Sunday, January 4, 2009

A man can do that

One of the questions on the holiday quiz posted over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule asks “What is your favorite Budd Boetticher film?” This was actually a lot harder to answer than you would think…but what I found so curious was that many of those who took the quiz had no answer simply because they were familiar with Boetticher’s oeuvre. (I can’t claim any superiority here, I couldn’t answer the “What is your favorite Claude Chabrol film?" for the same reason.)

Had Boetticher not teamed up with star Randolph Scott, writer Burt Kennedy and producer Harry Brown to make a series of oaters that would redefine the “adult western” in the 1950s, the question would have been a piece of cake. As a longtime fan of film noir, I probably would have answered The Killer is Loose (1956), a dandy escaped-convict-on-the-run fable that Vince Keenan mentioned seeing recently here. There would have been other choice Boetticher vehicles to vote for: The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), The Man from the Alamo (1953) or The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), to name only a few. Even the director’s prolific B-output—One Mysterious Night (1944; one of the Boston Blackie pictures), The Missing Juror (1944), Escape in the Fog (1945), Behind Locked Doors (1948)—could have sired a nominee.

But because the Boetticher-Scott-Kennedy-Brown westerns are so damn good and hold up so well, to answer the question simply became a matter of choosing the one I like best. I went with The Tall T (1957); probably because it was the first of the bunch that I got around to seeing years ago (it was championed by Danny Peary in his invaluable film reference Cult Movies). In Tall, Scott plays a former ramrod named Pat Brennan who finds himself taken hostage—along with newlyweds Willard (John Hubbard) and Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan)—by a gang of desperadoes headed up by cuke-as-a-coolcumber outlaw Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his lackeys Billy Jack (Skip Homier) and Chink (Henry Silva). The cowardly Mims talks Usher into allowing him to ride off to his father-in-law’s ranch to tell him that his daughter has been kidnapped for ransom; while the outlaws wait for the money to be delivered, Brennan ever-so-calmly looks for a way out of the situation.

When I saw The Tall T for the first time, I was very impressed by a number of things the film had to offer. The plot, for one thing, wasn’t the usual paint-by-numbers scenario I’d seen in many other B-westerns…and in fact, was adapted from a story by Elmore Leonard, a first-rate author of westerns and crime novels. I was also fascinated by the character of Usher—a bad guy who really didn’t give off any bad-guy vibes; he seemed to be more of a pragmatic sort who, although he participates in questionable acts (he kills the yellow Mims who obviously married his wife for the money and who’s not predisposed to continue letting her stay with the villains while he rides off to safety), is more concerned about the bottom line than anything else. (“Tell Mike it was only business,” to quote a famous Godfather line.) The character of Usher is virtually indistinguishable from that of the “hero,” Brennan—it’s like the two men represent two sides of a coin and that each could be the other if circumstances had dictated as such. (Director Anthony Mann would explore this a year later in his cult classic Man of the West [1958]—an oater that is at times so similar to Tall that I have to look closely at the cast to figure out which film I’m watching.)

TCM showed The Tall T on Friday night, and I was able to get the new DVD recorder up and running before 9:30, because they followed it up with Ride Lonesome (1959), another Scott-Boetticher concoction that I hadn’t seen before. Randy’s a bounty hunter—with the delightful moniker of "Ben Brigade"—who’s taking back ornery cuss Billy John (James Best) to Santa Cruz to hang for murder. At a stagecoach depot, Brigade meets up with two old adversaries in Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and his young partner Whit (James Coburn); both men are in the same business as Brigade, though their pasts are a tad bit shadier. Brigade is forced to take both men along with him—in addition to Carrie Lane (Karen Steele), the widow of the depot owner—to outrun Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef), who’s looking to rescue his brother…and settle an old score with Brigade.

Ride Lonesome is by every measure of the yardstick a first-rate western—better in some respects than The Tall T, due to its hard-edged, clipped dialogue and incredible supporting cast. Roberts made a name for himself on the small screen with Bonanza and later Trapper John, MD but he made very few theatrical films and Lonesome certainly stands out as the best (as the risk of hyperbole, I’d honestly have to say it’s the best thing I’ve seen him do). Lonesome also marked Coburn’s film debut and although he had a TV credit or two before appearing in the western he took to it like a duck to water (Scott helped both Coburn and Roberts out by asking that some of the sharper dialogue be given to their characters—but even with that magnanimous gesture Scott still looks tall in the saddle). And as for Best…well, playing obnoxious, still-wet-behind-the-ears punks was his stock-in-trade, and he doesn’t disappoint.

Classic western fans—in fact, classic movie fans in general—were given an incredibly nice Christmas present this past November when Sony released the Budd Boetticher Box Set, a compendium of the great Boetticher-Scott oaters that also includes Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) and Comanche Station (1960). (Why they left Westbound [1959] off the set is anybody’s guess.) I know I’m a bit behind in watching the rest of these classics (let’s face it—if I had a dollar for every unopened DVD around this jernt…well, I’ve have a lot more unopened DVDs around this jernt) but I hope to get to them soon; I’ve previously seen Decision but I might revisit it for old time’s sake. Several individuals have wondered why the box set has Boetticher’s name on it and not Scott’s—and regretfully, I’ve pondered that as well; it’s sad to see that Scott’s star has fallen so. One of my favorite moments in Blazing Saddles (1974) is when Cleavon Little’s sheriff asks the townspeople of Rock Ridge to do some task and they respond by telling him to sit on a cactus or some such. He looks them in the eye and remarks: “You’d do it for Randolph Scott…”

Damn straight, I would. There are some things a man can’t ride around.


Samuel Wilson said...

I sprung for the Boetticher set but I hate to tear through all of them at once. I've looked at Tall T and Decision at Sundown and liked the latter better, but both are very good. I'll get around to Ride Lonesome shortly, but I know what you mean about unopened DVDs. I've got scads of 'em.

Barry said...


Westbound is a Warner Bros. production. Scott owed them one last picture and he got Boetticher to direct it.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Thanks for the info, Barry!