Case Number 15152

THE FILMS OF BUDD BOETTICHER

Decision At Sundown
Sony // 1957 // 77 Minutes // Not Rated
The Tall T
Sony // 1957 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Buchanan Rides Alone
Sony // 1958 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Ride Lonesome
Sony // 1959 // 73 Minutes // Not Rated
Comanche Station
Sony // 1960 // 74 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // December 4th, 2008

The Charge

The Western as Art...Again.

Opening Statement

Unless you are a true student of film, a connoisseur who sups beyond the stale mainstream meals that modern-day Hollywood ladles out in its cineplex soup kitchens, you've probably never heard of Oscar "Budd" Boetticher. You probably aren't aware of his four-decade career as a director, beginning with basic B-movie fare like The Lady and the Bullfighter and ending in 1985 with My Kingdom for..., a documentary on Portuguese Lusitano and Spanish Andalusian horses. With his death in 2001, one of the art form's true classicists was gone, leaving behind a legacy untouched and ill-considered by most modern moviegoers. Thanks to DVD, however, Boetticher has been rediscovered, especially his amazingly stark and psychologically complex Westerns from the 1950s, all starring screen legend Randolph Scott. While a pair of related masterworks, Westbound and Seven Men from Now, are not included, the DVD collection entitled The Films of Budd Boetticher highlights why this man and the movies he made within a specific, dying genre are well worth both artistic and commercial reconsideration.

Facts of the Case

As stated before, many consider the collaboration between Boetticher, Scott, and producer Harry Lee Brown as the "Ranown Cycle" -- a combination of "RAN'-dolph and Br-"OWN." These small-budgeted affairs took the typical Western genre trappings and turned them inside out, offering up elements atypical to the type. While the plots listed below sound standard, each film found intriguing nuances within the storylines. Here are the narratives involved in the five features:

* The Tall T (1957) Score: 89
Forced to hitch a ride with a pair of newlyweds (Maureen O'Sullivan, Tarzan the Ape Man, and John Hubbard, One Million BC) a horseless gunman named Pat Brennan (Scott) soon finds himself embroiled in a kidnapping. Seems road agent Frank Usher (Richard Boone, Have Gun Will Travel) and his henchmen want the lady for her daddy's copper-rich mining interests, with hopes that the ransom will pay handsomely. It's up to Brennan to turn the bandits against each other while keeping himself and the others alive.

* Decision at Sundown (1957) Score: 86
Believing that a man named Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll, Go West) was responsible for the death of his wife, gunslinger Bart Allison (Scott) rides into Sundown with vengeance on his mind. Unfortunately, the sheriff (Andrew Duggan, It's Alive) doesn't take too kindly to such threats, especially on Kimbrough's wedding day. He rallies the townsfolk to drive the stranger out. During a standoff, many start to sympathize with Allison. With that settled, it's off to finish Kimbrough once and for all.

* Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) Score: 87
In the town of Agry, many of the founding family members are at each other's throats. Into the befuddled blood feud rides Tom Buchanan (Scott). When the reigning deputy (L. Q. Jones, The Naked and the Dead) sides with the newcomer and his defense of a Mexican prisoner named Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas, The Buccaneer), it creates even more havoc. With a hired gun (Craig Stevens, Peter Gunn) sent in to settle matters, it's soon a shoot-'em-up free-for-all.

* Ride Lonesome (1959) Score: 90
Ben Brigade (Scott) is a bounty hunter sent out to bring Billy John (James Best, The Dukes of Hazzard) to justice. Trouble is, there's a band of outlaws (Pernell Roberts, Bonanza, and James Coburn, In Like Flint) who want the reward for themselves. In addition, John's brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef, Escape from New York) wants to rescue him. Add in a helpless widow (Karen Steele) and an endless series of Indian attacks, and you've got a recipe for high plains disaster.

* Comanche Station (1960) Score: 86
Jefferson Cody (Scott) has been searching for his kidnapped wife for ten long years. Hoping that a rumored white captive is his bride, he bargains with the Indians for her release. Turns out the woman is Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates, The Great Gildersleeve), and Cody takes a fancy to her. Of course, a group of outlaws shows up, led by the lecherous Ben Lane (Claude Akins, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo) and his surly sidekicks. As the tensions rise, emotions run deep, with Cody and Lowe discovering a connection that runs deeper than her husband's mercenary motives.

The Evidence

Whoever came up with the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" must have been thinking about the Western when they were coining the expression. After decades as America's leading cinematic style, a glut of hapless horse operas, combined with endless exposure on the fledgling medium of television, turned a favorite into something clichéd and overly familiar. That didn't mean that some amazing movies weren't made within the tired and well-trod genre, but it took original thinkers like Budd Boetticher to bring something new to the black hat/white hat dynamic. The films featured here, all considered part of the Ranown Cycle, illustrate the coming of a new era in Westerns. With their complicated characterization and crossed-plot purposes, Boetticher didn't reinvent the archetype as much as embrace elements underutilized previously.

Though never considered "realistic" (no Wild West adventure ever was), the Ranown films constantly fiddled with the formulas. Heroes could be mean and rather heartless, while villains violated the entertainment ethic by being sympathetic, strong minded, and well spoken. In essence, Boetticher was exploring the nature of man, albeit a man with a gun on his belt and a vendetta in his soul. Explored individually, we can see where the style shifts, where concepts of morality and frontier justice evaporate in the arid desert wind. Let's begin with:

* The Tall T (1957)
Using Elmore Leonard as a story source, and putting the powerhouse Maureen O'Sullivan in a key role, Boetticher's simple crime story offers some similarly slight pleasures. This is a movie centered on acting, and the chemistry between the cast. Richard Boone is excellent as a whacked-out villain with some definite personal plans, and he plays well off the always stoic Scott and wounded weepiness of Sullivan. Still, there are limits to what Tall T can offer to the film fan. One does have to remember that many of these movies were made under what Roger Corman might consider "restrictive" production designs. They are small in subject and cast. Locations are kept to a minimum, and rumor has it that Boetticher completed many of these titles in less than twelve days. When you consider that something like A Fistful of Dollars took seven weeks, the amount of artistry Boetticher shows here is startling.

* Decision at Sundown (1957)
Obsession sits at the center of this film, a key to Scott's motives and Boetticher's simplistic style. Everything centers on Allison's fierce determination to bring Kimbrough to justice, right or wrong, and the level of angst is accented by the director's decision to keep locations simple and the editing tight. There is a clinical claustrophobic atmosphere present, one highlighted by the varying nuances in all the characters. With a terrific twist ending that seems to suggest additional layers of interpersonal infidelity and a great deal of perverted pride, Boetticher turns the type on its unpredictable if often routine little head. Scott is especially strong here, looking for all the world like the husband unhinged by his wife's diminished dignity. While women don't get much to do in these films, Boetticher is not afraid to make their nature and need critical to his player's particular flaws.

* Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)
While it seems odd to call this comedy, the story of the angry Agry family and their ridiculous interrelated hatred of each other does provide Scott and Boetticher with some significantly lighter material. The plot synopsis above actually doesn't do this complicated crackpot effort justice. We are introduced to so many players, so many competing claims, and so many unresolved issues that we wonder how the film will address them all. Oddly, it doesn't try. Instead, Boetticher and Scott keeps things centered on the title character and the unrealistically evil Agrys. These rich rejects are so over the top and wanton that we can't help but chuckle in disbelief. Thanks to his skill behind the camera, Boetticher holds things together, avoiding them veering wildly into farce or incomprehensibleness. As he proves time and time again across the entire box set, this was one filmmaker who understood the art form's language, and how to handle scope on a small budget.

* Ride Lonesome (1959)
Many consider Lonesome one of Boetticher's best. It offers clockwork plotting, lots of psychological tension, and just enough moody atmosphere to make this casual cat-and-mouse chess game all the more amoral. With its visual flair (it's the first film in the series to utilize the then "new" Cinemascope process) on top of that, it's not hard to see why. As with most of the Ranown films, tone is everything, and Boetticher makes sure to keep the audience guessing while giving in to the necessities of the narrative. Acting is always one of the series strong points, and Scott is matched well here by Roberts and a way-too-young Coburn. But it's Van Cleef who leaves the biggest impression. While barely onscreen during most of the movie, his character's reputation -- and the actor's expression of same -- becomes one of Lonesome's most effective devices.

* Comanche Station (1960)
As the last of the famed Ranown films, Comanche doesn't flinch from the now-established formula. Once again, we get complex characters, questionable motivations, and the stark, stripped-down dynamic of Boetticher's direction. Lovers of pro-PC pronouncements beware, however -- the films collected here never evolve past the redman/pale face pronouncements of typical Tinseltown prejudice. The Indians are seen as savage, senseless killers in an environment where everyone else has overdone purposes for the ends they pursue. This isn't to say that the rest of the cast gets off lightly. Gender also defines the individuals involved, though Boetticher was known to make his female characters a tad more important than machine cog victims. When the French were coming up with their auteur theory of filmmaker, movies like these would be prime examples of their scholarship. Boetticher seemed to be making the same story over and over. But it's the "how" of his directorial doing that makes these movies so important.

In general, the films of Budd Boetticher can be viewed as a missing link between the old-fashioned oaters the studios churned out like so much saddlesore box-office butter, and the sparkling spaghetti westerns that would soon step in to redefine the genre. Within the format lies a greater sense of depth, a desire to move beyond the veiled heroics of the original Wild West ideals. In their place are men confused by their calling -- personal or professional -- women who embrace and sometimes defy their gender, and locations that suggest the vastness of the American frontier with the dangers inherent in such isolation. Boetticher's style can best be described as efficient and economical, relying on traditional framing and composition to underscore the often pitch-perfect performances onscreen. Scott is especially strong here, offering up a reason why the townsfolk in Blazing Saddles revered him as a Western icon.

Presented by Sony in a five-disc, cardboard fold-over package, the video and audio elements offered as part of The Films of Budd Boetticher are excellent. Tall T, Sundown, and Buchanan are all offered in near-pristine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. There are some minor age issues, and a small amount of grain, but considering the budgets Boetticher had to work with, their overall polish and professionalism cannot be ignored. Lonesome and Comanche go even bigger, bringing a sharp and carefully color-corrected 2.35:1 image to the set. Overall, the pictures are excellent and visually evocative. On the sound side of things, there is nothing overly special about the Dolby Digital Mono mixes. The dialogue is easily discernible and the various patchwork scores come across with directness and depth.

As for added content, the most important can be found with The Tall T DVD. Entitled Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, this 90-minute documentary follows the filmmaker's career, touching on all elements of his canon including the Ranown works. Elsewhere, three commentaries -- Jeanine Basinger on The Tall T, Jeremy Arnold on Ride Lonesome, and Taylor Hackford on Comanche Station -- all offer up interesting anecdotes and consistently engaging insights. All five films feature introductions, with Hackford back for Decision and Buchanan, Clint Eastwood up for Comanche, and Martin Scorsese extolling the virtues of Tall T and Lonesome. Lasting from 5 minutes to almost 10, these talking-head takes on Boetticher's legacy are well worth your time and attention. Add in the original trailers and you've got a nice selection of supplements.

Closing Statement

As a near-perfect primer for introducing the work of Budd Boetticher to a new collection of contemporary fans, this box set is not without its minor flaws. It would have been nice for Sony/Columbia to work out a deal to include the other two Ranown efforts Westbound and Seven Men from Now here, but with that minor complaint aside, this is an amazing compendium. It's the kind of anthology that has you second guessing your dismissal of an entire genre, while suggesting that if more filmmakers like Boetticher had been working in the cinematic category, the Western would still be alive and quite well today. One of the great things about the home video format -- analog or digital -- is its ability to revive flagging careers and reputations by the direct distribution of product to the faction most critical to keeping it viable -- the fans. The Films of Budd Boetticher is a welcome reminder that not all visionaries worked in eccentric and esoteric celluloid statements. Sometimes, the simplest approach is the most artistically profound.

The Verdict

Not guilty! A great box set for a seminal if forgotten filmmaker.

Review content copyright © 2008 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice, Decision At Sundown
Video: 96
Audio: 90
Extras: 60
Acting: 90
Story: 85
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, Decision At Sundown
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* French

Running Time: 77 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Decision At Sundown
* Introduction by Taylor Hackford
* Trailer

Scales of Justice, The Tall T
Video: 95
Audio: 90
Extras: 95
Acting: 92
Story: 88
Judgment: 89

Perp Profile, The Tall T
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* French

Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Tall T
* Introduction by Martin Scorsese
* Commentary track by Jeanine Basinger
* Documentary: Budd Boetticher: A Man Could Do That
* Trailer

Scales of Justice, Buchanan Rides Alone
Video: 94
Audio: 90
Extras: 60
Acting: 90
Story: 85
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, Buchanan Rides Alone
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* French

Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Buchanan Rides Alone
* Introduction by Taylor Hackford
* Trailer

Scales of Justice, Ride Lonesome
Video: 95
Audio: 90
Extras: 85
Acting: 95
Story: 89
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, Ride Lonesome
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* French

Running Time: 73 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Ride Lonesome
* Introduction by Martin Scorsese
* Commentary by Jeremy Arnold
* Trailer

Scales of Justice, Comanche Station
Video: 94
Audio: 90
Extras: 80
Acting: 90
Story: 85
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, Comanche Station
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* French

Running Time: 74 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Comanche Station
* Introduction by Clint Eastwood
* Commentary by Taylor Hackford
* Trailer

Accomplices
* IMDb: The Tall T
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0051047/combined

* IMDb: Decision at Sundown
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0050296/combined

* IMDb: Buchanan Rides Alone
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0051437/combined

* IMDb: Ride Lonesome
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0053220/combined

* IMDb: Comanche Station
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0053729/combined