Strictly speaking, the ‘Ranown Film’ credit applies to only two films (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station), but it’s generally extended to refer to the cycle of six (or sometimes seven) Westerns directed over a five year period by Budd Boetticher, produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott (the latter names combining for the production credit). I haven’t seen 1959’s Westbound (a contract picture for Warner Bros. that Scott was tied to, and which Boetticher directed though didn’t personally consider part of the cycle), but certainly the other six combine to create a singular body of work. They’re united not just by their director, producer and leading man, but by their common shooting location in California’s Alabama Hills, and their themes — generally speaking, they’re about men and the manifestations (and perhaps, if we’re being generous, limitations) of masculinity. For these are very much manly films, though there are women in them (and some strong supporting roles at that, particularly Gail Russell in Seven Men from Now and Nancy Gates in Comanche Station). Indeed, “A Man Can Do That” is the subtitle of the somewhat patchy documentary about Boetticher included as an extra on the boxset of the latter five films, and much of the dialogue has that kind of laconic old-fashioned ring to it, along the lines of “A man gets to thinking…” that emphasise the hero’s status as a lone outsider forging his own way in a tough frontier country. No doubt some of this comes from Boetticher’s own interests and upbringing, manifested by his fascination with bullfighting (a subject he returned to in a number of his other films), but this is an enduring trope of a genre that has periodically returned to popularity since, but was still in its most classical phase in the 1950s, prior to the revisionism of the latter part of the 60s.
Each of the films begins with the entrance of Randolph Scott, often riding astride a horse, usually picking his way through the rocky outcroppings of the Alabama Hills. He’s alone (so much is emphasised in a couple of the film titles), and Scott certainly cuts a fascinating leading man, with a kind of formal stiffness to him that’s well matched to the genre. Something that’s noticeable about the acting style in these films, and particularly with Scott, is this laconic reserve, the way that so often he prefers to remain still and watchful, and only speak and move when needed — in this respect, Boetticher’s films resemble Japanese samurai movies (which themselves often drew inspiration from the Western genre). Beyond this, Scott’s character is carrying issues in his past that come to have meaning during the film. Usually he’s hunting some outlaws, who may have killed his friends (The Tall T), but have more often killed or caused the death of his wife (Seven Men from Now, Decision at Sundown and Ride Lonesome). In fact, taken along with Comanche Station (in which he also mourns a dead wife), Scott’s leading men have a complicated history of love affairs, and though a few of the films suggest he may have a future with the leading ladies in them, the prospect never seems to be something he’s particularly keen on. There’s rarely any grandstanding with his heroes, they just get on with what a man has to do.
As with any older works of art, there are aspects which perhaps have dated a little more than others. Quite aside from the level of tolerance you have for its world of men doing manly things, the way that Native Americans are treated is at times rather callous. Yet even the heroes are flawed; this is far from a world of Manichaean distinctions between good and evil. The bad guys may be bad but they’re just trying to make it in a brutal world, while the good guys sometimes do what they need to do to get by. I mean, you always know that Scott is the hero, but sometimes he can just be — and I’m not sure quite how else to put this — he can be a massive dick. He spends most of Seven Men from Now, for example, baiting Annie (Gail Russell)’s husband for being less than a man, just because he doesn’t know much about the frontier, and doesn’t carry a gun. “A man oughta be able to take care of his woman,” after all. You can see a lot of him in Clint Eastwood’s screen persona: straight talking (when he talks) but pretty socially conservative all the same, which is quite often something for which ‘straight talking’ is code anyway.
Of the films, the best are the ones written by Burt Kennedy, and of these, the first, Seven Men from Now (1956), stands tallest. Aside from introducing the hallmarks of the series in terms of laconic hero, pared-down plot and concise running time, it also showcases some of the cycle’s finest acting, most notably Gail Russell’s Annie and Lee Marvin’s Bill Masters. Marvin’s antagonistic character isn’t even one of the bandits referenced in the title, but his interest in the stolen money compromises him and in the end damns him, despite all the help he provided Scott’s hero Ben Stride. It’s a complicated role, but effortlessly handled. Russell too makes great use of some emotive expressions; her weary eyes seem to have seen their fair share of trouble, suggesting a multitude of possibilities for why her character might have been drawn out to such unforgiving territory, and that’s before I read up on Russell’s heartbreaking biography.
After that, Ride Lonesome (1959) is probably the next most striking entry in the canon, not least for the brilliantly cinematic image of a burning tree that closes the film. It’s also the first of the films to be shot in a widescreen format, and if anything that only makes the starkness of the desert terrain more compelling and threatening (as Fritz Lang famously says in Godard’s Le Mépris, “CinemaScope is fine for snakes and coffins, but not for people”). Our antagonist here is another master of wordless cinematic expression, Lee Van Cleef, and there’s an early role for James Coburn too, as one of the bad guys chasing down our hero.
Any individual film from the cycle will give you a sense of these recurring themes as well as the strong tie to the sequence’s filming location, and many of the plot and character details even at a short remove run together in my mind when I think back on them. However, taken together, they’re a singular achievement, one of the high points of the Western as a form, which reflected so concisely the worldview of a particular era and relaid a foundation that would soon be challenged by the new Hollywood filmmakers at the same time as being lionised by Sergio Leone. Budd Boetticher was one of the great directors of Westerns, and these six films prove that to be so pretty comprehensively.
Seven Men from Now (1956) || Director Budd Boetticher | Writer Burt Kennedy | Cinematographer William H. Clothier | Starring Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, Gail Russell | Length 78 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Saturday 14 July 2001 (and subsequently on DVD at home, London, most recently Wednesday 7 January 2015)
The Tall T (1957) || Director Budd Boetticher | Writer Burt Kennedy (based on the short story “The Captives” by Elmore Leonard) | Cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. | Starring Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan | Length 78 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Friday 20 July 2001 (and on DVD at home, London, most recently Thursday 1 January 2015)
Decision at Sundown (1957) || Director Budd Boetticher | Writer Charles G. Lang | Cinematographer Burnett Guffey | Starring Randolph Scott, John Carroll | Length 77 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 2 January 2015
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) || Director Budd Boetticher | Writer Charles Lang (based on the novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward) | Cinematographer Lucien Ballard | Starring Randolph Scott, Tol Avery | Length 78 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 3 January 2015
Ride Lonesome (1959) || Director Budd Boetticher | Writer Burt Kennedy | Cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. | Starring Randolph Scott, Lee Van Cleef, Karen Steele | Length 73 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Monday 23 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 4 January 2015)
Comanche Station (1960) || Director Budd Boetticher | Writer Burt Kennedy | Cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. | Starring Randolph Scott, Claude Akins, Nancy Gates | Length 74 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 5 January 2015