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Category Archives: Budd Boetticher

The Man from the Alamo

The worst that can happen to you is that somebody will say you died a hero. That man’s going to be called a coward the rest of his life.

That quote essentially sums up what The Man from the Alamo (1953) is all about – the way that courage can be misrepresented and misunderstood, how casual labeling can lead to blind, unjustified persecution. While this idea is central to the film, it’s mixed in with a standard revenge tale, and set against a backdrop of historically significant events. One could say there are the makings of an epic story here but, in the hands of Budd Boetticher, the end result is a short, tightly paced western that rarely pauses for breath and never outstays its welcome.

The opening section plunges the audience straight into the latter stages of the siege of the Alamo, with Travis’ volunteers holed up in the old adobe mission and Santa Anna’s forces massing for the final assault outside. These events have become part of American lore, and far beyond the borders of the US too if the truth be told, coming to represent grit, determination and heroic self-sacrifice. Occasions such as this have the potential to make legends of all involved, to see names honored for generations to come. However, as always, there’s a flip side to the coin. Where circumstances can see one man’s reputation soar, they can equally see that of another cast into the mud. Which brings us to John Stroud (Glenn Ford), one of the defenders of the Alamo and a man who has already proved his mettle in the heat of battle. It’s bad enough when news arrives that no relief will be forthcoming, but the situation is exacerbated for some by reports that enemy sympathizers are raiding the unprotected homesteads to the north. As a result, a handful of defenders draw lots to see who will undertake the thankless task of leaving the mission and heading off to take care of the vulnerable families. The dubious honor falls to Stroud, who accepts his fate and rides off into potential ignominy. The crucial point here is that the viewer knows that Stroud had no other choice, that he was simply dealt a lousy hand and could do nothing but play it. As it turns out, his gesture proves futile – the guerrillas have been and gone, leaving nothing in their wake but charred homes and shallow graves. Stroud is now a man bereft: his home and family are gone, and his name has become a byword for cowardice and dishonor among those not privy to all the details. All that is left is a thirst for revenge, a desire to track down and punish the renegades who have taken all he held dear. At best Stroud finds himself shunned by a contemptuous town, and at worst he risks a lynching by the more hot-headed elements. Yet, despite the threats and insults, he is committed to tracking down the real villains and, in so doing, redeeming himself in the eyes of his suspicious traveling companions while also coming to terms with his own feelings of guilt and shame.

A brief glance at the credits for The Man from the Alamo provides ample proof of its pedigree: Niven Busch and Steve Fisher feature among the writers, Russell Metty handled the photography, and Budd Boetticher occupied the director’s chair. Boetticher’s status rests mainly on the Ranown films, those pared down masterpieces with Randolph Scott. However, directors, like actors, don’t just arrive fully formed. When you come to examine almost any artist’s finest work, there’s generally a progression that can be traced leading up to that point. And so it was with Boetticher; the Ranown westerns may represent the peak of his achievements, but his earlier pictures were pointing in that direction. As I mentioned at the beginning, the ingredients were in place for a “big” movie. However, Boetticher, and the writers, trim away all the unnecessary flab to leave us with a lean piece that focuses on a driven character, an emotionally damaged outsider who measures words and actions carefully. That inner torment that Scott would so successfully portray a few years down the line isn’t quite so fully developed in The Man from the Alamo, but it’s there in embryonic form at least. I think it’s fair to say that Boetticher did his best work when he was out shooting on location. This film doesn’t have the benefit of the iconic Lone Pine locations yet the exteriors all look suitably handsome. Actually, a fair bit of the filming took place on the Universal backlot, and still looks attractive. The opening in the Alamo is extremely atmospheric, with the guttering candlelight creating a kind of grim claustrophobia, punctuated occasionally by the harsh flashes of the artillery. Generally, all of the action, and there’s no shortage of it, is well handled – the scene with the wagon train in full flight near the end is a good example of the director’s talent for exciting outdoor sequences.

Glenn Ford started his post-war career strongly with Gilda and built on it very successfully in the years that followed. By the 1950s he was getting better and better, and The Man from the Alamo was made at a time when he was approaching his peak. While there are plenty of good actors around him in this movie, a lot rests on his central performance. Ford’s experience working in film noir stands to him here as there’s more than a touch of bad luck and the cruelty of fate surrounding his character. He was always good in these kinds of roles – the outsider who’s vaguely uncomfortable with himself – and uses that ability to get properly into the character of Stroud. He could also, when he wanted, project a type of self-effacing affability and that helps draw the sympathy of the audience. If you’re going to tell a story like this – about a wronged man whose sense of personal and public honor is questioned – then it’s vital to have an everyman type like Ford whose real qualities are apparent to the viewer. Julia Adams was handed a strong role too as the woman who overcomes her initial skepticism to become Stroud’s main ally. Not only does she bring a lot of dignity to her part, but she handles the physical demands very well too. Every western needs a suitable villain and Victor Jory was an expert at playing cunning and ruthless types. Besides looking shifty and slippery, Jory had a voice that just oozed malevolence. Neville Brand was another of those perennial bad guys and is impressive in a small but memorable role. In support there are worthwhile turns from Hugh O’Brian as a priggish Texan officer who gets to eat some humble pie, and Chill Wills as the one-armed newspaperman forced to put his blustering prejudice aside.

I actually have two copies of The Man from the Alamo on DVD: the UK edition that came out first and the US release that came as part of a four movie set a few years later. Both are Universal releases, and there’s not a lot to choose between them regarding the transfer. Both are in reasonable condition with no major print damage evident, although the colors look a little muted here and there. The UK disc has a variety of language dubs and subtitles available, but the US version represents better value since three other films come with it. Certain names bring raised expectations with them, and Budd Boetticher is one of those. It would be unwise to approach The Man from the Alamo in the hope of seeing a movie of the quality of any of the Ranown pictures, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior movie. Frankly, it’s a good little western on its own terms, but it’s also interesting as an indication of the direction in which Boetticher was unmistakably moving at this stage in his career.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2013 in 1950s, Budd Boetticher, Glenn Ford, Westerns

 

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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

 

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

 

Ride Lonesome

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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

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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.

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

 

Seminole

Poster

Budd Boetticher is celebrated, and rightly so, for the seven westerns he made with Randolph Scott in the late 50s. Seminole was produced just a few years before those collaborations and, while it’s a satisfying enough picture, it’s not quite up there with his best. One could, I suppose, quibble about its credentials as a western due to the setting (Florida) and the time period (1835) but I feel it’s as near as makes no difference.

The story, most of which is recounted in a long flashback sequence, follows the newly appointed Lt. Caldwell (Rock Hudson) who is travelling back to his birthplace in Florida to take up a position at Fort King. His arrival coincides with the beginnings of an uprising among the Seminole, provoked by a government plan to uproot the tribe and move them west to prevent their presence slowing down the nation’s expansion. Within this framing story there’s further conflict due to the revelation that Caldwell’s boyhood friend, the half breed Osceola (Anthony Quinn), is not only the chief of the Seminole but is also vying for the affections of his sweetheart Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale). While Revere shuttles back and forth in the role of intermediary between the Seminole and the army, a plan is set in motion by the fort’s commander, Major Degan (Richard Carlson), to strike at the enemy in their Everglades homeland and thus preempt any further threat.

The film raises a number of issues, only a few of which are fully explored. The main conflict is the internal struggle which Caldwell experiences between his loyalty to the army and his inherent sympathy for the Seminole he has known all his life. This leads to his being suspected of treachery by his superiors and his eventual court martial. The film tries hard to show the Seminloe in a positive light (mostly due to the performance of Anthony Quinn) but generally takes the middle way, since the army is portrayed as being reasonably even-handed with the exception of the uptight martinet Major Degan. This leads to a bit of a pat, upbeat ending. Much stronger is the middle section where Degan leads his troop on a disastrous march through the steamy swamps with a huge cannon in tow, all the while insisting they keep their tunics buttoned to the collar as per the regulations. One of the more interesting themes, and the film really only touches on it, is that of miscegenation. It is quite clear that Revere has been involved in a long-term relationship with Osceola but, after a brief mention by the chief of how white society would frown on this, she quite happily drops him and contents herself with a future by Caldwell’s side.

Seminole - an early role for Lee Marvin

Rock Hudson is just about adequate in his role as the new officer forced to make war on his one time friend but his acting is a little too wooden to do justice to a part which requires him to experience a good deal of inner turmoil. Anthony Quinn fares better as the reluctant war chief whose living in both the white and Seminole cultures has afforded him an understanding of both. However, the role, as written, calls for a little too much nobility on his part and so weakens the chracter. Richard Carlson’s Degan is a very one dimensional portrayal which consists of much manic ranting and petty spitefulness, still he makes for a good hissable villain. As for Barbara Hale, she hasn’t a lot to do except act as a plot device and provide  some decoration. Lee Marvin shows up in one of his small early parts as Sergeant Magruder and adds a touch of class to the proceedings, as he always did. Boetticher directs the whole thing at his trademark brisk pace, and does his best work when he moves out from the confines of the fort into the swamp scenes and the ensuing battle at the Seminole camp. As I said earlier, his finest work would come a few years later but Seminole remains an entertaining little piece.

Now for the DVD. Seminole is available in R2 in the UK from Optimum and the transfer can best be described as weak. The picture is very soft and muddy throughout, and the colours are extremely faded – a real shame since this is a movie that would benefit enormously from strong, vibrant colours. The only bonus included is the theatrical trailer. There are editions of the film available from France and Germany but I have no idea if they look any better. All told, I would recommend the film – pity about the DVD.

 
 
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