62-66 Five Tall Tales: Budd Boetticher & Randolph Scott at Columbia, 1957-1960

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Re: Budd Boetticher Box Set

#51 Post by HistoryProf » Mon May 03, 2010 2:39 am

domino harvey wrote:What other actor of the era could have possibly played Stewart's role in the Naked Spur with the same psychological depth?
I didn't word that sentiment very well, so let me try again: I wasn't trying to disparage ANY of the Mann/Stewart Westerns...they are all fabulous, and you are right that The Naked Spur is a masterpiece in large part because of Stewart. And you are also correct that Stewart was ten times the actor that Scott was, and Scott would be the first one to agree with that! What I was trying to say is that as pure westerns, with all the loaded iconography of the mysterious drifter and honor code machismo that goes with them, the Ranown pictures are nearly unsurpassed. Mann and Stewart had much bigger budgets, and arguably more talent to go with those resources, and produced a series of masterpieces on their own - but i've always felt that those pictures in some ways really surpassed the genre. Winchester '73, for instance, is one of my favorites, but it didn't really need to be a western to tell that story. I adore the film, and i'm glad it is a western, but it isn't an inherently western story. does that make sense?

All I was trying to say is that the marriage of Boetticher, Scott, and the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada's was something very special that i'm glad is finally getting a little recognition. Everyone knows Naked Spur, but Ride Lonesome is arguably just as good at telling almost an identical story. Yet they are different animals, and I think Scott's limitations as an actor actually help make these pictures feel more genuine - by fulfilling the promise of the mysterious drifter type - perhaps in spite of himself - that made westerns so popular. I rewatched The Tall T tonight - and I NEVER do that! - and am now watching the documentary on that disc, and someone said something to the effect that "There's John Ford, there's Howard Hawks, and there's Budd Boetticher." I think you HAVE to put Mann in there too, but these 6 films (including 7 Men) are a special group, and that's all I really wanted to say. That doesn't make them better than Mann/Stewart, or Ford/Wayne...just unique within a very esteemed group.

As an aside, for me personally, my favorite Jimmy Stewart Western is an early one: Broken Arrow from 1950. It was one of the first to take a sympathetic approach to Indians, and was a real game changer along with Devil's Doorway, which came out earlier that year. The genre is so maligned in many ways, but there are pictures like these smaller ones that say so much about America, that I wish they weren't so often dismissed as simple matinee genre fare. People don't go for them much anymore....but who knows, maybe at some point they'll see a renaissance like Noir seems to be going through right now. I hope people who wouldn't consider themselves fans of westerns give this set a chance, because I think it will surprise them. My wife watched The Tall T with me tonight, and she's a Jane Austen period piece and classic hollywood junkie - but she loved it and said something to the effect of "wow, that was a really good movie!" Not western, but movie. that's pretty cool.

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Re: Budd Boetticher Box Set

#52 Post by zedz » Mon May 03, 2010 4:25 pm

I think I see what you mean now, with the Boetticher / Scott films as some kind of apotheosis of core western values and characteristics - the essence of the western, if you like (though I think they're playing around with the form a little more than they're generally given credit for) - but with the Mann / Stewart films as bringing new stuff into the genre (or making films outside the narrowly defined genre but with many of its trappings, which difference is I guess is just a matter of perspective).

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Re: Budd Boetticher Box Set

#53 Post by Antares » Mon May 03, 2010 5:04 pm

domino harvey wrote:What other actor of the era could have possibly played Stewart's role in the Naked Spur with the same psychological depth?
Henry Fonda and Alan Ladd come to mind.

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The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#54 Post by zedz » Wed Feb 16, 2011 5:57 pm

As a sidebar to the present Westerns Genre List Project, and because this series of films deserves its own thread, I proposed working through the seven westerns director Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott between 1956 and 1960, also known as the Ranown Cycle.

Anybody is welcome to join in and post their thoughts. I suggest doing one per week, in order, starting with Seven Men from Now. All of the films are readily available (one less readily than the others):

Seven Men from Now (1956) – Paramount DVD
The Tall T (1957) – The Films of Budd Boetticher DVD box set
Decision at Sundown (1957) – The Films of Budd Boetticher DVD box set
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) – The Films of Budd Boetticher DVD box set
Westbound (1959) – Warner Archives DVD-R
Ride Lonesome (1959) – The Films of Budd Boetticher DVD box set
Comanche Station (1960) – The Films of Budd Boetticher DVD box set

First up: Seven Men from Now. . .

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#55 Post by domino harvey » Wed Feb 16, 2011 6:11 pm

So I undertook zedz' challenge despite being turned off by the first Boetticher/Scott western I sampled, the Tall T some time ago. I will be revisiting it next, obviously, but up now is a film I can find praise for much more easily: Seven Men From Now. Observations:

+ Boetticher takes advantage of his limited budget and scope by turning b-rate locales into pluses. The first half of this film looks like a minimalist play, not a western. The landscape is nondescript and vague, but instead of attempting to dress this up in a way which would only reveal its lack of breadth and funds, he plays into the restrictions. Thus when a man-made object intrudes on the scenery (such as the outpost or the clothing line), it strikes a chord of vulgarity, a clash against the dull natural vistas it has defiled.

+ Scott's role here is one of babysitter, and Scott plays up the dregs of such a duty well. His reluctance and, frankly, distaste at being shoehorned into watching over the greenhorn's shoulder for the length of his trip speaks nicely to the East Meets West clash seen a thousand times over in westerns. I think it works better here from the vantage of the insider (Scott) than the outsider.

+ The sexual politics, obviously. I think this doesn't play as well as it could here, partly because the big bow on it all (the self-defeating suicide in front of the sheriff's office) is too nonsensical to reconcile with the idea it attempts. The "I was wrong, he wasn't half a man" moment seemed telegraphed and unearned, and the interactions with Scott and the couple sold the idea better than Lee Marvin's more aggressive approach.

+ Speaking of, Marvin walks away with the movie, and I half-expected him to do the right thing by the end of it, the way the film so successfully painted him with a quasi-sympathetic and appealing shade. His aggressive jocularity, in the face of so much seriousness, has the same defilement quality on the characters that the human structures have on the topography.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#56 Post by zedz » Thu Feb 17, 2011 7:08 pm

Seven Men from Now

I like the observation about Boetticher’s use of landscape and its presentation within the frame. Many of the landscapes in this film are scrubby and scrappy, the kind of places that don’t even have a view to recommend them. There’s little Fordian grandeur here. But, as domino notes, Boetticher dramatizes the landscape through the foreground blocking. Perhaps the purest example in this film comes in the blank desert into which a few Indians chase one of the seven. As presented in the frame, it’s a featureless expanse – one big dune – with just a handful of figures (Scott, Marvin, Body No. 3) deployed at various distances from the lens: archetypal figures performing archetypal actions in an archetypal space. It’s the kind of utterly stripped-down scene that supposedly exemplifies these films, though in fact I find the Ranown cycle much richer and more diverse than their reputation sometimes allows. Elsewhere in the film, Boetticher lends visual interest to his stark landscapes by providing them with frames of different kinds. Sometimes it’s a frame that adds narrative tension (e.g. Marvin and pal looming in the foreground as Scott and the wagon trundle through the canyon below), but often it’s just purely decorative (trees). More than once, the landscape is framed by the arch of the wagon’s frame. This technique gets its biggest payoff in the climactic scene(s) among the rocks, where just about every shot receives a contrasting, dynamic frame from the foreground blocking.

I think the key to the success of Seven Men from Now – and the best films of this cycle in general – is the masterful way in which Boetticher and Kennedy manage a range of extreme contrasts. These are manifested in the visuals, the characters, the performances, the script and the language, and on every level there is a complex pattern of tension and release that maintains a constant sense of dynamism.

Scott’s Stride is defined by his terseness and economy, both in terms of verbal and body language, and he’s set against characters who are garrulous where he’s laconic and loose and syncopated where he’s stiff and still. (Boetticher is great with body language: in The Tall T, keep your eyes on the magnificent hands of Richard Boone – he’s almost giving a simultaneous performance in sign language.) Again, this patterning really pays off at the end,
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in the showdown with Marvin, where Scott’s lightning draw is completely elided – we don’t need to see him move, and two shots of him completely still manage to convey incredible speed far better than any actual movement would.
Verbally, this orchestration of contrast is beautifully embodied in that perfect opening scene, which manages to set up the entire premise of the film in a couple of minutes while still feeling tense and slow through its artful exploitation of pauses: Stride uses silence to get his message across with the minimum number of words. The punctuation is everything (this is effectively a blackout sketch), and this would have been the perfect pre-credit sequence for a ‘then there were none’ countdown revenge drama. But that’s not what we get.

The hook is so strong and obvious that it’s easy to forget that most of what goes on in the film has nothing to do with tracking down the seven men. And, in fact, (mild spoiler) Stride doesn’t even get all of them. But Kennedy’s script is so pacy and expertly crafted that we don’t have time to notice. The action progresses in bursts of incident that run about five minutes tops and, like the other levels of the film, are predicated on contrasts of tone and patterns of tension and release, with succeeding sequences varying in pace and intensity. Again, economy and dynamism are the watchwords as Boetticher and Kennedy get maximum mileage from the juxtaposition of slower, character-based passages (Stride meeting the Greers; the conversation in the rainstorm) with brief bursts of violence or episodes of intrigue or suspense.

On a different level of the narrative there’s the same play with tension and release. The Indian threat is established, but it turns out to be insignificant. When the Indians actually turn up, not a shot is fired and Stride trades his way out of danger. By the same token, shortly after we’ve seen Masters trailing the wagon, he races into the shot. He’s one of the seven men, presumably, and the second showdown must be about to start - except he’s not and it isn’t. He’s just there to chat and to provide the film with another moving object to bounce off Scott’s stoic façade.

And as a side note, even though Marvin steals all his scenes by design, Scott’s performance is actually very finely calibrated, not just as a foil for everybody else’s, but as an expressive one in its own right. He might not move much, but every move is important. Just look at the tiny eyebrow raise he gives when Gail Russell reveals that she and her husband are “from the East, you know”: it’s not simple irony or amusement, but something more eloquent and subtle, particularly in contrast with his unfailingly courteous surface demeanour.

Other important examples of the script’s play with audience expectations:

- the eventual appearance of the actual villain, who’s inevitably a far less threatening presence than Marvin
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and who never even gets to confront his supposed nemesis
. There’s even the wonderful moment when the surviving seven men find out for the first time who is after them and why and they just look ill.

- the cowardice or not of Mr Greer. Stride and Masters take this for granted and determine on that basis that he’s an unfit match for his sensible wife, but, of course, he ‘proves himself’ at the end by riding into danger and leaving himself open to attack. But is this really a change of heart? Once we know the full story, there’s a much more plausible reason for his earlier nervousness, and, if we knew at the start of the film what we know at the end, isn’t his insistence on accompanying Stride to Flora Vista actually a smart and nervy move on his part? Is there, in fact, any objective corroboration for Masters’ characterization of Greer? So, domino, I think there might be more going on in that scene than Masters' pat summation of it.

- the ending.
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As with so many conventional films, the mechanics of the plot have conveniently cleared the way for the leads to get together in a romantic clinch. There’s plenty of evidence of mutual attraction, not least the L’Atalante-like ‘together apart’ sequence in which Gail Russell goes to sleep on top of Randolph Scott. And yet they don’t end up together, for completely plausible, non-Hollywood, reasons. Scott’s character would never take advantage of a freshly-widowed woman, however unhappy she might have been in her marriage, and let’s not forget that his own beloved wife has been dead, what, a week? Okay, now let’s backtrack. Do we have any reason to suppose that Stride had been unhappy in his own marriage? Nope – and if you do take that view, there’s the small matter of a suicidal revenge mission to account for. So what are those tokens of romantic attachment we’ve been seeing? Stride’s courtliness? His occasional looks of curiosity or emotional distress? That brief semi-smooch – initiated by Russell but shaken off by Scott, like a horse dislodging a blowfly? Masters’ innuendos? The editing in the rainstorm sequence? Half of those are the projections of the characters or the sleight-of-hand of the filmmakers, and Stride’s own behaviour can surely be explained by his rectitude and the uncanny resemblance – both physically and situationally, we’re told, though the latter similarity may be based on a misunderstanding (see above) – between Annie Greer and his wife. Aren’t we just as guilty as Masters and the Greers of projecting conventional motivations onto Stride? Call me old-fashioned, but Ben Stride doesn’t strike me as the type to ejaculate in the face of his dead wife while she’s still cooling in her coffin.

So, for me, that ending is just about perfect: Stride leaving some dim, distant future doorway slightly ajar (though again, can he not just be doing the right thing by saying it would be nice to see Annie if she’s ever back in Silver City?) and Annie deciding to wait before she makes her next big life decision.

For the record, I think there’s one definite clue that Stride could, after a long period of mourning, consider Annie again. Unless I misheard, he addresses her by her maiden name in their final exchange – though again, this could just be an expression of his punctiliousness.


One other thing I really like about this film: the handling of the Indian subplot (nonplot?). Simply because this element is completely irrelevant to the main action of the film, Seven Men from Now really is a film that goes out of its way to challenge traditional attitudes to Native Americans, in Stride’s pithy exchange with the equally incidental cavalryman.

Tentative hypothesis, for further exploration: where Anthony Mann, in his Stewart cycle, played with traditional dichotomies by using compromised and ambiguous protagonists, Boetticher focuses on compromised and ambiguous antagonists, pitting them against the unambiguously upright Scott. In this film, for instance, Marvin is only circumstantially Scott’s antagonist: the objects of their respective missions are related but not identical, and if the gold somehow got separated from the men who stole the gold (as indeed it does), they could plausibly both live happily ever after, on friendly terms, even.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#57 Post by zedz » Mon Feb 28, 2011 5:11 pm

The Tall T

More of the same, but also very different. The Tall T performs one of the most ruthlessly efficient cinematic bait and switches I know of, with a major tonal shift about half an hour in.

The film begins with a different, far more garrulous and less masterful Randolph Scott. Again, he’s a loner, but this time it’s by choice, and he retains an easy sociability with the folks he used to hang out with – the station master and his son, Rintoon, even his former employer. This stage of the film pushes folksy almost to the point of parody, with the alarmingly perky young lad of the opening scenes lingering as a presence through the incongruous cherry candy Brennan has to carry throughout his modest travails.

Arthur Hunnicutt's Rintoon is permitted to chew all available scenery in another discursive scene, and the first twenty minutes is filled with all manner of potential plot developments – the awkward newlyweds, Brennan’s bull-quest and rash gamble, the candy errand, the travelling to and fro.

Then something weird happens. The comic antics at the ranch end on a sour note and we end up with the very rare and disturbing sight for a western of a cowboy without his horse, saddle on his shoulder. At this point the film goes into the desert and never comes back. Within a few minutes the film will be hijacked and go from an amiably folksy, comic and discursive ‘light’ western to a deadly serious, single-minded, minimalist ‘dark’ one.

All of the optimistic possibilities that were raised in the first section of the film are dashed and the film is brutally reduced to two sets (which are played up with the economy and intensity of a great stage drama – look at the multiple uses and symbolic significance Boetticher and Kennedy get out of the tumbledown shack and the well) and six characters – three on each side, though that will change.

Now, finally, the film gets into Seven Men from Now territory, with the same dramatization of the tension between talking and not talking, the same austere and eloquent mise-en-scene, the same amplification of small movements. What gives the film its abrupt change of tone and increase in intensity is that suddenly a new, overwhelming motivation is introduced for the protagonists. Before they had aims (enjoy your honeymoon, enjoy your fortune, buy a bull, deliver some candy) and destinations (Bisby, the station, the ranch); now they’re only concerned with survival.

And The Tall T is unusual for just how seriously it takes the threat to life (which I suppose is where domino saw the similarity to Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, but I’ll let him speak to that). It’s hardly unusual for the threat of violence and death to be the motor for suspense – just look at any Hitchcock film – but the violence and the threat is rarely so present. The deaths are truly appalling (even – especially? – when they’re off-screen) and violence is sickening even when it’s directed at the villains
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(one gets shot in the face at point-blank range; another has his corpse dragged through the dirt for the completely practical reason that the body needs to be transported; Frank is blasted with buckshot in the eyes).
But in no case are these deaths presented as ‘cool’ or ‘badass’ or whatever dumb formulation kids today might crave. Brennan’s strategies are basic and desperate but sound, and he factors Mrs Mims into those strategies not out of some Hawksian cross-gender comradeship, but out of stark necessity: using her is the only way they both (but also, the filmmakers won’t let us forget, he alone) can survive. There’s no sentimentality whatsoever in the ‘dark and dry’ part of the film (even its single kiss is breathtakingly to-the-point, something that was heartily approved of by the two women with whom I watched the film), and it makes pointed, ironic use of the conventions of fair play – the ‘western code’ – in its final minutes.

I actually find it refreshing that this film gives extreme violence the same weight it has for most people: it’s not an everyday occurrence or fact of life, and when it intrudes, everything changes drastically.

The minimalism of the post-hijack part of the film practically defines the received notion of the Boetticher / Scott westerns, and it’s quite extraordinary, both in the ways it is realized and in the contrast it offers with the first act. The two ‘sets’ – the station and the hideout – are very clearly defined, with the latter even having a clear demarcation for ‘off-stage’ space – the cleft in the rocks through which characters disappear and reappear, or where they meet their fate in long shot. At the centre of the stage is a rude structure within or in front of which all the meaningful interactions take place – basic stagecraft going back centuries. That ramshackle structure is key to the staging of the three villains’ deaths, and it’s used in different ways for each one.

In general, Boetticher is even more resourceful with his landscapes this time around, and they’re very striking indeed – all rocks, which reinforces the stark minimalism of the action – and his mise en scene also seems to have matured and attained a wiry potency. From time to time he makes strong use of asymmetry (or apparent asymmetry – as when the characters are receding on the right hand side of the frame while the left is filled with the brooding well) and striking silhouettes (e.g. Brennan standing atop the wagon), along with the foreground / background tension he employed so effectively in Seven Men from Now (e.g. Brennan skinning the deer, framing the entrance to the shack).

So apart from dramatic tension – and plenty of it – what do Boetticher and Kennedy use to fill the space created by everything they’ve stripped out of the film? Character. These characters are beautifully written and beautifully played, with Richard Boone’s Frank being on my short list for the greatest film villain of all time.

As with Lee Marvin in Seven Men, Boone is so interesting because he’s a complex and somewhat likeable character, without – and here’s the trick – losing any of his nastiness and threat. It’s not as simple as being ‘the man you love to hate’, or ‘the charming rogue’: Frank’s appeal is that he’s smart, feels revulsion at his men (as do we), and is somewhat neurotic. You could claim he has a kind of man-crush on Brennan, but this seems to me more a factor of being starved for adult male company. The only glimmer of humour in the second half of the film is a brilliantly dumb conversation between Billy and Chink about what they did or didn’t get up to in Sonora that perfectly encapsulates just what Frank finds so exasperating and stultifying about their company.

The character of Frank is pretty well-written, but Boone adds so many memorable colours and shades. I mentioned his amazingly articulate hands before, used for ordering his goons around in semaphore, gesturing with his gun, or batting projectiles away, but he also gives so many brilliant inflections to the dialogue. Just look at the way he says “sure” twice to the departing Mims, then turns like a rattlesnake on the follow-up line to Chink.

Boone’s exchanges with Scott are great examples of screen acting, with the tension and threat amplifying every pause and shift of tone. If you want to see just how much a great actor can wring out of the simplest exchange, look no further than when Frank asks Brennan: “You scared?” and Scott packs a ton of meaning into his one-and-a-half syllable response: “Ye-ah.”

Maureen O’Sullivan does a great job in the thankless but increasingly complex role of Mrs Doretta “Plain as an Adobe Wall” Mims. Again, she’s interesting because she’s smart – smart enough to be able to analyse her own complicated feelings about her husband and smart and resourceful enough to assist Brennan in his strategy for survival. Her life might have been defined by men up to this point, but she’s self-aware enough that this fact rankles.

Even the figures in the film closest to stock characters are given unexpected depth. Mims, after all, is simply doing exactly the same thing as Brennan – trying desperately to survive – it’s just that he’s not as smart about doing so. However, Mims self-serving cowardice is an integral part of the plan that allows Brennan to survive: without his ignoble blurt, none of the three would have lasted more than an hour. Even though Brennan despises what Mims did, he nevertheless takes advantage of it. Billy Jack gets very little to do, but his key actions are plausibly driven by youth and sexual insecurity, and Chink is a reasonably fleshed-out psychopath: a cold rather than crazed killer. Even though he's outmanoeuvred by Brennan, it’s not because he’s dumb or rash, it’s because, in this harsh landscape where everyone’s clawing for survival, being outnumbered really matters.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#58 Post by knives » Thu Mar 03, 2011 10:45 pm

One of the really odd things about The Tall T is that there is no revenge element. I haven't seen all of these westerns yet, but this is the first of the three that lacks that element. These people just fall into violence which might be what makes it all the more hideous. These people didn't even expect to have a bad day to put things lightly.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#59 Post by zedz » Thu Mar 03, 2011 11:00 pm

That's a good point: the film has the 'wrong turn' structure of a lot of horror movies (and this is before that structure actually became standard for horror movies, isn't it?) - which is, I suppose, something it has in common with The Hitch-Hiker (though there's a glimmer of karmic revenge in Lupino's film, as the guys are in the wrong place at the wrong time because of a mild deception).

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#60 Post by knives » Thu Mar 03, 2011 11:07 pm

It depends on what you consider standard. It wasn't unheard of, but it didn't become as omnipresent as it is until about the '60s. As for how that relates to the film I think it's especially interesting how maybe not the film, but the characters treat the wrong turn situation as if had things gone as planned(the real coach being ransacked)those characters would have been less civilian. The narrative would have gone the way it was supposed to. The moral mood seems to be based on the narrative being wrong.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#61 Post by zedz » Thu Mar 03, 2011 11:48 pm

knives wrote:It depends on what you consider standard. It wasn't unheard of, but it didn't become as omnipresent as it is until about the '60s.
Psycho, to be precise!

And I didn't realize with your first post that you were talking about the villains taking a 'wrong turn' too, which is an interesting point

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#62 Post by Mr Sausage » Thu Mar 03, 2011 11:54 pm

I think the 'wrong turn' thing is an old archetype. While I cannot think of any specific tales, I do have a general impression of old ghost stories and such where the protagonist goes for a walk in the woods, gets distracted by his thoughts, and finds he's wandered into an unfamiliar and ominous part of the woods. He's usually beset by spirits soon after. You could probably trace the whole thing back to The Inferno, where Dante accidentally strays from the "right path" and finds himself in a dark wood that will lead him eventually to hell.

Odd to find a Western using it.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#63 Post by zedz » Fri Mar 04, 2011 4:27 pm

I agree about that archetype, though where The Tall T and The Hitch-Hiker side with the later post-Psycho use of it (with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left catapulting it into the centre of the horror genre in a new way) is in grounding it in real world ghastliness: happening to run into a psychopath or three rather than a haunted house. Come to think of it, Last House on the Left doubles up the trope like The Tall T, with both victims and villains going awry.

It seems to me that the dominant horror movie trope before then was the creation of (Frankenstein, Wolfman, giant nuclear insects, Godzilla, Jekyll / Hyde, the Golem) or discovery of a monster (Dracula, the Mummy, alien invaders), in the course of intentional acts (scientific experimentation, archaeology, real estate deals) rather than the random misfortune of the later films.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#64 Post by knives » Fri Mar 04, 2011 7:37 pm

Very true. It goes from defying fate to the cruelty of fate as sort of a moral catapult. In these new films it seems almost like the true villain is a world that would allow these chances to occur. To go back to The Tall T there's a million little things that go wrong that add up to the horrible ending. I don't think the bandits wanted anyone to die. That might be why the film gives the lead bandit so much love. He doesn't want to do bad, but he finds himself acting as a villain because he sees no other way to save his own hide.
That's shockingly humanistic I think to realize that no one sees themselves as the bad guy. It's all circumstance.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#65 Post by Cold Bishop » Fri Mar 04, 2011 11:19 pm

I don't know if I would go that far - we don't know how exactly Hank and his son got it, but it sure couldn't have been pretty - but Boone certainly has a reluctance for violence, and even a twisted code of ethics in that regard (if I don't do the shooting, I can't be blamed).

But to move away from "the wrong turn", I think the most striking thing about The Tall T is the way the entire story is immersed with a very strong atmosphere of loneliness. This is of course fitting, as the entire narrative is predicated on the notion of isolation, on little far away corners of the country, away from the city and its civilization, where stagecoaches ride unprotected, where murder can go undetected, where hostages can be imprisoned unnoticed. This is obvious from the beginning, when Hank begins to lament his life at the relay station, his loneliness since his wife died, how it's not a fitting place to raise a child. It's apparent in Doretta, who while raised in civilization, was done so in male-centric mining camps, under a father who wanted a boy, and has married a man who she knows doesn't love her so as to escape becoming an old maid. It's obvious in Frank Usher, who is so starved for camaraderie and conversation that he carves out a friendship with the very man he plans to send to his death. He acts as if there's nothing more in the world that he'd like than for Scott to step up and ask to become partners; he'd want it maybe more so than the money itself. Evan Billy Jack and Chink's behavior, while murderous, is steeped in a heavy level of tedium and boredom: they're almost sticking-up stagecoaches and killing witnesses simply because it's the best way to pass the time that they can think of.

Of course, opposed to this all is Randolph Scott's Pat Brennan, who as zedz said, is a loner by choice. While Frank bemoans his loneliness, he stands there envying him. While Tenvoorde pleads for him to return to the microcosm of the ranch, Scott rejects it for the quiet isolation of his own meager farm. And he certainly shows no desire to live in the town. In one way, if he can be said to make a "wrong turn", Scott does so by rejecting civilization, community, company. While on its surface, the film doesn't seem to saying anything about the civilization/wilderness dichotomy that so often emerges in the Western, there are few entries in the genre that demonstrate the violence and helplessness that can befall someone who rejects other people, who tries to be an island among himself. Even Richard Boone's Usher acts like a guy who, for not having a warrant hanging over his head, would be immersed in civilization, possibly working at a ranch much like the one Brennan rejects, just happy to be among people he considers equals. Of course, in order to overcome their ordeal, Brennan and Doretta Mims have to work together, in a way destroying the very isolation that allowed them to be kidnapped in the first place. The captors themselves express a desire for the company of women, and it's this very form of loneliness that Brennan and Mims exploit. And if the film opens with a man lamenting his loneliness since losing his wife, it's not coincidental that Scott's self-styled loner ends by forming a close bond with a woman, another lonely soul. A nightmare built on loneliness and isolation ends with the forging of a potentially deep union.
Last edited by Cold Bishop on Thu Mar 10, 2011 6:05 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#66 Post by zedz » Thu Mar 10, 2011 5:34 pm

Decision at Sundown

Uh-oh. For this film, Burt Kennedy is replaced by Charles Lang, and on the basis of a more boilerplate revenge script everything dips into the ordinary. Rounded, complex villains are replaced with stock characters and undifferentiated goons, and the supporting cast get, if they’re lucky, one character trait apiece (drunk, plucky, etc.)

After a promising start in which we’re introduced to yet another version of Randolph Scott (he holds up the stage on which he’s riding!) and yet another version of the Western landscape (lush, rolling hills!), this turns out to be no more than a reasonably deft fakeout and we’re deposited in a storyline that basically retreads the Seven Men from Now persona of vengeful widower and offers no more landscapes of any kind.

The plot is adequate, but it hinges on the monumental awkwardness of the sheer stupidity of Bart Allison’s revenge strategy:
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Announce to all and sundry that you’re going to kill so-and-so, then run away and hide in a barn, giving everybody in the town ample opportunity to take you out – or for your target to leave town
It’s a shame, because there is a really fascinating and powerful variation on the revenge drama plot that only gets sort of half-worked-through at the end, namely that
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Bart is on a mission to avenge the honour of a woman who didn’t actually have much honour to begin with.

However, quite apart from the general queasiness of hinging everything on what amounts to scurrilous gossip about a dead woman, this plot twist is pretty poorly served. So in the course of a three year obsessive revenge quest, his pal Sam can’t bring himself to break the news gently? And the big scene where the news finally gets broken to (and breaks) Bart is so hampered by what were, I presume, Code-imposed euphemisms, I was having trouble figuring out how Bart figured out what it was exactly they were trying to tell him: “You never had a wife!!” – what the hell does that mean? Bigamy? That the JP at the wedding wasn’t really a JP? It was all a dream?
This twist does mean that Scott gets a great final scene, though he doesn’t pull it off quite as well as I would have hoped and expected.

Another minus – and again, it’s a script matter – is the clunky expository dialogue, most egregious in the big speechifying scene where the doctor has to explain to a conveniently gathered crowd of Absolutely Everybody in the Town Apart from the Antagonists the theme of the film (which has already been explained several times in various groups of twos and threes).

And, sorry to say, the acting here just isn’t up to snuff, particularly not after the great turns by Marvin and Boone in the preceding films of the series. Karen Steele gives a masterclass in bad bimbo acting, with every line reading awkward and unconvincing, and both of the big villains are damp squibs, dully generic where their predecessors were sparky and unpredictable.

So what did I like about it? Well, the twists and turns at the end were intriguing, if more in theory than in practice, and, bereft of landscape, Boetticher does show how well he can handle the geography of a small town. Actually, it’s more like geometry, since the focus is on the trajectories of the people and vehicles and gazes that traverse the streets.

I also really liked how Boetticher exploits the tension and menace of small ordinary details, with mini-set-pieces being built up out of where one sits at a wedding, how one pays for one’s drinks, getting a shave, tying on a holster.

So rather slim pickings, I’m afraid. I can’t remember if this is the worst film of the cycle, but it was pretty uninspiring.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#67 Post by knives » Thu Mar 10, 2011 7:55 pm

While the support and villain does lack I think the complexity of Scott's character lifts it up a lot. Also while it is a pretty stupid plot move I really do love that the film is almost entirely in one room. That's not much praise, but maybe I'll have something meaningful after watching it again.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#68 Post by Antares » Thu Mar 10, 2011 7:58 pm

This and Buchanan Rides Alone are the two mediocre films in the set. But it finishes strong with Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#69 Post by domino harvey » Sat Mar 12, 2011 2:39 am

The mysteries of taste rear their ugly head once more. I thought Decision at Sundown was the best of the Boetticher westerns yet, but then again, I seem to be struggling to find the level of praise most of my peers heap on these films in general. But this is a movie that has far more interesting sexual politics than I think it is given credit for. I don't really want to nitpick, but several of zedz' nitpicks are petty-- Scott's companion had no idea that Mary was behind the revenge plot, so why would he scratch up old wounds during the three year journey? And the "You had no wife" is a pretty strong and effective indictment of Scott's masculine blindness to his beloved's true nature-- it was an arrangement in title, not heart. There's also the deep irony that Scott remains more or less a fool by the end of the film and his actions only cause change to those around him peripherally. Additionally, the film benefits from having a villain who's certainly a cad but hardly evil-- the best way to highlight Scott's foolishness (and why not see his ego-driven "Let him know he's being hunted" hole-up method as just more of this overly-masculine bluster?) is to pair him against an unsympathetic but nonetheless undeserving victim.

Also, I'm well aware that this is the thousandth Western I've seen with a friendly barkeep, but I sure did like Otis' line, "Doc, if you've been tending bar as along as I have, you wouldn't expect so much out of the human race!"

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#70 Post by knives » Sat Mar 12, 2011 3:49 am

Watching it again today I have to agree with Domino in that it's the best of the first three. There's a wry irony in how the film treats it's hero and villain that makes it just a delicious experience. I don't think there's been a film with a protagonist so wrong in which the other characters try to point that out.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#71 Post by karmajuice » Sat Mar 12, 2011 6:11 am

(I'm not participating in the List Project -- the viewing habits required for that are too schematic for me -- but I hope you don't mind me butting in. I finished the Boetticher set just a few weeks ago, and the films are still fresh in my mind. Haven't gotten around to Seven Men from Now, though.)

I'll also echo the praise for Decision at Sundown. I'm not sure if it's my favorite of the Boetticher westerns (I also adore The Tall T, Comanche Station, and Ride Lonesome), but it left a strong impression, largely because it so thoroughly betrayed my expectations.

First off, it differs substantially from the other Ranown films, both in its mise-en-scène and its story. I think the film receives a lot of flack for that, because people go in expecting (and wanting) it to be like the others, but it has different intentions. It's the odd one out in the series: it doesn't have the tense, complex drama focused on a small, isolated group of people; it lacks the striking environments with emotional resonance. Since it can't be praised for these reasons, it gets criticized.

I like the film precisely because it establishes the typical western scenario before proceeding to break down every expectation which accompanies that scenario. It undermines its protagonist more severely than any of the other Ranown films, and probably more than any western I've ever seen. The other Ranown films cast some ambiguity over the Scott protagonists and their pasts, but Scott is always the self-assured lone rider. He's in control and his actions are justified.

Not so in Decision at Sundown. The Scott protagonist here goes through a complete reversal. We assume he's the same understandably vengeful gunman, but his poorly thought-out confrontation in the church plants the seed of doubt. Our opinion of him falls as the film progresses: he is consistently incompetent; his cause for starting the conflict is weak, even delusional; he gets several people killed for his delusions, including his friend; while he sparks the desire for change, the townsfolk really take care of their own problem and shun the "protagonist"; and he walks off alone at the end -- not bold, ennobling solitude, but true, pitiful loneliness. This isn't just the western which calls the legitimacy of revenge into question. This is a film which depicts revenge -- the raison d'etre of the western protagonist -- as a matter of pure folly. He has no basis for seeking revenge. On top of that, he isn't just wrong; he's impotent. The film beautifully undermines the role of the western "hero", and the critique is made especially potent with Randolph Scott in the role. We see a true blue western hero being everything a western hero shouldn't be. He plays it well, too: his uncertainty and confusion are spelled out in his glances and in the lines of his face, which are sad and old rather than rugged now. At the end, he is utterly broken (although I don't think he's entirely unsympathetic, if only because he's become conscious of his folly, and suffers for it).

It was made at the height of the classic period, yet its revisionist attitude is more bold than films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Little Big Man were fifteen years later. It's a singular film, and made all the more beautiful for its singularity.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#72 Post by zedz » Sun Mar 13, 2011 7:20 pm

Well, I don't really disagree with most of what's been written in defence of Decision at Sundown, it's just that I don't think the execution lives up to the theory.

And I still don't buy Scott's response to the big reveal line about his wife. Given his long-term monomania, why would the scales instantly fall from his eyes at this screenwriterly line spouted by the pretty girl who doesn't even know him and presumably never knew his wife? What makes her so ultra-credible, when, if it had been the doctor or Sam who managed to break the news, you'd have expected him to just deck them and carry on? It just reeks of dramatic convenience to me, and that's a problem I have with much of the script.

(And, domino, I must have missed Sam not knowing what was behind Bart's revenge plot, but that seems even more extraordinary to me - a guy spends three years of his life helping a friend extract his painstaking revenge on somebody without ever knowing why?)

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#73 Post by zedz » Thu Mar 24, 2011 7:35 pm

Buchanan Rides Alone

Like Sundown, this is generally considered one of the lesser (also Charles Lang-written) entries in the cycle, but I like it a lot.

It’s probably the most comic of the films, with Scott surprisingly breezy and upbeat for a guy who’s about to be lynched, but it’s not a ‘comedy western’ (which must be, on the available evidence, just about the most godforsaken subgenre there is). It has some decent jokes (the best one being the subtlest, delivered by Scott’s glance after the line “Sure is a ten dollar town”), but it’s more a comedy in its structure than in its effect, with lots of reversals, and apparently comic characters (most notably Amos the hotel manager) who never actually develop into comic foils. At one point the various doors on the town jailhouse almost get as much of a workout at those in a bedroom farce.

Lang still lacks Kennedy’s gift for characterization, particularly among his villains, but he finds an elegant workaround in this film by pitting Scott against a collection of contrasting opponents. Individually, none of them really rise above stock figures, but there’s enough variety between their characteristics and motivations to give the predicament a useful complexity and unpredictability, and the plot, despite what sometimes seems a breathless over-busy-ness, delivers more of the brutally simple set pieces in which Boetticher specialised (the encounter at the desert shack, the lonesome hit planned for Buchanan, the money bag in no-man’s land) than the preceding film.

The scene where Buchanan is led out into the wilderness is a really great one, with an expert (and important) play between tension and relaxation, and its eccentric capper (Lafe’s funeral) affords L Q Jones a really great moment or two. His is the most interesting character in the film, and he gives the best and most individual performance.
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And this care, along with the script’s forsaking of any potential love interest – note the title of the film – is what makes his fate genuinely moving, despite the outrageously unsatisfactory set-up for that incident: possibly the most careless trussing up of vengeful killers in western history. Three hard men and it looks like they left the tying up to a three-year-old girl hoping to make the bad guys sit still for her tea party. But even she would probably think to dispose of their guns and horses.
Even though his character is drastically underwritten, Craig Stevens’ Carbo is runner-up, and it’s very satisfying at the end of the film to see the least compromised (and least stupid) villain sort of prevail, without any big kiss and make up scene with Scott. Agry Town might be a little less corrupt and venal now, but it’s still not the kind of place a character like Buchanan should hang around.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#74 Post by knives » Thu Mar 24, 2011 9:20 pm

I actually find this to be the best film this far(probably ignorantly I think that so far the films have gotten better with each turn). There's also a nice rhythm going on in the series with this being a cousin of The Tall T just as much as Decision is of 7 Men From Now. Scott's gone from a supernatural force of justice to a total idiot who just happens to have the good ethics and charisma to make for a good hero. Everyone of his problems are his own damned fault. Either he's in the wrong place at the wrong time or he jumps into that sort of situation even though it always makes him worse off. Once again it depends entirely on everyone else to fix the (ultimately helpful)chaos that Scott brings.

The stock nature of the characters really helps the movie explore what these types mean and how fluidly they can stand. It also helps that no one character is really a villain. They may be corrupt self serving asses, but I don't think they're evil. Anyone could have survived the ending with just as much effect. Even the grotesque sheriff manages to come across as more of a gray spot than a true villain.

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Re: The Boetticher / Scott Westerns

#75 Post by domino harvey » Sat Apr 09, 2011 7:53 pm

I think Decision at Sundown still inches in front of it a smidge, but I too liked Buchannan Rides Alone far more than most of the B/S westerns before it. There's something so maniacal about the countless back and forth mechanations of the last half's exchanges of prisoners and captors that, in hindsight, is really borderline farce! Sure, Scott gets off a lot of quips, and there's some sort of Andy Devine wannabe (who let this guy in?!) hanging around, but the film doesn't really acknowledge how easily it could have been one of the dreaded comic westerns with just a little push in the wrong direction.

I kind of wanted to push Westbound in any direction, because regardless of debates on which is the best, surely no one could make the argument for this pile! Perhaps it's a victim of overzealous editing (even the back of the DVD case is wrong) that took this down to a slim 68 minutes, I dunno, but this pic plays out the undesired comic results of a poor script with underdeveloped characters who seem to jump to the end of their story-lines quite freely without ever having much of a storyline to skip ahead on! It's hard to pick a favorite moment, but surely Virginia Mayo climactic deriding Andrew Duggan's character for excessive jealousy, an emotional response he's never shown in the film, takes second place only to that finale, wherein an honorable and brave widow exchanges flirts with our hero the day after her husband has been horrifically killed. Guess the memory half-life of half-a-man isn't too long...

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