Budd Boetticher, the great Western filmmaker who worked tirelessly during the 1950’s with star Randolph Scott, constructed brilliant character studies exploring the code of honor between heroes and villains and the complex blurring of iconographic incarnations. However, of all the Boetticher films, Decision at Sundown represents the first time he doesn’t hold a complete mastery of story and pacing. It’s always a pleasure to watch Randolph Scott chew on words of revenge, but the context with which he’s obsessed never gets fully fleshed out. His tragic character resembles a shift for the typical Boetticher/Scott hero in that he never admits the inevitable changes in character, nor does he have a strong grasp of the hatred he feels in the first place. In this sense, Scott’s Bart Allison and in turn his adversary Tate Kimbrough (John Carrol), who is supposedly responsible for the suicide of Allison’s cheating wife years ago and has now taken over a country town with corruption, don’t ring true with an authentic shared history. The whole film is a tough sell, a jumble of typical tales of Old West mythology that come and go whenever Boetticher feels necessary. Still, Boetticher’s genius for small scale dialogue scenes are apparent, and a thing of beauty for any fan of the director.
Not Boetticher’s finest hour, but still somewhat competent as a WWII spy thriller. None of the acting really shines, nor does the set-up/dream sequence nonsense add up to anything other than contrivance. Still, there’s something about Boetticher’s use of the San Francisco landscapes that haunts the environment even when the film itself dives into luke warm pacing and a lame love story. This one is probably for hardcore Boetticher fans only.
Director’s such as Fritz Lang and Henry Hathaway have crafted brilliant Film Noir’s based on unease within the post WWII family unit. Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose belongs in this esteemed company, a rippling and devastating crime picture that tears open the storybook 1950’s family and reveals the underlining doubts and weaknesses hiding underneath. Joseph Cotton plays Det. Sam Wagner, a beat cop about to get hitched to the vivid Lila (Rhonda Fleming). During the attempted capture of banker/criminal Leon Pool (Wendal Corey), Sam accidentally shoots Pool’s innocent wife. Pool’s mild manner takes a creepy right turn, evolving into a quiet but effective chorus of vengeance toward Sam. At first, no one takes Pool’s threats seriously except Lila. She sees the psychotic nature in Pool’s eyes, even when Sam and his police buddies choose to see it as a part of the job. When Pool escapes two years later, Sam and Lila’s relationship gets pushed to the brink by the certain violence heading there way. Pool’s quest is bloody and brutal, his unflinching nature tempered by his solemn and meager demeanor. This makes for one sadistic heavy and tension to spare.The Killer is Loose represents a drastic shift in locale and mood for Boetticher, best known for his superbly contained westerns with Randolph Scott. Working with harsh expressionistic lighting, Noir iconography, and hard-boiled dialogue, Boetticher fully encompasses himself in the Noir world. He creates a sharp but logical progression through these genre elements, especially in the post war psychosis of Pool, a broken man who’s failures in the military have resurfaced into an out of control killing machine. Pool’s quest for revenge is as simple as his role as a soldier, but this time he has a vested interest in succeeding. Corey’s Pool is a scary force, a man determined to enact a a single masculine gesture after a life of failures. His target is the very institution he’s been denied – a stable family. Pool tells an old army buddy his deceased wife was the only person who took him seriously. His fate rests within his own distilled memory of the love of his life, a woman, who, ironically enough never gets a word on-screen. Pool’s complexity is fascinating and challenging and it’s even more impressive Boetticher compliments Corey’s frightening performance with a unique Noir setting based around the family. Like Lang’s The Big Heat, Boetticher sets many scenes indoors, within neighborhoods, houses, and quiet suburban streets, typical safe havens engulfed by fear. Boetticher amplifies the consequences through a slow, simmering rise toward a destructive finish. The Killer is Loose is Boetticher’s masterpiece, tough to the core, cynical, and flushed with potent anguish.
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.