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.