Straight Shooting

The righteous heroes and human villains of Budd Boetticher's West
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted December 4, 2008
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In the films of Budd Boetticher, the hero is a man who does the right thing without making a fuss. His ideas about honor and ethics are reflected in the stories he chooses to tell, and the precision with which he tells them. Boetticher is best known for the B westerns he directed for Columbia with his favorite leading man, Randolph Scott—five of which are gathered in a new DVD box set (Sony Home Entertainment): Ride Lonesome, Decision at Sundown, The Tall T, Comanche Station, and Buchanan Rides Alone. They are marvels of economy and elegance—a tutorial in classical narrative cinema.

All were shot on location in Lone Pine, California. Boetticher and his regular collaborators—including cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who would later shoot Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch—emphasize the smallness of the characters, suggesting that God, nature, and the universe have no opinion on matters that seem so urgent to the human race. The sky, the mountains, the rivers, and the rocks seem oppressively vast, like a science fiction panorama or a Samuel Beckett wasteland. Boetticher's films treat the Old West as a metaphoric space, an arena where competing value systems can be tested. He worked quickly and often revisited locations, themes, and plots.

In The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station, Scott's character is a stoic in the wilderness who ends up protecting a woman, and himself, against criminals, double-crossing bounty hunters, or both. Sometimes the threat comes from an individual who ought to be an ally—for instance, the newlywed husband of Maureen O'Sullivan's character in The Tall T, who tries to save his own skin by offering his bride, a rich man's daughter, as the victim in a kidnap scheme. It's expected that the hero would appreciate the woman he's thrown together with more than the cold or weak man she's supposed to be with; that's a common element in all sorts of adventure stories.

What's unusual, though, is the close attention Boetticher and his screenwriters on these films—Charles Lang and future western director Burt Kennedy—pay to the fine points of the characters' moral codes. The Scott hero is attractive to the woman he protects—and to the viewer—not because he's the handsomest, toughest, or most charismatic fellow onscreen, but because he has a simple and internally consistent code of honor that he applies to everyone he meets (even the bad guys in The Tall T, whom he chastises for shooting his partner mere seconds after the man's body hits the dirt).

The hero's matter-of-fact goodness stands as a rebuke to the other characters, most of whom fall into two categories: decent folks who are living compromised lives and hating themselves for it, such as O'Sullivan's bride in The Tall T, whom Scott calls a liar after she professes to love her weaselly husband; and weak, duplicitous, or cruel characters who flatter themselves into thinking they're basically good people, such as Pernell Roberts's outlaw in Ride Lonesome, who offers to pay Scott double the ransom on the killer he's escorting to justice. ("How, stopping coaches? Killing?" Scott demands. "Well, that's all over with," Roberts replies uncomfortably. "Is it?" Scott presses.)

From the rock-solid master shots to the agile cutting and kinetic camerawork showcased in action scenes, every choice in a Boetticher film, no matter how seemingly small, means something, accomplishes something. The choices communicate a vision of what human beings are—and what they should be. Boetticher's subtly expressive visuals invite us to compare and contrast the Scott hero with other men, and judge them not by their height or appearance or clothing, but by their actions, and the content of their character. The director often frames Scott or an antagonist or rival so that they're roughly the same size within the frame, as if to say, "They're both just men. What makes one better than the other?"

Decision at Sundown, which finds Scott seeking revenge against Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), the town boss he blames for his wife's death, contains a vivid example of how composition and choreography can subject characters to ethical scrutiny. The town doctor (John Archer) and Tate's bride-to-be, Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele, then Mrs. Boetticher), once silently complicit in the boss's misdeeds, have been inspired by the Scott character's relentless pursuit of justice and are in the process of rediscovering their own moral codes. In a scene late in the movie that throws together many of the town's key players in a hotel lobby, Lucy, who starts out small in the background with Archer, grows larger in the frame as she walks across the room, crosses paths with Tate, then figuratively stands up to her man. "What's going on in here?" he demands, surveying a crowd of people no longer under his thumb. "I don't know," she responds, glaring defiantly up at him, "but I like it!" Then she exits the frame, and the camera walks behind Tate as he walks into the background toward the doctor. Tate stays the same size, but Archer grows in stature as Tate approaches; when they face off, they're of roughly equal size within the frame. Then Tate, intimidated, beats a surly retreat into the background and ascends a staircase, diminishing while Archer, now looming in the foreground, takes charge of the room.

Boetticher's villains are refreshingly human-sized. They're capable of doubt, humor, romantic yearning (the bad guys in both The Tall T and Ride Lonesome have designs on Scott's love interest, and pitch woo like gentlemen), and even stirrings of empathy with their prey. Future spaghetti western star Lee Van Cleef has a marvelous moment in Lonesome when his outlaw character, who killed Scott's wife, explains to a cohort that Scott has good reason for wanting him dead; even though he admits that he'd long since forgotten the deed, he seems impressed, almost moved, by Scott's rage and pain.

And yet, as if to guard against moral confusion, Boetticher often puts split screen-like partitions between Scott and his antagonists. And in the most visually striking sequence of Lonesome—the scene in which the riders visit the hanging tree where Scott's wife died—Boetticher places the dead tree center-screen, separating Scott and his fellow men, all experienced killers, from Karen Steele's recent widow, who doesn't deal in death but has been touched by it; tighter shots make the separation even more emphatic, with the tree trunk butting up against the vertical edges of the frame like brackets.

The fine gradations of morality become even more apparent in the box set's two town-based westerns, Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone. The plots are nearly identical, with Scott's character riding into a town that's in the vise grip of corruption, and giving the town's citizens a counterexample. Sundown finds the hero using his decency as a bludgeon; he's a righteous person in a world of knaves, toadies, and sellouts. When the justice of the peace asks whether anyone has any objection to Tate Kimbrough marrying Lucy Summerton, he refuses to hold his peace. "You said if anybody had any objection to this wedding to speak up," he tells the preacher. "That's what I'm doing." His moral absolutism makes the rest of the world squirm.

Buchanan Rides Alone is essentially Decision at Sundown remade as a comedy; it finds Boetticher and Scott in an uncharacteristically world-weary mode. Like the small-town residents in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (and in the antecedent of all these tales, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest), Agry Town's denizens are almost comically venal—corrupt clowns who invite derisive laughter. Scott's Buchanan hero just wants his money belt back; the hero of Sundown is a lost soul who discovers, too late, that he wasn't righteous after all. Yet both towns are improved by Scott's presence because he's his own man.
 

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Courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment
Randolph Scott and Maureen O'Sullivan in Budd Boetticher's The Tall T
Photo Gallery: Straight Shooting

KEYWORDS

Budd Boetticher  |  Retrospective  |  western  |  Randolph Scott  |  Hollywood

THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door