to put in his most amiable performance of any of the Ranown series. There’s an element of self parody in the way he acknowledges his own ineptitude at being unable to formulate a coherent plan of action, and he even quips about his lack of progress when he ends up behind bars for a second time. The film is full of dry humour, courtesy of Charles Lang’s pithy script; some of the best coming when L Q Jones delivers a memorable eulogy over a body he’s just laid to rest atop a tree. The three Agry brothers are almost caricatures although Barry Kelley brings a more malevolent streak to his role as the profiteering sheriff. No Ranown western would be complete without a charming villain, and Craig Stevens supplies that ingredient as the black-clad enforcer with a stronger sense of honour than his reptilian employer. Boetticher uses a good combination of exteriors and interiors for this film and it works pretty well. The town has a more authentic feel and you don’t get that cheap, artificial look that weakens Decision at Sundown. Taylor Hackford points out on the accompanying featurette that the idea of a lone stranger riding into a corrupt town and presiding over the destruction of its rival factions could be seen as a kind of forerunner for A Fistful of Dollars. However, even granting that Leone was admittedly influenced by the style of Boetticher, I’m not sure I’d want to go too far down that road.

Well, that brings me to the end of this brief series, and I have to say that getting the chance to watch these films one on top of the other has been an enormous pleasure. I had seen them all at various points over the years, but watching them as a group allows one to better appreciate them as a body of work. The themes running through them seem to blend together, as Scott’s character evolved and Boetticher’s style became more apparent. They may have been B films in terms of budget, but they’re A films in terms of style and execution. Furthermore, they’re important films for those interested in the development of the western. In his book Horizons West (named after a Budd Boetticher movie, incidentally), Jim Kitses makes the point that the evolution of the western can be traced in a direct line from Ford and Mann, through Boetticher and Peckinpah, right up to Leone and Eastwood. That in itself should tell you that these films form an essential link. If anyone has been following these pieces and toying with the idea of picking up this set, then I can only say that you should do so; your western collection is incomplete without them.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on December 16, 2008 in 1950s, Budd Boetticher, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

Decision at Sundown

Poster

The Ranown westerns that I’ve looked at so far all made ample use of their Lone Pine locations and Burt Kennedy’s sublime scripting. Decision at Sundown (1957) is a bit of a departure in that those two ingredients are absent. In their place we get a tense town based tale from the pen of Charles Lang; as a result, it ranks lower than The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. However, even a lesser Ranown film is a cut above most movies and, despite some shortcomings, Decision at Sundown has much to recommend it.

Once again Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott offer up a story about revenge, but this one has an unexpected sting in the tail. Bart Allison (Scott) arrives in the town of Sundown with the aim of killing a man. The man in question is the local big shot Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), and it just happens to be his wedding day. Given a situation like this it’s hard not to be reminded of High Noon, but the roles appear to be reversed here. Before long Allison and his friend Sam (Noah Beery) find themselves holed up in the livery stable and under siege from Kimbrough’s cronies. As the day wears on, a whole series of developments forces the viewer to radically re-evaluate his assumptions. Gradually, it is revealed that nothing is quite as clear cut as would seem to be the case at the beginning of the picture. The result of this is the shifting of the viewer’s sympathy as Allison and Kimbrough, both now stripped of friends and allies, stride out to face one another at the climax. The film ultimately highlights the pointless and self-destructive nature of revenge, but it also has things to say about the consequences of apathy and the need for communities to face up to their collective responsibilities. By the end, everybody involved has learned some hard lessons and nothing can ever be the same again for them.

Scott plays a highly complicated man in this film, a far cry from the basically decent and honourable characters one expects from him. Essentially, he’s a hollow man whose only reason for existing is to settle the score for a wrong he feels was done to him. At the end of the movie, when his own folly finally dawns on him, he seems a slightly pathetic figure. As the dishevelled and bewildered man shambles off the screen it’s hard not to feel some pity for him. One suspects he has allowed his desire for a reckoning to consume him to the point that he no longer has a reason to go on; a sombre ending indeed. John Carroll is another of those personable villains that people Boetticher’s films. He may have strong-armed his way into a position of power, and held on to it ruthlessly, but there’s a lot to admire in the manner in which he swallows his own fear and doubts to finally face off man to man with Scott. The two female characters (Karen Steele and Valerie French) are of the typically gutsy variety favoured by the director, and Miss French gets to have a significant hand in the resolution of the story. Of the support players, Noah Beery and Ray Teal (who gets to play a good guy for a change) stand out, but there’s also some good work from Andrew Duggan as the amoral sheriff.

Something tells me Sergio Leone may have watched this movie a few times

Boetticher moves things along at a fair lick once again, with not a shot wasted. The setting lends a claustrophobic feel to the events on screen, but this is also one of the weaknesses of the picture. Location shooting was able to paper over the lack of cash available for the other Ranown productions whereas the reliance on interiors here tends to emphasise it. However, there are still plenty of Boetticher’s trademark shots on view, such as the screencap above. Knowing that Sergio Leone voiced his admiration for the Ranown films, it’s easy to see where he got the inspiration for some of his own set-ups. While Charles Lang’s script offers an interesting alternative take on the usual Scott persona I feel that it still comes out second best compared to Burt Kennedy’s efforts, perhaps because it lacks the latter’s memorable dialogue.

Decision at Sundown is yet another excellent presentation on DVD from Sony. There’s no commentary track on this disc, but there is the usual short featurette on the film. Although it only runs for around six minutes, Taylor Hackford manages to provide a few interesting observations. So, even if the movie is a touch below the standard set by some of the other Ranown titles it’s still a fine piece of work. Seeing Scott in anti-heroic mode should be enough of a recommendation on its own.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on December 14, 2008 in 1950s, Budd Boetticher, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

Ride Lonesome

Poster

A man needs a reason to ride this country…

In Ride Lonesome (1959) the reasons are vengeance, bounty and amnesty. The penultimate Ranown western serves up all three but the focus remains firmly on the first. The notion of a lone man driven on by the pain of a past trauma is a recurring theme in Boetticher’s westerns, and is explored in depth in Ride Lonesome. Of the seven films Boetticher and star Randolph Scott made together, I would say this is the best; the plot, dialogue, imagery and performances all mesh to perfection. Nothing is wasted in this picture, where every shot, every gesture and every word is loaded with significance.

The viewer is immediately pitched into the action from the opening shot of the starkly familiar rocky landscape of Lone Pine, and the tension and pace never let up until the final credits roll. Ben Brigade (Scott) is introduced as a lone bounty hunter, and within minutes of appearing on screen has captured a young outlaw. Moving on to the nearest stagecoach swing station, with the outlaw’s brother in pursuit, he finds himself in another dangerous situation. The only occupants are the station master’s wife (Karen Steele) and two wanted men, Boone and Whit (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn), looking to find a way out of their current situation. Turning in the young prisoner would allow them to take advantage of an offer of amnesty, but that also necessitates their disposing of Brigade. The lone hero now finds himself part of an uneasy group and facing threats from three fronts; his new companions, the chasing pack of outlaws and a rampaging Mescalero war party. As the story progresses it becomes apparent that Brigade’s determination to see his captive to Santa Cruz, and an appointment with the hangman, is only part of his motivation. It’s fairly clear that the boy is merely the bait with which Brigade hopes to hook a bigger and more personal catch, although the exact reason for this isn’t revealed until the climax. In these moments, as Brigade stands and gazes impassively at the twisted hanging tree, the full power of the tale strikes home. The cold, unemotional hunter of men is no longer just a bounty killer but a figure lifted straight from classical tragedy.

Randolph Scott consigning the past to flames

Ride Lonesome offered Scott one of his harshest characters in Ben Brigade. There’s very little humour on display and even in those moments when he shows some modicum of tenderness towards Karen Steele it’s of the gruff and brusque variety. However, this is absolutely in keeping with a man who’s carrying around deep scars. Burt Kennedy supplied him with his finest, most distinctive dialogue and Scott delivers it in a suitably terse fashion. Pernell Roberts and James Coburn (in his screen debut) are excellent as the bad men who aren’t all bad – the real villain of the piece is Lee Van Cleef, and the only complaint that could be made about him is that he gets so little screen time. Karen Steele looks good and plays the typically tough and stoical Boetticher heroine whose only moment of weakness comes when she learns the fate of her missing husband. This was the director’s first film in cinemascope and he employs the wide lens to great effect. The action takes place exclusively outdoors and once again highlights Boetticher’s gift for disguising the limited budget he had to work with. There’s a Fordian quality to the tiny figures dwarfed by an expansive landscape which mirrors the scripts nods to the old master. Isn’t there something vaguely familiar about that story of the embittered, driven man on a vengeful quest only to find himself alone and apart from society at its end? There’s also a degree of religious symbolism in the climactic scenes with Scott standing before the hanging tree which resembles a crude cross. It’s as though he has borne his own cross for years and now returns to his personal Golgotha to lay the past to rest before the final cathartic act of burning the tree.

Ride Lonesome is another strong DVD transfer by Sony. Like the other titles in the Films of Budd Boetticher set, the colours are strong and true, and the picture looks suitably filmic. There  is a commentary track provided, and another of those short featurettes with Martin Scorsese. As I said earlier, I think this is the best of the lot – Boetticher’s finest film, and a real treat for western fans.

 
 

The Tall T

Poster

Some things a man can’t ride around…

The first official entry in the Budd Boetticher / Ranown cycle of westerns is The Tall T (1957). The story here was adapted by Burt Kennedy from an Elmore Leonard short story called The Captives. That makes for an impressive set of credits and, in truth, the end result is a near perfect film. Once again Boetticher and Kennedy boil the western down to its absolute essentials, and the bulk of the action involves just five people and how they all relate to one another. Everything from location and plot to dialogue is pared right down and the film is all the better for that. What is left is a raw and visceral western with a strong moral current running through it and characters who we actually care about.

For a film with a short running time – under 80 minutes – it’s really a story with two distinct parts. The opening section introduces the character of Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott), a happy-go-lucky type in the process of building up his newly acquired ranch. He comes across as a gently charming sort who stops off on his way to town to pass the time of day with the local stationmaster and his young son. He even takes the time in town to pick up some candy for the boy as he had promised to do. When he visits his former employer, and loses his horse in an ill-judged wager, you start to wonder how such a hapless innocent could survive in a harsh environment. It is from this point on though that the depth of Brennan’s character begins to become apparent. Hitching a ride on a private stagecoach, hired for the honeymoon of Mrs. Mimms (Maureen O’Sullivan) and her gold-digging chiseller of a husband, he stops off to deliver the candy to the stationmaster’s boy. The station has been taken over by outlaw Frank (Richard Boone) and his two sidekicks (Henry Silva and Skip Homeier) with the aim of holding up the regular stage. Faced with the horror of what has just taken place, and the likely fate awaiting him and the other hostages, the character of Brennan undergoes a sea change. Almost immediately the easy-going ex-ramrod is transformed into a cool, calculating avenger who knows he must now play for time while waiting for the opportunity save himself and the woman. It’s a credit to all involved that this transition appears so natural as to be nearly seamless.

Turning point - Randolph Scott & Richard Boone

Scott’s flinty features once again blend in with the bleak Lone Pine locations which dominate the picture. The character shift I mentioned is magnificently achieved in the scene where the fate of the stationmaster and his boy is revealed in cold, matter-of-fact fashion by Henry Silva. Scott’s face hardens almost imperceptibly yet the meaning is all too clear. This kind of thing makes for great screen acting and the lead was a pastmaster in the art of underplayed emotion. Richard Boone was always interesting to watch, and in Frank he gives a fascinating performance as the outlaw you want to sympathise with. When he dispatches Mrs. Mimm’s husband, whose craven character offends his own personal morality, it’s difficult not to feel some grudging admiration. The two subsidiary villains are of less interest, but Silva manages to tap into a vaguely detached psychosis that works very well. Maureen O’Sullivan has an unglamorous role which offers her the chance to play something which is a cut above the standard damsel in distress. The fact that we get such well rounded characters in a short run time speaks volumes about the writing skills of Burt Kennedy. Boetticher again excels at making a cheaply produced picture look far more expensive. The framing and camera placement are miles away from the usual point and shoot style employed in low budget fare; this man had a real flair for the quirky and the unexpected. His handling of the action scenes is again exemplary, and they have both a frankly brutal quality and an odd humanity that make them stand out from other pictures of this vintage. There’s something deeply satisfying about Randolph Scott turning to the sobbing woman at his side, after the violent climax, and quietly intoning: Come on now, it’s gonna be a nice day.

Sony’s presentation of The Tall T on DVD is another excellent one. Some may carp at the amount of grain on view but I don’t regard that as a bad thing. The anamorphic widescreen picture is bright and colorful throughout. The disc also carries a short featurette with Martin Scorsese praising the film. Best of all, there’s the feature length documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That. So, we get a great movie which is presented with care and respect – what more could you ask for.

 
 

Comanche Station

Poster

Lean and spare are the words often used to describe the westerns of Budd Boetticher and I won’t argue with that. Of course, budgetry constraints were generally the reason for the minimalist approach but Boetticher was masterful at disguising that fact. Burt Kennedy’s drum tight scripting and Boetticher’s control of the camera mean that you never stop to think that what’s on the screen was originally shot as a B picture. Between 1956 and 1960 the director made seven westerns with star Randolph Scott, all but the first produced by Scott’s Ranown. Shooting for the most part around Lone Pine gave these films a distinctive look and feel in much the same way that Monument Valley defined the westerns of Ford. Comanche Station (1960) was their last collaboration and Scott’s penultimate movie.

The plot is quite simple really, and that’s generally the strength of all the Ranown westerns; there’s no excess baggage, and the viewer only sees and hears what is absolutely necessary. Cody (Scott) is a lonely man, a former soldier, who has spent years wandering the west in search of his abducted wife. Whenever he hears a rumour of a white captive he sets off with a mule loaded with trade goods hoping that this time his quest may end. It is said that he’s rescued countless captives but it’s never the right one for Cody. This time will be no different. He trades with the Comanche for the freedom of one Mrs. Lowe (Nancy Gates) and aims to see her safely back to her husband. However, before he can do so, three men turn up and throw a spanner in the works. Lane, Frank and Dobie (Claude Akins, Skip Homeier and Richard Rust) are running from the Comanche, and Cody suspects it’s because they’re scalphunters. Cody’s distrust of Lane dates back to their years in the army, when he had the latter court-martialed for his role in an Indian massacre. It turns out that Mrs. Lowe’s husband has offered a $5000 reward for her return, dead or alive. While the viewer is immediately aware that Cody knew nothing of this, no-one else believes it. The challenge now is for him to save his own skin and that of the woman from both the Comanche and his new companions. As the story progresses it becomes very obvious where the greatest threat lies.

Randolph Scott - the hardbitten gentleman 

Randolph Scott’s lean and craggy appearance compliments both the landscape and Boetticher’s sparse morality tale. He looks every inch the laconic westerner who’s spent years scouring the scorched, barren land with only his pain and loss for company. The older he got the more adept he became at conveying a kind of buttoned-up emotion combined with an iron sense of personal honour. He was the first actor to draw me to the western as a child, and now I’m more convinced than ever that he may have been the greatest cowboy, surpassing even Wayne and Cooper. In fact all five actors in this film play off each other perfectly, and much of that comes down to the writing of Burt Kennedy. Everyone gets something to get their teeth into and it’s difficult not to feel even some sympathy for all of them. None of the villains in Boetticher’s westerns were ever one dimensional and Kennedy always managed to provide them with enough backstory or characteristic dialogue to keep the viewer interested. Boetticher does a fine job of moving his camera around to offer some unexpected shots and angles, and his use of the wide screen makes what is essentially a small picture look very big indeed.

After what seems like an eternity of waiting, Sony have finally released the five Ranown westerns in their possession onto DVD as The Films of Budd Boetticher. All the films come on their own discs and Comanche Station looks just wonderful. Like the other titles in the set, it boasts a healthy amount of film grain and sports a fine anamorphic transfer with good, strong colour. The disc also carries a short featurette with Clint Eastwood offering a few thoughts on the movie. Sony have done a bang up job with this set – I have no hesitation in saying it’s the release of the year for me.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 1, 2008 in 1960s, Budd Boetticher, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 513 other followers