Combustible Celluloid Blu-ray Review - The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher
Combustible Celluloid

The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher

Renowned Ranown

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

July 18, 2023—One of my all-time favorite directors, Budd Boetticher (1916-2001) was a rare breed in Hollywood. At some point early in his life he drifted south and studied bullfighting, which won him a job as a consultant on a bullfighting picture. From there, he was assigned to direct a series of "B" pictures, then graduated to his own bullfighting picture, the Oscar-nominated Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). But undoubtedly his greatest achievement is this series of seven low-budget, quickly-made Westerns starring Randolph Scott and produced by Harry Joe Brown (hence the nickname the "Ranown" Cycle). The Criterion Collection has released five of them in The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher.

The first film in the cycle, Seven Men from Now (1956), was produced at Paramount and was released on an excellent DVD in 2005. The other film, Westbound (1959), was produced at Warner Bros. and released under their Warner Archive label on DVD in 2009. Both still await upgrades. It's too bad Criterion couldn't have included all seven films in this set.

These films have an intense, economic artistry almost otherwise unseen in any other films, then or since. I could go on about his flawless use of actors, compositions, editing, music and cinematographers, but that's probably fodder for an entire book. It's telling that we can count Clint Eastwood, Taylor Hackford, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese among his fans. Yet some might argue that Boetticher is only a fraction of the films' success (and they were very financially successful), given that writer Burt Kennedy, Scott and Brown were also part of the equation, and that, arguably, none of these artists did anything nearly as interesting apart from this group.

In any case, I was lucky enough once to attend a double feature of Bullfighter and the Lady and Seven Men from Now at the Pacific Film Archive, with a personal appearance by Boetticher, shortly before he died. He told stories well into the night, and I unfortunately had to step out somewhere around 11 p.m. just in time to catch the last train back to San Francisco. Who knows how much longer he spent talking, or maybe even going out for drinks afterward with fans? I'll never forget his spirit.

The Tall T (1957)

Based on an early short story by Elmore Leonard, The Tall T departs slightly from the Boetticher/Scott formula in that it's less suggestive and more concrete. Scott plays Pat Brennan, an unmarried rancher who is still building up his own estate. After a run of bad luck, he finds himself kidnapped along with a pair of newlyweds and a coach driver. The new husband immediately sells out his wife, claiming that her wealthy father will pay their ransom. That leaves Brennan to care for the lady, Doretta Mims (played by cutie Maureen O'Sullivan, looking dowdy and subdued here). The lead bad guy, Frank Usher (Richard Boone) eventually plans to kill them, but keeps them alive while waiting for the money to arrive. Usher becomes interested in Brennan and keeps trying to strike up conversations, although their relationship doesn't quite click like the ones between Scott and the villains in the other films, and Usher's motivations are muddled (he has no reason for keeping Brennan alive). Moreover, Brennan enters into a very definite relationship with Doretta, with a clear romantic payoff, which is something of a disappointment in these otherwise ambiguous tales. Despite these slight drifts, The Tall T has some of the best sequences in the series, including the masterful use of the rocky terrain, the dark cave in which Brennan and Doretta are kept prisoner and the stagecoach sequences. And the images of Brennan protecting a package of peppermint candy — a gift for a friend's boy — is a keeper. This one was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2000.

Decision at Sundown (1957)

This one seems like an attempt to make a political statement, as was popular in some Westerns of the period (High Noon, Shane, 3:10 to Yuma, etc.). However, Boetticher's even, brisk touch cuts right through the preachiness, at least for the first hour or so. It works well enough to get you riled up. Bart Allison (Scott) rides into Sundown with the goal of killing Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), who had something to do with the loss of his wife. Scott is angrier and more emotional here, and with a comic relief partner (Noah Beery Jr.); they both end up hiding in a stable while the bad guys contemplate their next move. Meanwhile, a doctor (John Archer) decides that he liked Sundown better before Tate arrived in it and took over everything. Boetticher's sometime girlfriend Karen Steele appears, but her role is far less interesting than the one she would play in Ride Lonesome. All in all though, this is a powerful effort. Charles Lang wrote the screenplay.

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

Scott plays the title role, a man who rides into a Mexican border town with a huge smile on his face, ready to head back to Texas to start his own ranch. But first he wants a steak, a whisky and a bed. Unfortunately, he steps into the middle of a fracas and winds up in trouble again. This is a lighter effort than usual, with more of a male bonding angle. Charles Lang wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Jonas Ward, thought Burt Kennedy reportedly helped (without credit).

Ride Lonesome (1959)

Perhaps the best in the series, alongside Seven Men from Now, this one never once strikes a wrong note. Scott plays bounty hunter Ben Brigade, who captures outlaw Billy John (James Best) and proceeds to transport him to Santa Cruz. On the way, Brigade rescues the wife (sexy Karen Steele) of a way station manager, and two outlaws (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn) help him defend against an Indian attack. This mismatched crew continues to travel, with all kinds of psychological and sexual one-upmanship brewing just under the surface. And yes, Brigade is actually out to avenge his dead wife. Lee Van Cleef appears as Brigade's real target, and though he's only onscreen for a few minutes, he haunts the entire film. This was Boetticher's first use of CinemaScope, and it's a masterpiece of economic action and performance, as if he had no problem making the adjustment. The climactic sequence, at the twisted, black "hang tree," is perhaps the most powerful in all of Boetticher's canon.

Comanche Station (1960)

This was the last of the seven films. Fans will notice the same general plot arc and the same general characters as the other six, but still told with the same expert economy, use of space and psychological detail. In a way, by making the same film seven times, Boetticher was able to burrow deeper into his subjects than most normal filmmakers could do with just one film. Scott stars as the stoic Jefferson Cody, a man whose wife was kidnapped by Indians. Following a lead, he winds up rescuing another man's wife, Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates) and proceeds to deliver her back home. They reluctantly team up with three bandits, led by Ben Lane (Claude Akins), to better survive hostile Indian attacks. Thus psychological and sexual turmoil begins boiling just under the surface, between skillful, exciting action sequences. As usual, the picture climaxes amidst a jagged landscape, littered with giant rocks and hiding places.

In 2008, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released these films in a five-disc DVD box set, and many of the extras collected for that release have been preserved for the Criterion Collection's superb 2023 box set. (In 2021, Columbia Pictures and Mill Creek Entertainment released a 12-film Blu-ray box set that included these five films, with no bonuses. I'm betting that the Criterion transfers are superior.) The set comes with six discs, three 4K (with the films spread out across the discs) and three Blu-ray (with the films crammed onto two discs and the third reserved for bonuses).

Historian Jeanine Basinger provides a commentary track for The Tall T, historian Jeremy Arnold provides one for Ride Lonesome and director Taylor Hackford talks over Comanche Station. Hackford, Scorsese and Eastwood contribute introductions for all five films, and trailers are included. New extras include a program featuring film critic Farran Smith Nehme on Scott, archival programs featuring interviews with Boetticher, an audio conversation with Boetticher and film scholar (and my old professor) Jim Kitses, a 20-minute, Super 8 home-movie version of Comanche Station, and optional subtitles. Film scholar Tom Gunning and critic Glenn Kenny provide essays for the liner notes booklet. The excellent, full-length documentary, Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, written by film critic Dave Kehr and an essential bonus in the 2008 DVD set, is not listed in the packaging, but is nonetheless included here. This set is most Highly Recommended.

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