BRILLIANT MASTERPIECES — FORGOTTEN GEMS
In the 1950s, Budd Boetticher (1916-2001) directed a handful of understated westerns starring a mature Randolph Scott that have become widely recognized as classics. Five of them are available as a boxed set in clean anamorphic transfers.
The movies are THE TALL T, DECISION AT SUNDOWN, BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE, RIDE LONESOME, and COMMANCHE STATION.
Loved by film buffs as well those who treasure a view of America that includes honor, duty, horses and the physical American western landscape — that majestic canvas — on which we play out our lives.
His bare-bones westerns usually had a lone, mostly silent, somewhat alienated hero on a journey through a hostile landscape. He crosses paths with a self-serving villain. There are tight places and grand vistas, lyrical and pastoral surprises. And always, fleeting moments of great natural beauty.
His best films are existential and ambiguously emotional, but there remains a moral tone that somehow revolves itself around idealized integrity itself. In fact, integrity, grace and fate were Boetticher’s cinematic trinity. Burt Kennedy’s sometimes ironic, poignant, and decidedly lean screenplays were a perfect fit for Boetticher’s mindset. Scott, Boetticher and Kennedy were the triumverate of the best of these cinematic morality plays.
There’s a clean, sunbaked look to these morality tales that sort of frames the simmering tensions that are usually played out in an explosive climax — often in a natural “arena” setting. Boetticher was very enamored of, and comfortable in, a bullring.
The under appreciated Randolph Scott is perfect as the taciturn, leathery-faced loner. He was a big star in his hey day — but he has never been better than in these minimalist westerns. Always a man of few words, he often has a tragic back-story that propels his risky, usually altruistic, actions. Scott is a riveting screen presence. His graceful, economic, physicality, the way he uses his voice, rides a horse, and especially his moments of silence and stillness are always compelling. There are no wasted actions. And it’s hard to take your eyes off him. In many ways, I think Scott was Boetticher’s on-screen avatar.
Boetticher’s recurring elements: a lone figure seeking vengeance or justice, people adrift amidst an untamed landscape, tight places where conflicts climax. And always in Boetticher’s westerns, there are unexpected moments where the camera holds on the physical beauty of a place or dotes on the sensuous image of a horse being groomed or running.
A cult director who continues to grow in stature, Boetticher makes the most of his deceptively minimalist stories. But it’s not really the story that matters for Boetticher as much as the characters, how they move, and what they don’t say, and of course the ever-present vistas that offer unexpected moments of challenge or transcendence as the moral imperative of the protagonist is actualized.
To me, Boetticher’s westerns are about coping with antiquated notions of honor and justice while traveling a path where fate, destiny and free will intersect. That’s why they linger so long in the mind. There’s an undeniable Old Testament feel to the stories, yet the main character is often saddled with a sense of existential angst. Maybe that is the definition of living in the post-modern world.
Though there’s no debate that movie buffs and film scholars hold Boetticher in high esteem for his seven low-budget westerns starring Scott that were made between 1956 and 1960, what’s even more amazing is that these B movies were crafted with such loving care and precision. As in other art overlooked at first, but now recognized as unique and authentic, these westerns seem effortless and pure even to the naive viewer.
While working on the old Columbia Pictures lot on Gower Street in Hollywood, I got to know Boetticher quite well. He liked a script I wrote for Strother Martin and invited me to ride one of his fine horses, Peropo, a spirited, unscarred veteran from the Spanish bullring. I apparently passed my test and this led to trips to Mexico where we scouted locations and Boetticher put on astonishing displays of how to fight bulls from horseback. Although my film was never made, during this time I understood how much of Boetticher the man was in his westerns. Always the outsider who won’t compromise, Boetticher was the real deal. Enthusiastic, witty, optimistic, artistic and a great horseman — he relished being alive. He was also aware of a self-destructive side to his personality that was always a battle. There were demons that constantly hovered.
The extras in the boxed set are very good. The feature length documentary on Boetticher A MAN CAN DO THAT is revealing and rather moving. It’s portrait of a singular artist who lived a full, adventurous life that in some ways makes his movies seem tame. There are three commentaries. I especially appreciated the one by Janine Basinger on THE TALL T. She captured the essence of the man as I knew him.
I encourage film buffs and western fans to also find Budd Boetticher’s classic 1956 western SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (Paramount) on DVD in a clean transfer with significant extras. As in some of his other films included in the boxed set, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW is a tense journey that takes us to a point of stillness, the moment of truth where righteousness of character is all that’s left because “there are some things you can’t ride around.” The esoteric commentary is by James Kitses and there’s a fine new documentary BUDD BOETTICHER: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL. That he was.