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Westbound

22 Jan

In the past I’ve looked at six of the seven westerns Budd Boetticher made in collaboration with Randolph Scott. Somewhat belatedly, I now turn my attention to the one remaining title. Of this little group of films, Westbound (1958) is the least significant. Taken on its own merits and judged as a stand alone movie, it’s actually not a bad little picture. However, what I’ve just suggested is a large part of the problem; the Scott/Boetticher films are so interconnected and so influential that it’s very difficult to weigh them up in isolation. I’m not saying that they should be viewed as essentially one film – although others have certainly put forward that theory – yet there is a thematic pattern running through them. They all share certain identifiable characteristics that mark them out as clearly being the work of Scott and Boetticher in tandem, all but Westbound that is. There’s nothing in the movie that bears the hallmark of this important cinematic partnership. What I mean is that the film might just as well be any one of the westerns that Randolph Scott made throughout the 50s with other directors. Now that in itself isn’t an especially bad thing, but it does result in a weaker effort when viewed in context.

John Hayes (Randolph Scott) is a captain serving in the Union army during the Civil War who finds himself pulled off active duty to undertake a different kind of task. His pre-war business was running a stage line and, with the North needing to ensure the smooth transfer of gold from California to bolster the war effort, he is asked to resume his old trade. This necessitates moving west to Colorado and taking over his old operation. However, on arrival, he discovers that his former associate Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) has shut up shop and is unwilling to offer any assistance. Putnam’s reluctance, and barely veiled hostility, stems from two factors: he’s a Confederate sympathizer, and he has married Hayes’ old sweetheart Norma (Virginia Mayo). Throw the involvement of a wounded vet and his wife (Michael Dante & Karen Steele) into the central conflict between Hayes and Putnam, and there’s the plot of Westbound in a nutshell. It’s a brisk, no-nonsense affair that entertains as it goes along, yet something is missing. For me, that something is the personal element, the vital ingredient that underpinned all the other Scott/Boetticher pictures. The whole patriotic angle is far too remote and impersonal to really grab you, and the possibility of emphasising the love of both Hayes and Putnam for Norma is glossed over and underplayed if anything. As the story progresses, the ruthlessness of Putnam, and his chief henchman (Michael Pate), does add a little dash to Hayes’ motives, but the truth is it’s too little and comes too late. The result of all this is a film that feels somewhat shallow and disposable in comparison to the director and star’s other works. As such, we get a piece of passable entertainment, but that’s all that can be said.

For Boetticher, Westbound was really nothing more than a matter of fulfilling a contract. If the storyline has a blandness that sets it apart from his best films, it’s not helped by being shot away from his trademark Lone Pine locations and featuring far too many interiors – never one of his strengths. Having said all that, he does turn in a professional and polished pice of work, and the action scenes have a style to them; the best is arguably the raid on the villains hideout as the climactic shootout, though excitingly staged, is marred by having the conscience-stricken townsfolk join in. Randolph Scott’s performance has the kind of affability that often characterized his western roles. That’s not meant as a criticism of the actor at all, I could happily spend days on end watching his movies, but it does evoke memories of some of his more run of the mill movies as opposed to the depth of feeling associated with his Ranown roles. Virginia Mayo was an actress that, on occasion, was handed underwritten parts. That’s not exactly the problem here, but the script does sell her character a little short by not allowing her to have sufficient impact on events. Despite being billed lower, Karen Steele is much more effective as the tough wife of a disabled soldier – the scene where she delivers a full on punch in the face to one of her husband’s tormentors is one of the most memorable in the whole film. In a sense, Steele was the ideal Boetticher heroine – a beguiling mix of gutsy allure. The casting of the villains highlights another area where this movie underperforms in context. Andrew Duggan was competent enough but there’s no sense of his being any match for Scott when the chips are down. And Michael Pate, despite nailing the mean and heartless aspect, has none of the ambiguous charm that Lee Marvin, Richard Boone or Claude Akins brought to their parts.

Having long sworn that I wouldn’t buy into the whole MOD business, I finally caved and bought a number of titles late last year when Barnes & Noble ran a sale on Warner Archive titles. I’ve since heard that Westbound has been released in Spain, but I haven’t seen it listed by any of the usual online outlets. The Archive disc is a real barebones DVD-R, no proper menu and chapter stops inserted at ten minute intervals. The film has been given an anamorphic widescreen transfer that boasts reasonably vibrant colour but has an overall softness or dullness that leads me to rate it a bit lower than the other Scott/Boetticher titles released by Sony and Paramount. However, it is a fair enough presentation. I realise I’m probably labouring the point here, but an understanding of context is everything when it comes to assessing this picture. If one were new to Randolph Scott movies then Westbound wouldn’t necessarily be a bad place to start. If, on the other hand, you’ve heard about the special place Scott’s work with Boetticher holds in the hearts of western fans and critics alike, then this is definitely not the film to show it off. And that’s as fair as I think I can be.

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19 Comments

Posted by on January 22, 2012 in 1950s, Budd Boetticher, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

19 responses to “Westbound

  1. cavershamragu

    January 22, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Great review Colin. I really love these films. One of my most cherished memories is of going to a screening of a new restoration of THE TALL T at the National Film Theatre in London with Boetticher there to talk about the film and his career. At the time he was still hoping to make a new film starring Robert Mitchum though of course as we know it sadly never came to pass. I like all the films in the Ranown cycle (BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE may be my favourite) – I’ve always felt that it’s a toss up between this and DEADLINE AT DAWN of the two though that perhaps don’t really feel germane to it. But this may have something to do with the initial impression of it being slightly skewed by the fact that the print I saw projected was in black and white …

     
    • Colin

      January 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      That screening of The Tall T must have been quite something – I envy you.

      I find it pretty much impossible to express a single preference when it comes to the Ranown pictures. I regard The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Seven Men from Now as essentially equal, with the others ranking slightly lower – although Comanche Station could make it a foursome at the top.

      Thanks for the comment Sergio.

       
      • cavershamragu

        January 22, 2012 at 2:26 pm

        You could see why Boetticher made such an impression on people – even at that point (this was the late 90s I suppose) he was very charismatic, right away disarming his audience by giving the correct pronunciation of his surname (card c) and with his complete honesty and directness about his movies and experiences. Apparently the remake of SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, mooted for over a decade (at one point TAXI DRIVER scribe Paul Schrader was paid a lot of money to write a version for Arnold Schwarzenneger) may be going ahead, if you believe the gossip columns …

         
        • Colin

          January 22, 2012 at 3:24 pm

          Oh dear! I don’t like the sound of that proposed remake at all!

           
  2. desktidy

    January 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Colin, regarding the Spanish DVD do you have any experience of Llamentol’s DVDs?
    As well as Westbound I see they’ve also released Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, another Warner Archive title.

     
    • Colin

      January 22, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      I have, I think, four titles from Llamentol: A Thunder of Drums (probably my next write-up as it happens), Lisbon, 99 River Street and The Nevadan. They’re not bad, a step up from Suevia. Lisbon is not OAR, it starts out in scope for the titles before zooming back to 1.78:1 for the rest of the film.
      You can see some screencaps from A Thunder of Drums here.

       
  3. desktidy

    January 22, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks Colin.

     
  4. Blake Lucas

    January 23, 2012 at 1:12 am

    Colin, I agree completely with all you said about WESTBOUND and your judgement is completely fair about it. So this is just to note that it really shouldn’t be considered part of the Ranown cycle. Budd Boetticher did not consider it a part of the cycle–I know this from talking to him personally about it. He didn’t like the film at all, less than we do, and wasn’t fulfilling a contract either–he simply didn’t want anyone else directing Scott at that point (there were only the last two Ranowns to be made from original Burt Kennedy scripts, and by then everyone involved was very aware of an evolving vision through a series of films, as those films show).

    When I first wrote about SEVEN MEN FROM NOW I did note WESTBOUND as a Warner Bros. studio project, as opposed to the others, but included them with it anywat. I just didn’t know better then, so I know it’s easy to not take it out of the cycle even if one wants to. But you should know it’s right not to include it. The six movies that do make up the Ranown cycle (even though the first was produced by Batjac and only the last two say “Ranown”) do all belong together.

    I enjoyed reading your piece because I finally got back to WESTBOUND just a few weeks ago. It was no better but no worse–a solid Western but as you say, relatively impersonal. Karen Steele’s casting does reflect Budd’s presence and she is pretty good, though I do disagree about her being the perfect Boetticher heroine. She’s good for some wonderful, very funny dialogue for Pernell Roberts in RIDE LONESOME but for a soulful heroine, Gail Russell is surely best (this was Budd’s own view) and Nancy Gates outstanding as well. Maureen O’Sullivan was very good in her role too.

     
    • Colin

      January 23, 2012 at 8:55 am

      You’re right Blake; it’s not a Ranown western and shouldn’t be confused with those. Reading back through what I wrote I see, despite being aware of the fact, that I didn’t actually make that clear.

      As for the heroines of Boetticher’s movies, they were, I think, all well chosen. Steele appeared in a few of his movies and was very good in those. However, I take your point re Russell, O’Sullivan and Gates – they all brought the qualities that their parts called for to the films they appeared in. Also, Seven Men from Now, The Tall T and Comanche Station were some of the best movies in the cycle and offered meaty roles to those actresses.

       
  5. le0pard13

    January 23, 2012 at 1:33 am

    This is one of the remaining few Boetticher/Scott collaborations I’ve not seen. Given what you say about it, plus the fact that it has Karen Steele (fell in love with her when she appeared in the Star Trek TV series in ’66 with the ‘Mudd’s Women’ episode), I’ll have to try and catch this one. Thanks, Colin.

     
    • Colin

      January 23, 2012 at 8:40 am

      Cheers Michael. It’s not a bad little western at all, but you do need to bear in mind that it’s not like the other Scott/Boetticher collaborations and approach it with your expectations adjusted accordingly.

       
  6. chrisk

    January 23, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    I totally agree with your review of Westbound. I quite enjoyed watching Westbound but somehow I did not find it that satisfying and Virginia Mayo”s role not fully developed .

     
    • Colin

      January 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Hi Chris. Like I said, Ms Mayo was handed underwritten parts a few times. I noticed this again when I watched Backfire fairly recently, a film where her role didn’t really amount to an awful lot.

       
  7. raymie

    January 24, 2012 at 1:17 am

    It just happens to be randolph scott’s birthday today.It is hard to believe that he retired fifty years ago this year.When he retired he really retired although he had planned to ride into the sunset with comanche station.Had gary cooper have lived,would ride the high country have been coop and randy or coop and joel mccrea ? Westbound in comparison to the other ranown films was not the film to retire with.It was a bygone era when you could get away with saying you were born in 1904 instead of 1898.A touchy situation when world war two came up because you could not say you had already served in world war one because the public would have thought him only fourteen when the war ended.I enjoy westbound on its own.The boetticher palomino arena horse bud owned and randy rode out of town at the end of buchanan rides alone,plays a cameo in westbound in front of andrew duggan’s ranch.I have enjoyed and read every word posted here on westbound.I usually do not post but being today was randy’s birthday,I just could not pass up the opportunity.

     
    • Colin

      January 24, 2012 at 8:02 am

      Raymie, thanks for stopping by and reminding me of Scott’s birthday – I’ll have to confess I wasn’t aware of it.

      Interesting thought about Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. However, to be honest, Scott and McCrea played so beautifully off each other that it’s difficult to imagine any other combination (even one involving Cooper) working so well.

       
  8. Toby

    January 24, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    I’ve come to think of Westbound as a great example of how important a good story and script are. Many of the key elements are there — namely, Scott and Boetticher — but they don’t have a lot to work with in comparison to, say, The Tall T. (I’ve always felt that Boetticher seems a bit lost, or maybe just uninspired, when saddled with a mediocre script.)

    Westbound runs on charm and professionalism, which luckily is enough.

     
    • Colin

      January 24, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      That’s true enough. Westbound is just too slight in terms of scripting, too superficial really. I think the film is essentially uninspired, as you say, because Boetticher himself didn’t approach it as anything more than a routine assignment. Again, I don’t believe it’s a bad film as such, just a disappointing one considering the people involved.

      Aside from the writing deficiencies, I honestly feel Boetticher needed to get himself and his camera outside as much as possible to best show what he could do. There was nothing in the least domestic about his style – that rugged, individualistic streak seemed to find its ideal outlet for expression in a similarly rugged landscape. Confined to sets and interiors, he lost some of his spirit.

       
  9. Chris

    May 19, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    More and more I find myself in agreement with you on a lot of your essays. I’m there again. This one reminds me more of Scott’s early to mid-1950’s westerns. Serviceable and decent entertainment but considering the people involved we were hoping for more.

    Andrew Duggan is not someone I’ve ever been that fond of as I’ve always seen him as a bit weak. Considering the villains in most of the Scott films are outlaws the comparison for Duggan’s rich, snobby turn comes off as less than tension filled conflict for me.

    Off to catch up on more.

     
    • Colin

      May 19, 2014 at 6:32 pm

      Yes, the weight of expectation, considering the personnel involved, does come into play here. Not a bad little movie on its own terms, but weak when stood alongside the Boetticher/Scott pictures.

      And the villains were an integral part of what made the other Boetticher/Scott movies a success, so a weaker one here does tend to be more noticeable.

       

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