Friday, November 5, 2010

Budd Boetticher | The Tall T / Ride Lonesome / Commanche Station


I must admit that of all film genres, my least favorite, at least as an adult, has been the Western. Of course, I recognize those masterworks of John Ford and the works of the later career of Howard Hawks. I too love the great showdown of High Noon. But by and large, the film Western seldom appealed to me.

When filmmaker Budd Boetticher died on November 29, 2001, however, I determined to discover why he was so admired for films that were described as grade-B westerns. What I saw quite amazed me. And I have become a true fan of his cinematographic gifts and of Randolph Scott’s acting abilities. The films I saw were on badly deteriorated tapes, but in 2008 Boetticher’s four great films—three of which I write about below—were published on DVD.

by Douglas Messerli

Burt Kennedy (screenplay), based on a story by Elmore Leonard, Budd Boetticher (director), The Tall T / 1957

On his way into town to buy a bull, homesteader Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) stops by the stagecoach waystation to visit his friend Hank Parker and his young son. In this early scene we already sense the dangers and tension in director Budd Boetticher’s vision of the frontier, as, observing someone riding his way, Parker immediately grabs his rifle. The boy, however, has better eyes than his father and recognizes the man immediately as their friend, ignoring the calls of his father warning him to remain still, instead running forward with anticipation. As Parker soon after tells Brennan, living “stuck out in the middle of nowhere, all by yourself, knowin’ nobody but stage drivers and shotguns,” “ain’t no fit life at all"; certainly it is not a life he wishes for his son.

The child asks Brennan to bring him some candy back from town, a task to which the laconic and kindly farmer readily agrees. But once in town he is tricked by his former employer—a man who would like Brennan to return to work with him—to bet his horse against his ability to break the bull, which if he succeeds he will receive for free. Tossed into a nearby watering trough, Brennan comically loses, forfeiting his horse. After a quick visit to the candy shop, he is forced to walk the several miles back to his farm. While on route, however, the stage, driven by his friend Ed Rintoon, passes him, and he hails a ride—over the protests of the couple who have hired it—back to his stead.

Within the coach sits a cowardly bookkeeper, Willard Mims, and his new bride, a severely plain woman (Maureen O’Sullivan) who is the daughter of a wealthy copper miner. Clearly, the bookkeeper has married for money, and although the daughter may look plain, we see her through the eyes of Brennan as a quietly beautiful woman (she is after all Tarzan’s beloved Jane). Thus far, accordingly, Boetticher has set up the structure of a seemingly typical Western. We know love will blossom between the lonely Brennan and the miner’s daughter; it is just a question of when or how.

But Boetticher’s Westerns are not usually what they seem, and a few seconds later we enter an entirely different world, where simple black and white values suddenly disappear. When the stage reaches Parker’s station house, we see it has been taken over by three men, Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his quick-to-draw partners Chink and Billy Jack. Parker and his son are nowhere to be seen, and we suddenly perceive that what we are about to witness in the next hour is a terribly dark vision of western life when Chink shoots the coach driver dead and, upon Brennan’s inquiry into the whereabouts of Parker and his son, he is told that their bodies have been tossed into the well where a few hours earlier Brennan had watered his horse.

Before we can even catch our breath from this horrific announcement, Usher orders Mims’s wife to the house to cook, while Mims quickly strikes a bargain to leave his wife behind while he goes back to demand a ransom payment from her father. Accompanied by Usher, Mims speeds away, while the nearly speechless Brennan—the only one of the group who recognizes it may be best to hold his tongue—and Doretta Mims are cornered into a small cave-like shack from which any attempt to exit is met with gunshots.

Mims and Usher return with the news that the miner will be sending ransom by the next day; but if there is question of possible salvation in that fact, one of Usher’s men quickly shoots Mims dead. While Brennan has hidden the fact from the wife that Mims has offered her up for ransom, Usher and his boys now make it clear just how disgusting his role has been, and Doretta beaks down into fearful sobs. Later, Brennan, trying to help her regain her equilibrium, discusses the ridiculousness of her marriage:

PAT BRENNAN: Did you love him?
DORETTA MIMS: I married him.
BRENNAN: That’s not what I asked.
DORETTA: Yes! Yes, I did.
BRENNAN: Mrs. Mims, you’re a liar. You didn’t love him, and never for
one minute thought he loved you. That’s true, isn’t it?
DORETTA: Do you know what it’s like to be alone in a camp full of
roughneck miners, and a father who holds a quiet hatred
for you because you’re not the son he’s always wanted?
Yes, I married Willard Mims because I couldn’t stand being
alone anymore. I knew all the time he didn’t love me, but
I didn’t care. I thought I’d make him love me….by the time
he asked me to marry him, I’d told myself inside for so long
that I believed it was me he cared for and not the money.

Such language seems to belong more to the psychological stage dramas of the day—works by William Inge and Tennessee Williams—than the adventure genre of Western movies.
Soon after, moreover, Boetticher’s screenplay writer, Burt Kennedy, takes the drama even further into new territory as the cruel murderer Usher reveals in a conversation with Brennan that he hopes one day to get himself a place, “something to belong to,” and settle down. Usher goes so far as to insult the two men with whom he rides as “nothin’ but animals.” Brennan sees through the murderer’s self-delusions, however, reminding Usher, “You run with ‘em.” “Nothin’ you can do with ‘em,” Usher replies. “Nobody ever tried,” rejoins Brennan.

Indeed, there is something almost homoerotic about Usher’s controlling and manipulative relationship with the two younger villains. And in this fact, there is also a quality in Usher—in his inability to control his own apparent instincts despite his ideals—that makes him oddly likeable, as if given half a chance he might have turned into a man more like Brennan.

We know however, despite Brennan’s absurd assurances to Mrs. Mims, (“Come on now. It’s gonna be a nice day”) that if he does not act quickly they too will be destroyed. As Usher rides off to collect the ransom, Brennan tricks Chink into believing that Usher intends to leave without them, and the young man quickly rides after Usher. Suggesting to Billy Jack that he “look in on the woman,” he captures the boy’s gun and kills him. When Usher and Chink return, Brennan shoots them dead, walking off into the sunset with Doretta Mims. He will no longer be alone in “the middle of nowhere.”

There is something so dark and grandly absurd about this work that one recognizes its influence upon the work of a contemporary, postmodern dramatist such as Sam Shepard.

Los Angeles, October 17, 2001
Copyright (c) 2001 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

by Douglas Messerli

Burt Kennedy (writer), Budd Boetticher (director) Ride Lonesome / 1959

Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome begins where most Westerns end, with its bounty-hunter hero Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) catching up with the murderer Billy John (James Best). Billy, thinking he has outwitted Brigade, is waiting for him, threatening a show-down before revealing he has hidden his men behind nearby rocks, and warning Brigade that if he doesn’t turn around and leave, he’ll be killed. The wily Brigade, however, admits that he may die, but not before he “cuts” Billy John “in half.”

The dim-witted criminal calls off his men, com-manding them to tell his brother and his gang that he has been captured, and throughout the rest of the movie, we await the arrival of Frank and his men to save his younger brother.

Meanwhile, Brigade moves forward with his prisoner to the nearby way station. But as in The Tall T, they realize that something is wrong as they discover two other outlaws, Sam Boone and his long-time partner Whit (James Coburn) have taken charge of the place. Inside waits Mrs. Carrie Lane, before she enters the scene, rifle in hand, in an attempt to run them all off; her husband, evidently, has gone to round up some missing horses, leaving her alone. She obviously is a hardy and seemingly unintimidated pioneer woman, ready to defend her domain—until a coach comes crashing into the station, its driver and all passengers killed, evidently, by the nearby Indians. Suddenly, it is apparent that her husband is in danger, and that, if Brigade wants to move forward to Santa Cruz with his prisoner, he must join forces with the outlaws.
An overnight stay at the way station reveals the increasing attraction of the men to Mrs. Lane, in particular Boone, who has “seen…in her eyes” that she is “the kind that got a need.” To Boone’s description of Carrie as a beautiful thing to look at, Brigade replies, with the laconic wit of Burt Kennedy’s writing, “She ain’t ugly.”

While the group awaits the Indians, it becomes apparent that Boone and Whit have gathered at the way station to await Brigade; Boone wants to take Billy John in for the reward, not of money, but of amnesty (a word which has taken him a long time to comprehend). For like Usher in The Tall T, Boone wants to settle down on a small ranch he’s purchased (“I got me a place. Ain’t much—not yet it is”); amnesty will free him from his past crime and his role as a gunfighting outlaw; but, obviously, before they can take in Billy John it is clear that he must kill one more time.

When the Indians finally arrive the next morning, it is not to fight but to trade a horse for Mrs. Lane. Brigade pretends to play along with them, hopeful that when he refuses the horse as an insufficient price, they will ride off. Warning Carrie not show any fear in front of the Indians, they ride forward in pretense of the trade; when the chief presents the horse, however, Carrie suddenly breaks down: the horse, she recognizes, is her husband’s.

Brigade and his small group ride off, hoping to outrun the Indians to another, burnt-out way station, a feat they achieve, killing the Indian chief as the other Indians escape. In the run, however, Carrie’s horse has fallen, and Ben spends the night watching the horse, hoping that he can convince it to again stand, while the others urge him to simply shoot it. When, come morning, it finally stands, Boone summarizes the situation: “Looks like we don’t need to shoot him either.”
Their leisurely movements forward brilliantly reveal the potential dangers through composer Heinz Roemheld’s music, which begins as an almost familiar horse ambling tune which sickeningly spirals down into the minor scale before returning to its original cowboy-like melody. Repeated over and over throughout the movie, we sense the dread of all those concerned.
When the group finally beds down near an old hanging tree, Boone realizes he must act. Trying to explain to Carrie his position:

BOONE: I got ‘a kill him.
CARRIE: Two dogs fighting over the same bone.

Yet Boone and Whit have come to realize that Brigade’s trip to Santa Cruz has been an inordinately slow one, as he meanders toward his destination in the open, for all—Indians and Frank and his gang—to witness. In a conversation with Carrie, Brigade’s actions become apparent: it is not Billy John in whom he is interested, but his brother Frank, who years earlier—when Brigade was sheriff—abducted Brigade’s wife, hanging her on the tree beneath which they now stand.

When Frank and his men finally do catch up, Brigade has strung Billy to the same tree and is ready to hang him if the elder brother does not come forward alone. Frank has little choice: if he shoots, Billy will be hung, and if doesn’t he will be killed by Brigade. The outcome is inevitable.
To his horrific crime of the past, Frank has nothing to say but, “I ‘most forgot.” History, as it is for Boone and Whit, is something to be forgotten. Only moral men such as Brigade can allow memory to guide their acts.

Having achieved his goal, Brigade allows Boone to take in the prisoner and possibly redeem his life, and, as Boone and Carrie ride off to the civilized world, Brigade can be seen burning the hanging tree: the past is laid to rest at last.

Los Angeles, October 14, 2001
Copyright (c) 2001 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

by Douglas Messerli

Burt Kennedy (writer), Budd Boetticher (director) Comanche Station / 1960

The last of Budd Boetticher’s westerns with actor Randolph Scott, Comanche Station, presents a familiar pattern for those who have seen his films. Although the movie begins with hero Jefferson Cody seeming to be captured by Comanche Indians, it soon again becomes apparent that the more dangerous of enemies are the renegade cowboys. For Cody has purposely sought out the tribe to trade for a white woman whom they have captured. Although we are not told until late in the film, we discover that Cody’s wife has been taken ten years before, and during the lonely years since he has continued to seek her out, trading for the lives of many captured pioneer wives.

It only takes a few minutes after the woman’s release before writer Burt Kennedy and director Boetticher begin a series of humorous and, at times, near-absurd dialogues that pepper their cinematic collaborations. In response to Cody’s bemused question, “All right what’s your name?” the woman answers straightforwardly: “Nancy. Lowe,” to which Cody oddly replies, “I should have known.” A few minutes later, Nancy says, “So you came after me. Why?” “I thought it was a good thing,” wryly responds the former soldier. It is often the verbal wit of these films more than the inevitable action scenes that make Boetticher’s works so original.

As the two ride in to Comanche Station, a waystation typical of the Kennedy stories, they are met with three outlaws, Ben Lane (Claude Akins) and his younger partners Frank and Dobie. Cody has known Lane from army life of long ago, when Lane had so brutally killed Indians that Cody, then a major, testified against him, resulting in a court martial for Lane. Lane and his followers, it seems, have been on the track of Mrs. Lane, determined to bring her back for the reward of $5,000 offered by her husband.

It soon becomes apparent that in order to claim the money, Lane and his boys will have to kill Cody and, in order to escape suspicion, Mrs. Lane as well; after all, her husband has offered the money for his wife, dead or alive! But since they must first pass through the remainder of Comanche country, they now need Cody’s help, and Cody needs them to help get him and the woman back to civilization.

In several of the films of this series, the Randolph Scott figure, in his need for temporary friendship, seems almost to admire some of the young villains he encounters, and a kinship is often established between the obvious “good” cowboy and the “bad” men. Dobie recognizes Cody immediately as a good man, a man of the type his father had wished he might become, a man who to his way of thinking has “amounted to something”:

DOBIE: A man does one thing, one thing in his life he could look back
on…go proud. That’s enough. Anyway, that’s what my pa used
to say.
FRANK: He talked all the time, didn’t he.
DOBIE: Yeah. He was a good man. Sure is a shame.
SHAME: Shame?
DOBIE: Yeah, my pa. He never did amount to anything.

Unlike the other villains of this series, however, Ben Lane has no intentions of giving up his evil ways and settling down to farm life. Accordingly, he is perhaps one of Boetticher’s least appealing villains. But the other two men, particularly the young, “gentle” Dobie, who cannot abide the idea of killing the woman, offer Cody more kinship.

Dobie would clearly like to fulfill his father’s desire. And in his profound loneliness, Cody offers him a way out that is as close to an offer of deep friendship—and an obviously homoerotic relationship— than we had seen in this genre to date.

DOBIE: Me and Frank were riding together up Val Verde Way. Frank was
alone, same as me. And we heard about this fella who was looking
for some guns. We’ve been with him ever since.
JEFFERSON CODY: You’ll end up on a rope, Dobie. You know that.
DOBIE: Yes, sir.
JEFFERSON CODY: You could break with him.
DOBIE: I’ve thought about that. I’ve thought about that a lot. Frank says, “A man
gets used to a thing.”
JEFFERSON CODY: Dobie, when we get to Lawrenceburg, you can ride with me
for a ways. A man gets tired being all the time alone.

The boy practically gushes in appreciation like a courted maiden. Sadly, fate determines that Dobie will not escape. While on lookout, Frank is killed by the Comanche’s, and Dobie is forced to stay with Ben. After crossing Comanche territory, Cody steals their rifles and sends them off into the wilds in order to protect the woman and save his own life.

As we have already been told by Lane, however, he has a plan. Having hidden away another rifle, he insists that Dobie wait for him at a point past where Cody and Mrs. Lowe will have to pass. When Dobie refuses to participate, Lane shoots him in the back.

The resounding murder, however, saves Cody and the woman, and the inevitable showdown ends with Lane’s death. Mrs. Lowe is returned to her husband, whom we discover has not himself come to save her because he is blind. Her physical beauty, so readily observed by the other men, has meant nothing to him: like Cody, John Lowe’s love is clearly a love that transcends.

The final view we have of Jefferson is as he passes behind a large domed rock, coming into view again at a far lower elevation from where he have just observed him. It is as if Cody, a man who once amounted to something, without wife or even someone “to ride with,” has collapsed into the landscape over which he formerly prevailed.

Los Angeles, October 19, 2001
Copyright (c) 2001 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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