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Category Archives: Randolph Scott

Man in the Saddle

The collaboration of actors and directors is a favorite area for analysis by film critics – Ford and Wayne, Mann and Stewart, Huston and Bogart readily spring to mind. That attention tends to get focused on these cinematic partnerships is I think understandable; they offer a reasonably self-contained block of work which can be examined easily. Mention Randolph Scott to western fans and the name that will probably come to their lips is that of Budd Boetticher, again understandable enough given the reputation their series of films together has deservedly earned. However, Scott also made a group of westerns with another director, Andre de Toth, just before he hit his late career peak with Boetticher. Man in the Saddle (1951) was the first, and arguably the best, of a half-dozen movies featuring de Toth and Scott.

The overall framing device is the classic western staple of the range war, the conflict over land and the need for expansion. But that’s actually the least interesting aspect of a story that involves a number of overlapping and obsessive relationships. Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) is a man under pressure on two fronts; having already lost his woman, Laurie (Joan Leslie), to his powerful neighbor Will Isham (Alexander Knox), he’s now in danger of seeing his ranch go the same way. Isham is one of those typical western expansionists, a man never satisfied with owning half of anything and ruthless enough to use whatever means are necessary to get what he wants. Standing in the path of this irresistible force is the immovable object of Merritt. The only possible outcome of such a paradox is conflict, even though Merritt does his level best to avoid it for as long as possible. What makes this apparently simple tale fascinating though is the way these characters, and those around them, interact. Merritt clearly retains strong feelings for the ambitious and mercenary Laurie, yet he buries them deep, while Isham is fighting an internal duel with his own jealousy and self-doubt. Matters are further complicated by the presence of another neighbor, Nan (Ellen Drew). She quietly pines for Merritt and in turn is herself desired by Clagg (John Russell), a taciturn loner of brooding temperament. When Isham’s hired gunmen up the ante by stampeding Merritt’s herd and killing one of his men all the passions and obsessions of the principals are unleashed. Merritt is forced into taking a stand against his enemies, even those he was hitherto unaware of.

If one views the westerns of de Toth and Scott in relation to the work both director and actor did independently and with others, then it’s possible to undervalue them. But I think such comparisons, even if they’re inevitable, are unfair. Movies really ought to be evaluated on their own terms – do they achieve what they set out to do? Placing them within a wider context does of course serve some purpose but it ultimately does the films a disservice too. What all that’s leading up to is my belief that Man in the Saddle succeeds in telling its tale. Firstly, de Toth’s direction and Charles Lawton’s cinematography combine well and the tension builds nicely. Visually, it’s an interesting movie with a number of scenes taking place at dawn or dusk (perhaps using the half-light to underline the murky, shifting nature of the relationships) and the location work in Lone Pine and Thousand Oaks particularly enhances the latter half. The climax too is notable for the use of a dust storm as an accompaniment to the action and is suggestive of the elemental, swirling emotions of those involved. The only downside of the film, for me at least, was the slightly clumsy way the comedic parts were integrated. Generally, I have no objection to the introduction of a little comedy to lighten the load, but I’m not sure it’s handled all that successfully in this case.

By the end of his career Randolph Scott had almost elevated the depiction of the stoic acceptance of loss and regret to an art form in itself. One of the more rewarding things about watching those films leading up this is the ability to observe how that persona gradually evolved over the years. As Merritt, Scott touches on this idea of losing the woman he loved. That loss isn’t as fully defined or as final as would be the case in the later movies with Boetticher, but it’s there all the same. Alexander Knox isn’t an actor normally associated with westerns, making only three throughout his career, yet he’s fine as Scott’s rival. He’s very convincing as an emotionally repressed man and this is even more effective when he actually lets loose all his pent-up rage. In truth, all the main players acquit themselves very well: Joan Leslie as the hard-edged pragmatist, Ellen Drew as the calm Girl Friday, and John Russell as the outsider twisted by his unrequited passion. My only complaint is that Richard Rober is underused as the smiling gunman.

Man in the Saddle is readily available on DVD and has been for many years. The US disc from Sony/Columbia presents the film nicely in its correct Academy ratio. This older transfer comes from a good print and boasts strong, vibrant color with plenty of detail. The disc doesn’t have much in the way of extra features, just a standard preview reel for other Sony/Columbia movies available. However, the movie is the main thing and the presentation here should give no cause for complaint. The westerns that Randolph Scott made with de Toth have been overshadowed to a large extent by the later Ranown cycle, yet they’re enjoyable in their own right. Aside from allowing viewers to fill in some gaps in tracing the development of the Scott persona, these movies are good examples of the professionalism to be found in the Hollywood western of the 50s. Man in the Saddle may not be the best thing Scott or Andre de Toth ever did but it’s still a pretty good film and is worthy of the talents of all involved.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2014 in 1950s, Andre de Toth, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

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7th Cavalry

On June 25 1876 Lt Col George Armstrong Custer led his famed 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn, and into the pages of history. Exactly how subsequent events unfolded have remained the subject of debate and conjecture to this day. What is certain is the result of that fateful engagement between Custer’s 7th and the enormous force of Indian warriors, largely Sioux and Cheyenne, ranged against them. Custer and his entire command were massacred, wiped out to a man. Over the years, that event has come to symbolize different things to different people: heroism, folly, retribution, or flawed judgement. A number of films have offered various interpretations of what transpired in the heat of battle, and a few have also turned their attention to the aftermath. 7th Cavalry (1956) is one of those movies that looks at what followed and, for a time at least, toys with the notion of saying something definitive about the actions of Custer. Ultimately though, it backs away from this – it’s essentially a film of two parts, with the potentially interesting beginning gradually giving way to a more familiar and standard outdoor adventure that’s nowhere near as satisfying as it could or should have been.

The story is told from the perspective of Captain Benson (Randolph Scott), apparently one of Custer’s favourites, who is first seen returning to Fort Lincoln in the company of his bride-to-be, Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale), shortly after the ill-fated Little Bighorn expedition. At this stage Benson is unaware of what has befallen his regiment, but the uneasy silence hanging over the fort as he approaches it alerts him to the fact that something is badly wrong. These opening scenes are eerily atmospheric, as we follow Benson through the deserted fort, and share in his confusion and sense of foreboding. And then the full, horrific truth is revealed – the overwrought widow (Jeanette Nolan) of one of the slain soldiers confronts Benson and tells him of the massacre and the ugly fate of those who fell, practically accusing him of cowardice and deception in the process. What follows is the return of the surviving units, the establishment of a board of inquiry and the airing of various recriminations. The inquest into this military disaster is to be conducted by the father of Benson’s betrothed, a stiff and uncompromising army man of the old school (Russell Hicks) who has always regarded his potential son-in-law with suspicion at best. This section is where the film is at its strongest, holding out the possibility that a range of themes, ranging from the classic one of redemption through notions of honour and class prejudice, will be  delved into. Yet few of these, barring the former, are ever fully explored as the movie progresses. The second half sees the tone, emphasis and setting shift completely as the investigation winds up rapidly and Benson sets out on a suicidal mission to recover the remains of Custer and the other officers of his command. Here we retreat towards more standard fare as Benson picks a troop of “volunteers” made up of drunks and shirkers (Jay C Flippen, Denver Pyle, Leo Gordon, Frank Faylen et al) who also avoided the initial battle to undertake the perilous mission. Despite being weaker, this portion of the movie is not without its own points of interest, not least the introduction of the idea of spirituality. Sadly though, here’s another potentially fascinating avenue that’s left undeveloped and actually treated in a hokey fashion in order to facilitate a convenient climax.

Over on his site on 50s westerns yesterday, Toby made a very good point when he mentioned Night Passage. If you follow that link you will see exactly what he was saying, and the essence of it is that the way we approach a film, or the weight of expectation that we bring along, can unfairly colour our assessment of it. It’s an idea that I’ve had buzzing around in my own head for a while too, and Toby’s reference to it made me wonder if it didn’t have some application to the movie in question here. What I mean is this: how far does one’s preconceptions based on cast, crew and subject matter impact on the evaluation of a movie? In this case, we have a mid-50s western starring Randolph Scott, directed by Joseph H Lewis, and dealing with one of the most controversial figures in western lore. I think all of these factors are bound to raise expectations in the minds of viewers, expectations on which the finished product doesn’t really deliver. Is that position fair though? On consideration, I think it is, or partially so at least. Lewis has a reputation for making tight and economical little B pictures that frequently transcend their modest production values and offer visual and thematic riches. I don’t think his direction is especially weak in 7th Cavalry, but the script, and its execution, tries to pack too much into a pretty brisk running time. There’s simply too much going on and too little time to expand upon any of it. Ultimately, we’re left with a first half that flatters to deceive, and a visually attractive follow-up (beautifully shot by Ray Rennahan) which leaves us short-changed. The specter of Custer hovers over proceedings throughout, and indeed helps effect a resolution which is far too pat for my liking. I do wonder if the film had had a director and star of lesser standing whether my overall reaction would have been different – I don’t know, but it is something to ponder.

And back again to expectations. Randolph Scott made 7th Cavalry just as his collaboration with Budd Boetticher was about to see his iconic status within the western genre fixed permanently. It’s difficult to put that thought to one side while watching the movie but, in all fairness, Scott acquits himself well enough despite the shortcomings elsewhere in the production. Anyone familiar with this site will be well aware of my admiration for Scott, and the roles he took on in the latter stages of his career are easily my favorites. No one ever played pride on screen quite so effectively as Scott, and that aspect forms the cornerstone of his portrayal of Benson. His quiet dignity and innate self-confidence are to the fore as he plays a man whose motives and character are called into question by almost everyone – it’s not quite the conflicted loner that he and Boetticher would so successfully explore but it’s not a million miles away either. As the principal female lead, Barbara Hale is fine, yet the role is limited in scope and offers her few opportunities. The supporting cast in the film is particularly strong – Jay C Flippen, Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle and Jeanette Nolan all have their chances to shine and deliver telling little performances, with Faylen and Flippen getting the more interesting and rounded roles. I also want to take this opportunity to mention the small (yet pivotal in terms of the plot) part played by the recently deceased Harry Carey Jr. Over the years, his presence contributed a lot to so many films, especially westerns, and his passing sees yet another link to the golden age of cinema severed. In 7th Cavalry, as in so many movies, Carey displayed an honesty and simplicity that always helped ground a picture and added a certain warmth.

7th Cavalry is one of those films that has been hard to get hold of in an acceptable edition on DVD. There are a number of options available, but most are problematic in one way or another. There’s a French release by Sidonis that reportedly sports a fine transfer but forces subtitles on the original soundtrack, there’s a UK disc that I understand is of appalling quality, and there are no fewer than three editions in Spain. Of those Spanish releases, two are either full frame or non-anamorphic letterbox transfers. The one to go for is this edition by Regia Films, which sees the movie paired up on separate discs with another Lewis title Terror in a Texas Town. The disc has a good anamorphic widescreen transfer, with subtitles which can be deselected via the setup menu. The print used is in pretty good condition, without any noticeable damage, although the colours can appear slightly muted on occasion. In the final analysis, I’d have to say 7th Cavalry is a middling western; there is the promise of something different that’s never fulfilled, and that’s what I find most disappointing.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2013 in 1950s, Joseph H Lewis, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

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Ten of the Best – Western Stars

Well, the holidays are fast approaching, work is pretty hectic, and I didn’t feel like doing one of my usual reviews. So for a change, and a bit of light relief too, I’ve decided to do something a little different. Even the most casual perusal of this site ought to make my fondness for the western abundantly clear. I make no apologies for that; it’s far and away my favourite genre and the richness and variety contained within it mean that I continue to make new discoveries all the time. Yet for all that, there are the old familiar faces that turn up time and time again. I generally don’t bother too much with lists but thought I’d give one a go because…well, just because. Seeing as I mostly review films I reckoned I’d skip over a selection of titles and concentrate instead on the stars, the men who brought the cowboys to life. Bearing in mind that almost every major Hollywood star has at least one western to his credit, this could have been a potentially huge list. So, in the interests of brevity and sanity, I’ve pared it down to ten. I’m not placing them in any particular order, others may do so if they wish, nor am I going to claim that it’s any kind of definitive selection either. These are just ten guys who’ve lent their talents to the greatest genre of them all, and given me a lot of pleasure watching them over the years.

John Wayne

If you were to ask the average person to name the archetypical screen cowboy, then I’d lay odds Wayne would be the one most would mention. Ever since his iconic appearance in John Ford’s Stagecoach, it’s been hard to separate the man from the genre. His influence on the western is immense, and the popular conception of how a cowboy should walk, talk, shoot and ride a horse owes much to Wayne’s portrayals. You’ll often hear it said, not from me though, that the man couldn’t act but his work with Ford and Hawks in particular prove that assertion to be nonsense.

James Stewart

One of the nice guys, an apparently lightweight lead in the 1930s. Stewart seemed to undergo a transformation after his wartime experiences. The geniality was still there, but it was mixed up with a darker, more desperate quality too. Hitchcock managed to capitalize on that in his pictures with Stewart, though it was first used to great effect by Anthony Mann in the series of psychological westerns they made together during the 50s. From Winchester 73 through The Man from Laramie, Stewart and Mann produced a body of work that was and is of the highest quality.

Henry Fonda

One of the great actors of American cinema, a man whose long and distinguished career saw him excel in every genre. His partnership with John Ford saw him create some of the most memorable screen characterizations. His portrayal of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine is a beautiful blend of the diffident and the deadly. Although his relationship with Ford wasn’t always the smoothest, he went on to do notable work with Anthony Mann and Edward Dmytryk in the 1950s. Then, in a radical and chillingly effective departure from his noble image, he played the cold and heartless killer for Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Gary Cooper

Like Wayne, Cooper was another actor who has had his range as a performer called into question. And again this is a spurious allegation. Coop’s style was a subtle and naturalistic one – the fireworks may have been absent but his depth wasn’t any less in spite of that. His most famous part may well be as the increasingly isolated and desperate lawman in High Noon, and it’s a marvelous performance. However, we should not forget two late career roles that are perhaps as strong, if not stronger: the reluctant outlaw in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, and the doctor with a dark secret in Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree.

Randolph Scott

Way back when I was a kid, it seemed like every Saturday afternoon saw the TV showing another western. And so many of them featured Randolph Scott. As such, Scott was an inseparable part of my earliest memories of the genre, and also one of my earliest heroes. More than anyone else, he represented the ultimate cowboy to my young self – strong, honorable and brave. As I got older, and saw more of his movies, my appreciation of his work only increased. If the years brought a greater understanding of characterization and theme to me, then it has to be said that time also brought a gravitas and greater nuance to Scott’s acting. He spent the latter part of his career exclusively in westerns and grew into them. His series of films in collaboration with Budd Boetticher, beginning with Seven Men from Now, are milestones in the genre, and his swan song in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country provided him with a stylish and fitting exit.

Joel McCrea

Both McCrea and Randolph Scott hit late career highs in Ride the High Country, and that’s not the only parallel in their work. McCrea was another who became something of a genre specialist as the years wore on, and he carved out a comfortable niche for himself. If he’s not as celebrated as Scott, and I think it’s fair to say that that is the case, then it’s probably because he didn’t have Boetticher and the Ranown cycle forming part of his filmography. However, he appeared in a number of hidden gems, Andre de Toth’s Ramrod and Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory being just two.

Richard Widmark

Widmark started out in the movies as the giggling psycho in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and carried over a little of that same character into his western debut in Wellman’s Yellow Sky. Still, he was nothing if not versatile and gradually broadened his range as he went along. Over the next twenty years, he played in an assortment of westerns, becoming more heroic all the time. I especially enjoy his take on Jim Bowie in Wayne’s production of The Alamo and his handling of a complex role in Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock is a fine piece of work.

William Holden

Making a name for himself with Golden Boy, Holden soon graduated to western parts and would return to the genre a number of times. Maybe he doesn’t initially seem a natural for frontier tales but, like others, age brought him more success out west. Having worked with John Sturges and John Ford, Holden landed one of his best roles as the aging outlaw Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s visceral and poignant The Wild Bunch. Even if it had been the only western he ever made, I feel that this film alone would be reason enough to earn his inclusion on this list.

Clint Eastwood

OK, I’m going to hold my hands up and admit that I’m not much of a fan of spaghetti westerns, at least not beyond those made by Sergio Leone. However, although Eastwood had already gone west on TV in Rawhide, it’s the Euro western that made him a star. He brought an Italian macho chic to the traditional image of the cowboy, and in so doing helped breathe new life into a genre that was beginning to look slightly jaded. Along with Wayne, Eastwood has come to define the popular image of the westerner.

Steve McQueen

“The King of Cool” didn’t make all that many westerns but he certainly made an impression whenever he strapped on a six-gun. Building on his success in the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, he scored a hit in The Magnificent Seven. His scene stealing antics left director John Sturges bemused, co-star Yul Brynner fuming and audiences very satisfied. He returned to the genre only a handful of times, unfortunately, and his penultimate movie Tom Horn remains underrated to this day.

And there you have it, my “Ten of the Best” western stars. If I were to revisit this list tomorrow I’ve no doubt I would remove some names and add some others, but that’s the nature of such things. I would encourage readers to feel free to chip in and agree or disagree with whatever you like. It is, after all, a bit of fun and nothing more.

 

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The Bounty Hunter

Obviously, perceptions of a lot of things change and evolve over time, and characters in movies are no exception. To modern viewers, it comes as no surprise to see a lead who makes a living pursuing criminals for the simple reason that it pays well. That attitude comes, of course, from familiarity with the concept, but it may also say something about the way opinions of certain occupations have shifted. The Bounty Hunter (1954) has a title which is pretty much self-explanatory. All told, it’s a fairly routine western, but one of its most interesting aspects is how it underlines the way audience expectations and judgements have altered in the half century since it was made. If this were a 2012 production viewers would simply take the lead’s profession at face value, not requiring justification of his choice in order to build up his heroism, whereas that wasn’t the case back in 1954. At that time, and especially in westerns, the idea of the anti-hero hadn’t been so firmly established; leads had to earn the sympathy of the audience, and doing an honorable job (as opposed to a merely profitable one) was one of the criteria.

Jim Kipp (Randolph Scott) is the bounty hunter of the title, with a fearsome reputation as a tracker and killer of men. Our first glimpse of him comes as he picks his way through the barren landscape, seeking out water for himself and his mount. This opening scene deftly establishes both the nature of the man and the risks his line of work entails. As Kipp prepares to drink, a figure lurking in the rocks takes aim and fires on him. Kipp’s lightning reflexes, his rapid outflanking and merciless disposal of the would-be assassin, all shot without dialogue, make it clear that we’re looking at a hardened professional killer. There are countless westerns of the classic era which feature such tough individuals hunting wanted men. The crucial difference though is that characters of that type usually had some personal motivation; those they pursued had wronged or injured them in some way and what they were generally seeking was revenge. Kipp is a different breed: in conversation with the sheriff, who’s partially in awe and partially contemptuous of him, Kipp makes no bones about the fact he does his job for money. This is a refreshingly honest admission but it’s also one that sits a little uneasily, and the various characters we’re introduced to throughout the movie react with a mixture of fear and suspicion to the presence of this ambiguous figure in their midst – although there is a dryly humorous moment when the only man sorry to see him leaving town is revealed to be the undertaker. While the plot of The Bounty Hunter does highlight the morally dubious actions of men like Kipp, the story is mainly concerned with a mystery. Kipp’s talents have earned him a strong reputation, strong enough to attract the interest of Pinkerton agents. When the famed detective agency draws a blank in its attempts to bring a gang of train robbers to justice, it turns to Kipp. He reluctantly (although there’s ample reward promised if he succeeds) agrees to set out in search of the criminals. The trail leads to the boom town of Twin Forks, where it seems likely the fugitives stopped off. The structure of the movie now resembles that of a classic detective story (although the disquiet among the townsfolk caused by Kipp’s presence also seems to foreshadow the anxiety generated by a similarly unwelcome visitor in No Name on the Bullet) as the hero tries to determine which of the many recent arrivals might fit the bill. There are plenty of red herrings, and a romantic subplot that’s blended fairly seamlessly into the tale, to keep the viewer guessing as the film rattles along towards a pretty satisfying conclusion.

Andre de Toth made a half a dozen westerns with Randolph Scott, starting in 1951 with Man in the Saddle and culminating with The Bounty Hunter. Generally, these are modest, B-grade movies that eschew pretension and aim to entertain first and foremost. The film does take a look at the frowned upon profession of bounty hunting and, as I said earlier, that’s probably what’s most noteworthy about it. Unlike later representations, particularly the Leone-inspired spaghetti westerns, there is a concession made to traditional genre expectations. As the story progresses, it’s revealed that Kipp does have a personal reason for choosing his career, although it’s not directly related to his investigation in Twin Forks. At this point, the western was still at the stage where complexity of characterization and motivation was acceptable, but an essentially amoral lead was still beyond the pale. As the credits roll, we see that Kipp has abandoned his solitary existence on the fringes of society and the law, and opted instead for convention and respectability. These days, de Toth is probably best known for shooting House of Wax in 3-D, and this movie was also produced with that format in mind. Even though I understand the film was never shown any other way than flat, there are a number of instances of shots that were clearly composed for 3-D projection: a rifle barrel pointed directly into the lens, champagne corks popped in our faces, and a hat which is shot off and then sails almost languidly in our direction. This is all gimmicky stuff that actually only distracts, and that’s one of my main gripes with 3-D in general. It’s also worth noting that the script for The Bounty Hunter was written by Winston Miller, who penned Ford’s My Darling Clementine nearly a decade earlier. Now I’m not going to try anything so foolish as comparing the two films, but it is worth mentioning that The Bounty Hunter features a couple of moments which certainly bring Ford’s great work to mind: there’s the scene of the community gathering at the church, and even more marked is the image of Kipp reclining on the boardwalk in the style of Henry Fonda.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Randolph Scott give a poor performance in a western, even when the material he had to work with was nothing special, and he’s the best thing in The Bounty Hunter. It’s been discussed before on this site how Scott was gradually building and working towards the complex and often bitter characterizations he perfected in his later films. The role of Jim Kipp was another step along that road; there’s the kind of easy charm that was never far from the surface, but there’s a darker side too. Kipp is a man who’s living very much in the shadow of a wounded past, and Scott always had a wonderful way of delivering dialogue, modulating that distinctive drawl in such a way that half expressed feelings are easily understood. A very young Dolores Dorn was cast as his romantic interest, and she is quite capable in the role. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, she is overshadowed by Marie Windsor in another of her typically eye-catching parts. Windsor had a kind of knowing allure, an earthy attractiveness that’s hard to define yet mightily effective. There’s a strong supporting cast too, with Ernest Borgnine, Harry Antrim, Howard Petrie and Dub Taylor all turning in fine performances.

As far as I know, the only DVD release of The Bounty Hunter at present is the Spanish edition from Warner/Impulso. The film is presented in Academy ratio (1.33:1) but I’m not sure if that’s how it ought to be seen – IMDB suggests 1.75:1 for what it’s worth. The transfer is so-so, there is a bit of brief roughness visible in the opening few minutes – which also feature some sloppy editing – but it settles down after that. The film was shot using the WarnerColor process and it looks faded in places – in fact, there’s a definite greenish cast to the image most of the time. Despite that, there’s no serious damage to the print. The menu claims the English soundtrack comes with Spanish subtitles, but they don’t display as long as the subtitle option on the player is disabled. Anyway, the movie is a fast paced and entertaining programmer with pleasing performances and direction. The mystery elements of the plot are handled well and hold the interest – the fact that we get an early portrayal of a bounty hunter is an added bonus. I won’t claim this is a great western, and I don’t imagine it was ever envisioned as such, but it is a good example of the mid-50s variety.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2012 in 1950s, Andre de Toth, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

Hangman’s Knot

I just realized the other day that I’ve reached a small landmark as far as this site is concerned – this post will be the 100th western that I have written about. I had to think about what movie I ought to feature to mark the occasion, and it left me with something of a dilemma. My first instinct was to go for a big, important, genre defining picture, one which has stamped its authority all over the western landscape. But then I paused and thought again: is that really representative of the kind of movies I usually turn my attention to? Well not really. For the most part, I’ve written up the films that don’t always draw the attention of the critics, that don’t get ranked high in the “Best of” lists. Sure there are a few heavyweights in there, but they tend to be the exception. So in the end, I opted for something low-key, a bit of a sleeper and an imperfect work – Hangman’s Knot (1952). This might seem an offbeat choice but it reflects what I’d like to think of as the spirit of this site by being a movie from my favourite decade in cinema and featuring two of my favourite performers.

The plot concerns a dreadful mistake and its consequences for those involved. Major Stewart (Randolph Scott) is in charge of a small band of Confederate soldiers who we see setting up an ambush for a squad of Union troops. The aim is to relieve the Yankees of the gold shipment they’re guarding and thus shore up the war effort. The plan goes almost like clockwork and Stewart’s men wipe out the enemy. The sting in the tail though comes in the form of the dying words of their victims’ commanding officer – the war has been over for weeks. In that moment Stewart sees himself transformed from heroic military tactician into common criminal. A discussion with the surviving troops, and the reckless killing of the one man who could be made to testify to their innocence, leads to the decision to head home with the spoils in tow. However, gold is always a powerful draw, and it’s not long before others are on their trail. A self-appointed posse, bounty hunters in reality, have caught the scent and are in pursuit of Stewart’s little party. In desperation, a stagecoach is hijacked and the fugitives head for the temporary shelter of an isolated swing station. It’s here that the second part of the drama is played out, as Stewart and his men find themselves holed up in the stage halt and under pressure from both without and within. The posse have hemmed them in with little hope of a clean escape, while the atmosphere is growing ever more poisonous as both the hostility of the hostages and the men’s own personal differences raise tensions.

Roy Huggins is most famous as the writer of some highly successful and influential television shows (including The Fugitive and The Rockford Files), but his solitary effort as a cinema director plays out like a rehearsal for the Boetticher/Scott pictures that would come later in the decade. The theme, casting, locations and structure of Hangman’s Knot all contribute to the feeling that you’re watching a kind of unpolished Budd Boetticher movie. The opening scenes of the ambush shot around Lone Pine, with their bleak, fatalistic tone, immediately evoke such thoughts. This is especially true when the gung-ho mood abruptly turns into one of horrified realisation. Then there’s the theme of greed and it’s corrupting influence that is gradually expanded upon as the story progresses. With the second act, comes a change of location – the restrictive, almost suffocating, confines of the swing station – where the pressurized atmosphere brought on by greed for gold intensifies for those trapped inside and those laying siege outside. These rising tensions are further exacerbated by the presence of Donna Reed’s Northern nurse, provoking a three-way contest for her affections between Scott, Lee Marvin’s hot-headed subordinate, and Richard Denning’s would-be fiance. This brings to the surface a sentiment that can often be detected in westerns of the period; the contrast between the essential nobility of the southerner (personified by Scott) and the base materialism of the northerner (Denning in this instance), although it’s tempered somewhat by the fact that Marvin is also thrown into the mix to represent the less savoury side of the Confederacy.

It’s hard to find fault with the casting of the movie, though the oversimplified characterization is one of the main weaknesses. I’ve already tried to draw attention to what I see as the parallels between Hangman’s Knot and Scott’s later work with Boetticher, but the reasons why the movie isn’t quite in that class need to be addressed too. One of the features that distinguished the Ranown pictures was the complexity of the characters, both the heroes and the villains. In truth, there was a blurring of the lines defining the good and bad men in those films. That’s not really the case here, where everyone’s development follows a much more traditional path. Apart from a sense of guilt over the ill-timed ambush, Scott’s character carries none of the emotional baggage that made his best roles so memorable. That’s not meant as a criticism of his performance though – an actor can only play a part as it’s written, and the script doesn’t offer much opportunity to add depth. The same problem arises with Lee Marvin; where Seven Men from Now gave him the chance to play a layered and subversively attractive villain, Hangman’s Knot demands a more straightforward, and far less interesting, portrayal. Similarly, the posse in pursuit of Stewart’s band is a collection of stereotypical figures without charm, and lacking the necessary menace too. Perhaps the most successful character is the green youth played by Claude Jarman Jr, whose innocence symbolizes hope for the future and the possibility of a new beginning. Both he and the operators of the stagecoach stop are suggestive of the idea of America as a family torn apart by the Civil War. Of course they also represent the prospect of reconciliation, the offer of “adoption” at the end emphasizing this.

The R1 Columbia/Sony DVD of Hangman’s Knot, which has been available for a long time now, presents the movie in the correct academy ratio, and the image is reasonable although there are some issues with the transfer too. Colours are generally strong throughout but there is some damage to the print. This is most obvious during the indoor scenes in the second half of the movie, the earlier exterior work looks to be in much better shape. Even so, it’s not what I’d term a major distraction at any point. It’s a fast paced film which packs a lot of story into its brisk 81 minute running time and concludes most satisfactorily. I think it’s an underrated western, but I can understand the reasons why that may be so. Still, whatever deficiencies it has, there are plenty of positive points too, not least the way it looks ahead to the Ranown cycle. In fact, and I’m going to stick my neck out here, I think it’s a better and more rewarding movie than something like Westbound – others may disagree of course. Anyway, I recommend any fans of Randolph Scott, or Budd Boetticher for that matter, check this one out if they haven’t already done so.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in 1950s, Lee Marvin, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

Westbound

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

 

Seven Men from Now

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I was just thinking the other day that it will soon be close to a year since I got my hands on Sony’s superlative set of Boetticher/Scott westerns. Those movies were at the very top of my most wanted list for so long, and it still gives me great pleasure to know that I can now pick them off my shelves and enjoy them any time I please. With that thought in mind, I decided to give Seven Men from Now (1956) another view. This film is of course not officially part of the Ranown group of titles, but it was the first to bring together Scott, Boetticher and Kennedy – so it is the movie that kicked off that cycle and it’s also the template for what was to follow.

As soon as the title credits have rolled the film immediately kicks into gear. Out of the darkness, and a violent storm, comes the lone figure of a man making his way towards the shelter of a nearby cave. It’s already occupied by two vaguely uneasy men, but they still offer the stranger a cup of coffee and a seat by the fire. A stilted conversation follows, but when a killing in the town of Silver Springs is brought up something snaps. The camera cuts away, gunfire is heard, and only one man will ride off. That man is Ben Stride (Randolph Scott), former sheriff of the aforementioned town and now a driven manhunter. Seven men robbed the Wells Fargo office in Silver Springs, killing Stride’s wife in the process. Now only five are left alive, and Stride spends the remainder of the movie blazing a trail across Arizona in his quest for vengeance. Along the way he runs into a couple of easterners, headed for California and a new life. The couple are Annie Greer (Gail Russell) and her less than capable husband John (Walter Reed). Stride’s inherent decency means that he can’t abandon these two greenhorns to their fate in hostile country, so he rides with them part of the way. By the time they reach a deserted relay station, the last important figure is introduced. This is Masters (Lee Marvin), an man of dubious character who Stride has had occasion to lock up in the past. However, Masters appears to bear him no ill will and makes it clear that his only interest is in finding the gold that was stolen from Silver Springs. When this oddly matched group sets out again the tensions begin to rise, and it seems only a matter of time before Stride and Masters will square off.

Randolph Scott in a tight spot in Seven Men from Now

As I said in my introduction, Seven Men from Now was the seed from which the Ranown westerns were to grow. Just about every character, theme and situation would be revisited and honed to near perfection over the course of the next four years. Scott is the classical loner, haunted by the demons of his past and desperate to make up for the character flaws and inadequacies that brought him to his present state. He can be hard and ruthless when the circumstances demand but still retains a sensitivity to those who are dependent on him. Gail Russell was given a shot at a comeback with the reasonably meaty role of a woman who married a weak and ineffectual man but will stick by him for all that. Miss Russell’s story was a tragic one; were it not for a combination of insecurity and alcoholism she might have achieved much more than her appallingly short life permitted. Nevertheless, she plays her part perfectly here and it’s almost as if she was able to channel all the dissatisfaction with her own life into Annie Greer. It has to be said that Walter Reed is pretty colourless as the husband, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re looking to play a weak willed and essentially passive character. Lee Marvin, on the other hand, is all swaggering bravado and insidious charm. His nonchalant, sneering dandy with the long, green scarf and twin pistols is the perfect counterbalance to Scott’s underplaying. I’d say he actually steals the picture as he dominates every scene he’s in – the real standouts being his taunting provocation of Scott, Reed and Russell in the confines of a storm battered wagon, and the final one on one duel amid the barren rocks of Lone Pine.

Boetticher and Kennedy revisited this premise again and again in their movies: the small isolated group comprised of the obsessive avenger, the strong yet vulnerable woman, the expendable sidekicks and the villain that you half admire. Anyone familiar with Kennedy’s scripts will easily recognise the recurring dialogue, but the beauty of it is that it’s such iconic stuff it never actually sounds cliched. Boetticher’s direction here is first rate, making the most of the familiar Lone Pine locations – the bulk of the action in Seven Men from Now takes place outdoors and that’s a real blessing in any of his movies. There’s the usual mix of telling close-ups interspersed with glorious wide shots. The climax among the labyrinthine boulders creates a great sense of claustrophobia and allows for some marvellously framed images.

Paramount did western fans a real favour when they put Seven Men from Now out on a DVD a few years back. The R1 disc (I’m going to assume the R2 replicates it) is an excellent anamorphic transfer that I couldn’t fault. In addition to the main feature, there’s a boatload of great extras with the commentary track by Jim Kitses and the documentary Budd Boetticher – An American Original being especially worthy of mention. Seven Men from Now stands as a first class western on its own, but what makes it even more special is the knowledge that Boetticher, Scott and Kennedy would go on to produce still classier material in a very short space of time. If you haven’t seen this film then you really owe it to yourself to put that situation right as soon as possible – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, Budd Boetticher, Lee Marvin, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

Virginia City

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When Errol Flynn’s first stab at a western, Dodge City, proved to be a financial hit Warners wasted no time in casting him in another. They reassembled as many of the cast and crew from the previous movie as possible and threw in a few more stars for good measure. The result was Virginia City (1940), and although this one wasn’t in technicolor the sweep of the narrative was every bit as epic as its predecessor. It’s not quite the movie of Dodge City but it does come close, only let down by a couple of questionable casting decisions which I’ll look at later.

The story of Virginia City takes place towards the end of the Civil War, and deals primarily with a last ditch attempt by the Confederacy to secure a bullion shipment which would allow them to fight on. Four years of warfare, and the accompanying blockade, have left the South on the verge of bankruptcy and staring defeat in the face. Their one chance of survival hangs on obtaining the necessary funds to keep them afloat. Virginia City was the site of some of the richest mines in the country and provided the Union with untold wealth. Of course some of those same mines were owned by Confederate sympathisers who had managed to raise $5 million to aid the cause. The difficulty for the South was to get that money out of Nevada and safely into their own territory. Enter Vance Irby (Randolph Scott), a Confederate officer who has the requisite knowledge of the territory to head up an expedition to bring the contraband through. In the film’s opening scenes Irby is in charge of a military prison which counts a certain Captain Kerry Bradford (Errol Flynn) among its inmates. When Irby foils Bradford’s attempt to escape it sets up a personal rivalry between the two men that is added to later on when they meet again in Nevada and find themselves competing for the attentions of saloon singer Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins). Although both Bradford and Irby find themselves on opposing sides in the war they have a good deal in common, and indeed end up fighting shoulder to shoulder against a mutual threat in the closing stages. Since both of the leads were cast in essentially heroic roles it meant that another, more obvious, villain was needed. That’s where Humphrey Bogart comes in, playing the mustachioed Mexican bandit John Murrell.

Randolph Scott & Errol Flynn going toe to toe in Virginia City

Flynn and Scott both play their parts well and it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for both. However, it has to be said that Scott comes off the best. He was the better actor but that’s not the only reason; his mission was also more romantic, and the fact you know it’s doomed from the outset lends more pathos to his character. In fact, the northerners of the film (with the exception of Flynn and perennial sidekicks Hale and Williams) are generally an unpleasant bunch who are difficult to sympathise with. Douglass Dumbrille’s Major is a straight-backed martinet and other pro-Union characters are shown in a highly unfavorable light. It’s notable that many films of this period tended to side with the Confederacy and painted the Yankees as the villains. Only in the closing moments, when Lincoln (appearing as no more than a shadow cast on a document) makes an appeal for national reconciliation, does the film show the Union in a positive way. If Flynn and Scott give a good account of themselves the same cannot be said for Bogart and Miss Hopkins. Bogie just didn’t belong in westerns; he was too eastern and urban, and he gives a stiff and unconvincing performance that borders on pantomime. Miriam Hopkins also looks all at sea belting out old standards in a can-can dress in a rough saloon. There is a bit of back-story for her character to show that she came from an altogether higher class of family, but it still fails to hide the fact that she was a poor choice for the part. Most of the time she appears uncomfortable and too old for her role. It’s a pity Olivia De Havilland couldn’t have been given the part for, although she wasn’t exactly the saloon girl type either, she at least had chemistry on the screen with Flynn.

Michael Curtiz did another fine job of directing and every shot is professional and well framed. The movie benefits a lot from the extended use of locations that are especially important for westerns. He created plenty of excitement in the action scenes, in particular the sequence where Bogart escapes from the runaway stagecoach. That scene also features a repeat of master stuntman Yakima Canutt’s patented under-a-moving-vehicle manouevre that he first used in John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s also worth mentioning that Max Steiner provided another thundering score to match the on-screen action, and it adds a great deal to the film’s atmosphere.

Virginia City is available on DVD from Warners in R1 in their set of Flynn westerns. The transfer is excellent and Sol Polito’s black & white photography positively glows. There’s the usual array of extra features, including a commentary track by Frank Thompson that provides plenty of detail on the film’s production. Warners have also released a set of Flynn’s westerns in the UK, but omitted this title. I’m not sure why this happened but I have to wonder if it may not have something to do with some of the horsefalls; there’s one particularly brutal shot that would surely cause a problem with the BBFC. I would rate this film at just a notch below Dodge City, but it’s still pretty good. The plot is strong and Flynn and Scott’s characters have enough depth to keep you watching, but the miscasting of Hopkins and Bogart does damage the picture. Coming next, Santa Fe Trail.

 

Buchanan Rides Alone

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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.

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

 

Decision at Sundown

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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.

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

 
 
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