In a brief span of four years, from 1956 to 1960, Director Budd Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy and actor Randolph Scott collaborated on a series of seven “chamber westerns” which rank as one of the most rewarding achievements in the art of American Cinema.
While a number of prominent film critics, historians and luminaries have rightly praised the “Ranown” series (named after Boetticher’s production company), attention is often paid to the fact that Boetticher produced the series on a shoestring budget. Thus, despite praise, the series and Boetticher himself are relegated to a second tier, “B” level, as if the monies poured into these films somehow affect and dictate their intrinsic value.
To the contrary, the Boetticher/Kennedy/Scott westerns are in every way equal to the larger budgeted collaborations of Ford and Wayne, Daves and Ford, Leone and Eastwood.
With these sparse, psychologically complex works, Boetticher did as much for the American western as Val Lewton did for the American Horror film in the 40’s.
The breakthrough Seven Men From Now (1956) was a long way from Ken Maynard’s white hat and bottle of milk atop a horse named Tarzan. It’s also far more aesthetically modernist, more taut, more complexly developed in character than the later, ultra-stylish westerns of Peckinpah and Leone (the exception being Peckinpah’s slightly overrated Ride the High Country, also starring Randolph Scott with Joel McCrea). Very few films in the genre can boast as richly developed characterizations. The Delmer Daves/Glenn Ford films along with the Anthony Mann/James Stewart cannon can arguably be mentioned in the same breath.
Seven Men From Now establishes Boetticher’s Ranown canvas. Randolph Scott was an actor of beautiful limitations and the director utilized Scott’s mere presence to compositional advantage. The actor’s weathered face parallels the expressionistic, Cezanne-like rocky terrains. Boetticher takes equal advantage of his hero’s range to etch a morally ambiguous personification.
Scott, out for revenge, seems, at first, to personify the mythological old west code of right and wrong. He is ancient, laconic, sips coffee, and projects a virtuous nobility with a mere shifting of the eyes. That is until his foil, Lee Marvin (superb here) astutely recalls how Scott had no qualms about stealing a friend’s wife. Even Walter Reed, as Gail Russell’s weak, cowardly husband, surprises in an act of redemption. The power in the Boetticher films lies in the riveting conversations and in a shrewd slicing of viewer expectations. There is a disconcerting, hushed quality throughout the film, even in those conversations, which project a tense, quiescent air of revelation.
Shot in a mere twelve days, The Tall T is one of the most remarkable westerns in a decade that unquestionably belonged to the western genre. Burt Kennedy scripted a pure, taut, and crisp script from an Elmore Leonard short story.
The Tall T is an actor’s film. The first surprise lies in Maureen O’Sullivan’s performance as homely, whimpering Doretta Mims; a performance that can almost be seen as a bookend to her far different, equally superb performance as the independent, strong-willed, sensual Jane of Tarzan and his Mate (1934). Here, she is the newly married, timid wife of unsympathetic louse John Hubbard. By film’s end she emerges from self-pity’s well, dress coming off shoulder, hair loosed down and radiating a fire akin to Prometheus unbound as she is pressed up against the pure, granite-hard, phallic form of Randolph Scott.
Scott’s character is one of his most interesting and fully developed in the Boetticher cannon. The film opens with Scott visiting friends at the Way Station. Upon Scott’s departure, the young , amiable, grandson of the station manager gives the laconic cowboy a penny for some rock hard candy from the town store. Naturally, the good-natured Scott promises to do so. However, on the way back to the station, Scott, more animated than normal, loses his horse in a bet in a scene evoking archetypal good old boy western humor. The calm before the proverbial storm.
Taking a stagecoach on the way back to the station, Scott has a bit of camaraderie with old buddy and stagecoach driver Arthur Hunnicutt (a character favorite in dozens of westerns, he typified the grizzled sidekick) who is transporting newlyweds O’ Sullivan and her louse husband; John Hubbard (surprisingly, a standard stock coward, nowhere near as developed as Walter Reed’s similar character in Seven Men From Now ).
Waiting at the Way are three villains in the form of Richard Boone, Skip Homeier and Henry Silva, plotting mayhem. After the trio kills Hunnicutt, Scott discovers they have butchered the grandfather and grandson,disposing of them in the well. The killings, wisely, are never seen and the interplay of dialogue between Scott and Silva is deftly handled, seething in angst; ” And where is the boy?”, ‘In the well!”.
Hubbard is disposed of after displaying an all too eager willingness to ransom off his wife. There is honor even among the likes of these. Boone’s character, fully capable of committing vicious, cold blooded murder, begins to seep through the mask and facade, revealing a character that Scott empathizes with. Boone is tired of his two young comrades, and, likewise, he identifies with and admires Scott, despite the knowledge that he will have to kill both him and the woman.
The sexual tension between O’ Sullivan and Scott inexorably builds as they are forced to sleep together while planning their survival. Scott does not want to kill Boone, but stoically acknowledges what is certainly forthcoming. Even henchmen Homeier and Silva reveal added, fascinating dimensions to their characterizations. Their desperate dreams and goals are revealed, only to be reminded later that they killed an innocent old man, a young boy and they plan to kill again.
The Tall T , like Seven Men From Now, consistently surprises and magnetically draws the viewer into these characters and it’s compellingly rich bleakness, so much so that the finale, as inevitable as it is, evokes true, emotionally heightened dread. The Tall T is sculpted by the hands of a master craftsman.
Ride Lonesome (1959) was the first of Boetticher’s “Ranown” cycle to utilize the new CinemaScope process, and it does so impressively. The rich color and expressionist framing of desert canyon rock would only be topped in the series’ final entry, Comanche Station.Most fans of the cycle consider Ride Lonesome the best entry. While that remains debatable, it is certainly, in terms of composition and pacing, the most perfectly structured. It is also the most elegiac and, surprisingly, optimistic.
Amongst a memorable cast, Lee Van Cleef etches out an unforgettable, albeit brief, performance as the murderous brother of James Best (later known as the bumbling deputy in the TV series Dukes of Hazard) , who is prisoner to Randolph Scott’s bounty hunter. Naturally, things are more complex than they seem. Scott wants Cleef to catch up with them and for a very personal, startling reason: Cleef hanged Scott’s wife years before. Along the journey Scott meets up with the beautiful Karen Steele, and a pair of pseudo-outlaws in Pernell Roberts (Trapper John M.D) and a shockingly young James Coburn (his first film). Roberts and Coburn want Best for themselves, since turning him in, dead or alive, will gain them amnesty from their crimes. Naturally, there is sexual tension between Steele and Scott, yet the potential for relationship is doomed by Scott’s obsessive thirst for revenge.
Scott’s eventual handing over of Best to the two repentant outlaws is a pleasant surprise. The villains are hardly two-dimensional. Cleef, having committed a heinous crime, earnestly begs for his brother’s life, only to fall on Scott’s deaf ears.
The four males desire and vie for the widowed Steele (her husband having been murdered by the Apaches). At first she is mere ornamentation, as the women in the Boetticher films sometimes tend to be. Later, Steele’s character somewhat evolves into mother, latent lover, comforter, but short of fully developed person. Full development of female characters and weak scoring are the two biggest flaws in the otherwise outstanding Ranown cycle.
Boetticher still finds time for adroit comic touches amidst the overwhelming ironies and the final, haunting, lyrical image of the burning tree that Scott’s wife died on. Steele leaves her protector there, in the desert, alone. He will never be happy, nor find contentment. Indeed, one is left with the ominous feeling that the ravaged Scott himself will die there, never leaving this spot. This final shot sears in the memory. To summarize: Ride Lonesome is as optimistic as Boetticher can be and still be Boetticher.
If The Tall T is bleakest, and Ride Lonesome a fan favorite, then Comanche Station (1960) is the most poetic and artistically accomplished of Boetticher’s Ranown cycle of westerns.
This was the valedictory film for Ranown and was intended to be actor Randolph Scott’s as well (two years later he was talked out of retirement to make the sublime, yet slightly overrated Ride the High Country with director Sam Peckinpah and co-star Joel McCrea).
Scott emerges from a cubist landscape, first as a majestic silhouette, then as a haunted, chiseled ghost, continuing his vain, decade-long search for his (most likely dead) wife, abducted by Indians.
The native Americans here are portrayed as little more than savages, and Nancy Gates, the heroine he winds up rescuing, is a delicate object of prized beauty, rather than fully human. These quibbles aside, once again Boetticher’s stark, stripped down sense of composition is replete with complex characters and ambiguous mores.
Randolph Scott embodies a beautiful purity here, more so even than in the other entries. His endless years of wandering through the vast, arid western desert, searching for his lost wife, echoes Orpheus searching for Eurydice in hell, or in a seemingly pointless purgatory.
Comanche Station is a brooding post-modernist work which stems from allegories found in the most potent, forceful biblical tales and mythology. Claude Akins is the primary, King Saul-like villain; he has committed mass murder, intends to kill both Scott and Gates, does not hesitate killing his own man, and yet admires Scott and even saves him from a terrible fate.
Skip Homeier and Richard Rust are Akins’ latently homosexual henchmen (in a poignant scene, Akins complains to Scott of Homeier’s “softness”). The scene in which Homeier carefully lifts Rust’s dead, arrow-ridden body from the creek permeates a tender fragrance like that found in the story of David and Jonathan from the biblical Book of Kings. Homeier is touchingly simplistic, not truly wanting a life of crime, but clueless as to any other way of life.
Scott’s hero looks like a figure culled from a Cezanne canvas. He is at first misjudged by Gates, but will eventually be her savior, reuniting her with her family, the stains and scars of her past laid to rest. There is no such redemption for Scott. Station ends where it begins, and the tree from the finale of Ride Lonesome reappears here, symbolically haunting, in the middle of a river.
Pessimistic repetition is the Kafkaesque curse of Scott’s ghost, who will never find his wife, nor even a destination. The final scene in Comanche Station, like the Ranown cycle itself, sears itself into memory. These westerns are hopelessly undervalued by the bulk of mainstream audiences and critics, but for the initiated—as blasphemous as this may sound—this brief collaboration by a group of artists, lead by obsessive, inimitable auteur Budd Boetticher, rivals the best in American cinema (and, yes, that includes the films of John Ford).