Most people recognize the film work of Ford, or Peckinpah, or Hawks, or even Mann. But I wonder how many know Boetticher? While those other filmmakers roamed the epic western wilderness paying special attention to style and scale, director Budd Boetticher carved out a series of small, character driven westerns during the 1950’s, most starring Randolph Scott, that stand equally tall against the popular Western Canon. All written by Burt Kennedy, the Boetticher/Scott films share similar motifs both in theme and character, but vary enough to be seen as separate entities. These films calculate an inherent respect between hero and villain, showing a deep commitment to honor over brutality and redemption over greed. The picturesque landscape of most Boetticher westerns looks and feels different than Mann’s mountainous mise-en-scene or Ford’s Monument Valley. Boetticher’s is a stunning combination of both and it’s even sweeter he filmed most of them in Ramona, CA, close to my home-base of San Diego. Boetticher exemplifies the independent spirit of the B-movie, shooting some of his film’s in as few as 10 days. But production value was never been Boetticher’s emphasis. Story and character always reigned supreme in the world of Budd. A beautiful and thankful reminder to any young filmmaker.Boetticher holds a special place in my heart and in those of my closest colleagues. The discovery of his work was shared, a joint exposure to a new and inventive autuer. I even helped write and produce a feature film highly influenced by the Boetticher aesthetic. So when an opportunity arose to see three Boetticher’s on the big screen at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, it was a no-brainer.
Ride Lonesome (1959) – The title says it all. Randolph Scott plays the withered and solitary Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter mysteriously devoted to transporting a murderer to be hanged. Brigade’s harsh need to fill the hangman’s noose raises questions with his fellow travelers, creating crafty exchanges seeped in character. Brigade’s past history flutters dormant, but as in most Boetticher’s, rises to the surface as characterizations reveal themselves. The final image of a burning “hang tree” crisply configures Boetticher’s themes of vengeance and redemption. Formally the most magnificent Boetticher film, specifically for it’s keen series of tracking and crane shots, a marvelous formal compliment to Brigade’s lonesome endeavor.
The Tall T (1957) – Brutal and crisp, even for a Boetticher western, The Tall T displays a brilliant mixture of sublime camera movement and dynamic characters. Cowboy Pat Brennan happens upon a robbery attempt and gets mixed up in the chaos. While Brennan’s not one of Boetticher/Kennedy’s most interesting hero’s, this is Scott’s best performance. Brennan’s sly and improvisational attitude toward the faltering situation makes his interactions with villains Boone and Chink that much more resonate. Even though the story is personal, it feels like an encapsulation of the entire Boetticher universe.
Comanche Station (1960) – Boetticher directing Scott for the last time and it’s a marvelous send-off. Like Ride Lonesome, this film has a clearly driven narrative centered on the constant struggle between cowboy Cody and criminal Lane to rescue damsel in distress Nancy Lowe from the Comanches. Her husband offers a $5,000 reward, but like all of Boetticher’s western hero’s, the money doesn’t matter. Something else lingers underneath this drive to save Nancy, a personal demon whose fiery bite burns in Cody’s eyes. A classic Boetticher, both personal in it’s narrative execution and character development. Cody’s back story remains one of the most pertinent of all the Boetticher heroes, a combination of love and hatred brewed to the brim. Even though interactions with the beautiful Lowe pleasantly remind him of possible redemption, Cody’s world will never be right side up again.
Seeing these Boetticher films on the big screen reminded me why film, and never digital, will forever be the brightest and clearest star on the film horizon. There’s no substitute for real people, real horses, and real stories. Budd, it’s been a pleasure.