For the last two years—ever since the box set of Westerns from Columbia written by Burt Kennedy, directed by Budd Boetticher, and starring Randolph Scott, who also co-produced, was released—I've slowly been working toward seeing all five of these films, a task I just recently completed when I watched 1960's Comanche Station (a shot from the opening is pictured above), the last film in the series. The series actually got off to a start with Seven Men from Now (1956), a movie not included in the box set (probably because it was released by Warner Bros, not Columbia.) In that film Scott plays a former sheriff who systematically tracks down the seven men who killed his wife during a holdup. Seven Men from Now introduced many elements that Kennedy and Boetticher would return to in the Columbia movies. Shot in widescreen and color, it deals with a pursuit and revenge theme with Scott as the nemesis of evildoers, features a supporting cast of highly capable character actors, and has as the chief villain an actor not well known at the time but destined to become famous for this type of role, here Lee Marvin. And as in all of the later films, it moves step by step toward the inevitable climactic showdown between Scott and his adversary, what Andrew Sarris describes in The American Cinema as "the deadly confrontations of male antagonists . . . man to man in an empty arena on a wide screen before a very quiet, elemental camera."
AN OVERVIEW OF THE FILMS
The Tall T (1957)
The Columbia series got off to a strong start with this film, based on a story by Elmore Leonard. Scott plays Pat Brennan, a rancher who hitches a ride on a stagecoach driven by an old friend (Arthur Hunnicutt, in a colorful Walter Brennan-like turn). The coach has been hired by a pair of newlyweds, Willard and Doretta Mims (John Hubbard and Maureen O'Sullivan) to take them on their honeymoon. When the coach stops at a relay station, Scott and his companions are confronted by three outlaws. The cowardly Willard, who has married the middle-aged heiress Doretta for her money, proposes that the outlaws collect a kidnap ransom from her rich father. The leader of the gang, the smooth-talking Frank Usher (played with quiet menace by Richard Boone), rides off with Willard to collect the ransom, sending his two henchman away to their hideout with the two hostages. Once there, Scott must devise a scheme to outwit the gunmen and disarm them before Usher returns, and he must persuade the terrified Doretta, dispirited by her new husband's betrayal, to help him.
With its several unmotivated murders of harmless people (including a child), kidnapping, attempted rape, and coolly sadistic villain, this is probably the most overtly violent of the five movies. Whereas in the later films, violent acts committed against innocent victims have already taken place before the film begins or else exist as a threat that might happen in the future, here that violence occurs during the film, making it all the more disturbing. The film presents a spectrum of Western manhood, from the cowardly, unprincipled fortune-hunter Willard to the fearless but equally unprincipled villain Usher to the courageous man of honor played by Scott. Like most Westerns, these films are male-centric, having few important female characters—typically one in each film—who tend to be rudimentary types lacking the psychological definition of the male characters. The Tall T is distinguished by having in Maureen O'Sullivan's Doretta Mims the most fully developed and most touchingly portrayed female character of the series. The Technicolor cinematography is by Charles Lawton (The Lady from Shanghai), who shot three of the films. Also featuring Henry Silva and Skip Homeier.
Decision at Sundown (1957)
Sundown is the name of the small town where the movie takes place. At the beginning, Bart Ellison (Scott) and his best friend Sam (Noah Beery, Jr. in a very warm performance) ride into town searching for Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), the man who Elllison's wife deserted him for before later committing suicide and who Ellison blames for her death. Sundown is one of those Wild West towns run by an unscrupulous strong man, with the sheriff under his control and the townspeople intimidated into a state of collective cowardice, and that man is Kimbrough. The day Ellison arrives, Kimbrough is set to marry a young woman named Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele, who appeared in several other films directed by Boetticher, including one more in this series). Ellison manages to stop the wedding, telling Lucy that he plans to kill her fiancé by sundown that day. When Kimbrough orders his men to kill Ellison, Ellison takes refuge in a stable, where he plans to stay until he meets his foe in the street for the showdown. The rest of the movie details Ellison's efforts to avoid Kimbrough's schemes to have him killed and stay alive for the gunfight at sundown.
I found this, the only one of the five movies not written or co-written by Burt Kennedy, the weakest of the series. One problem I had with it is that Scott spends a large part of the movie holed up in the stable. This, combined with the fact that many other scenes are also set indoors, creates a set-bound feeling. An overreliance on dialogue to put across plot points also gives the film a static quality not associated with an action genre like the Western. I have seen Westerns that rely on interior scenes and dialogue more than the typical example of the genre—I'm thinking of movies like 3:10 to Yuma and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—and in which such an approach doesn't end up being a liability. But those films had the advantage of using interiors and dialogue to pursue a novel situation, and the situation in Decision at Sundown, with a cowardly populace intimidated by a ruthless strong man and his cronies, seems quite familiar, a variation of High Noon. This time the photography is by Burnett Guffey (From Here to Eternity, Bonnie and Clyde). Also featured are many familiar faces—Andrew Duggan as the sheriff, John Archer, John Litel, Vaughn Taylor, Richard Deacon, and Bob Steele.
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)
Scott stars as Tom Buchanan, returning to Texas from Mexico with a stash of gold to buy a ranch. After crossing the border at the town of Agry, he gets caught up in the machinations of the corrupt Agry family who run the town—Simon, a rich rancher who is also the town judge, his squabbling younger brothers Lew, the town sheriff, and Amos, the dim-witted owner of the town hotel, and Simon's debauched son Roy. Buchanan befriends Juan de la Vega, the son of a Mexican landowner, who shoots Roy for raping his young sister. When the greedy family learn about Buchanan's money, they accuse him of being Juan's accomplice and prepare to lynch them both. Only the intervention of Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens), the only man outside the Agry family with any real influence in the town, prevents the hanging, getting the two men a trial in which Juan is convicted and Buchanan exonerated. Spurred by a large ransom offered by Juan's rich father, many complications ensue—bribery, murder, double-crossing, sibling rivalry over the ransom money and Buchanan's gold. Working with Abe Carbo, Buchanan is able to sort things out, reclaim his gold, and restore a semblance of order to Agry before riding away, leaving Carbo in charge of the town.
With its bordertown setting, especially Simon Agry's Mexican-style hacienda, and its Mexican characters, Buchanan Rides Alone has a distinctly Southwestern flavor unique to the series. Some commentators have detected a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the material. Indeed, the cast does seem pretty relaxed given the overall seriousness of the plot. Moreover, there is a certain drollery in the Agry family's degeneracy and infighting, and Buchanan seems a bit of a trickster with his insouciant attitude to personal danger, his confidence in his ability to overcome difficulties, and the cunning way he manipulates his enemies by using their own avarice and hunger for power to play them against each other. The cinematographer is the great Lucien Ballard, a man associated especially with Western pictures. The cast contains no female characters of note but does include film noir and Western stalwart Barry Kelley as the sheriff, Peter Whitney as the hotelier brother (he played the hulking twins Mert and Bert in the 1945 Fred MacMurray black comedy Murder, He Says), and L. Q. Jones.
Ride Lonesome (1959)
Scott plays Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter who captures the wanted killer Billy John (James Best) and then must survive a number of threats while transporting him back to the town of Santa Cruz. He must fight off Billy John's brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) and his outlaw gang, who trail Brigade, waiting for an opportunity to ambush him. Stopping at a stagecoach station, he encounters two more outlaws, Boone (Bonanza's Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn, in his first film role), who are after Billy John for their own reasons. Also at the station is Carrie Lane (Karen Steele), whom the chief of a group of Indians wants to claim for his squaw. Brigade and his prisoner, accompanied by the two outlaws and Carrie, head for Santa Cruz, and Brigade must now contend with Frank's gang, hostile Indians, and two rivals for the capture of Billy John. Brigade's strange behavior during the journey soon makes it apparent that he has more in mind than delivering Billy John and claiming the reward. He is in fact using Billy John as bait to maneuver his brother Frank into a trap. Frank is his real prey, for it is Frank who was responsible for murdering Brigade's wife by hanging her from a hanging tree, and it is to this tree that Brigade is luring Frank to get revenge. He does get his revenge in the end, and the film concludes with perhaps the most striking single image in the entire series—Brigade setting fire to the hanging tree and watching from nearby as the flames symbolically consume the past wrongs that have haunted him.
To my mind, Ride Lonesome is the best of the Boetticher-Scott Westerns for a number of reasons. It has the strongest cast of any film in the series. It also has the most intriguing and meticulously organized plot of the five films. From a simple beginning, complications pile on one after the other, and details that initially seem straightforward gradually build in intricacy. The device of having the hero simultaneously imperiled by threats from three distinct sources intensifies and heightens the tension of the situation. In Brigade, Ride Lonesome has Scott's most complex incarnation. The revelation that his apparently mercenary motivation is something altogether deeper and at the same time more primal than we were led to believe at the beginning of the film, that the impetus for his every move is the overwhelming need to avenge the murder of his wife, gives Brigade's actions and character unexpected nuances. His remarkable skills at reading human behavior, predicting the reactions of his opponents, and using strategy to control and direct them exceeds that ability even in Buchanan Rides Alone and The Tall T. All this propels Ride Lonesome to that unforgettable final image, with Scott in the background on one side of the frame dwarfed by the burning tree looming in the foreground on the other side. This was the first of the films shot in CinemaScope, and in this shot Boetticher and director of photography Charles Lawton went all out to use the extreme proportions of the frame to create a summative image that shows not only how bitterness has completely ruled Brigade, but also that it finally burns itself out.
Comanche Station (1960)
The film opens with a long shot of a lone man, Jefferson Cody (Scott), riding across a rocky vista leading a pack mule. When Cody is confronted by a group of Comanches accompanied by a disheveled white woman, Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates), he trades the goods on the mule for the woman. It seems he heard that a white woman had been captured by Indians and was actually out searching for her. While stopping at Comanche Station, the two meet up with three men led by Ben Lane (Claude Akins), a bounty hunter, who have been chased there by Indians. Cody and Lane have a history. Years earlier, Cody and Lane served in the Army, and Lane was responsible for recklessly provoking an Indian attack that wiped out the fort Cody commanded. Lane reveals that he and his men are also looking for Mrs. Lowe because her husband has offered a $5,000 dollar reward for her return to him in Lordsburg. Cody was unaware of the reward, but Mrs. Lowe doesn't believe him and loses respect for her rescuer. What Lane doesn't reveal is that the reward was offered for her return dead or alive and that he plans to kill both her and Cody before they reach Lordsburg. On the journey to Lordsburg, Cody must now contend with Mrs. Lowe's uncooperative attitude, the threat of attack by Indians, and, unknown to him, the planned treachery of Lane. It is only toward the end of the film that Mrs. Lowe learns that Cody's own wife was captured by Indians and that he has been searching for her for years, traveling anywhere he hears a report of a captive white woman.
Fittingly, the final entry in the series revisits many of the themes of the earlier films—Scott trying to redress wrongs done to his wife, a journey across barren territory fraught with danger, threats from Indians as well as scoundrels encountered by chance along the way. If it doesn't really cover new ground, it still manages to be a very entertaining variation on familiar themes. After Doretta Wims in The Tall T, the film has in Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates is quite good in the part) the next strongest female character in the series. With the complicated and shifting relationship between her and Cody, and the fact that she is a major character from the beginning of the film right up to the very end, she plays the most important part in the narrative of any female character in the series. Comanche Station was the third of the movies photographed by Charles Lawton, like Ride Lonesome in CinemaScope, and for me the real star here is the rocky landscapes surmounted by vast expanses of cloudless blue sky. (The movie was shot in the Sierra Nevada of California near Mt. Whitney.) Costarring Skip Homeier and Richard Rust (a familiar face from TV and low-budget movies whose best-known role was probably as Cliff Robertson's partner in crime in Samuel Fuller's Underworld, U.S.A.).
THE ENIGMATIC RANDOLPH SCOTT
Of the many recurring elements in the five films, the most commanding is the presence of Randolph Scott, who acts as both the moral center of the film and the force that drives its action. Scott's weathered, impassive face seems almost an icon of resolve to defend a masculine sense of honor under threat. The characters Scott plays in these films have different names and move in different circumstances, yet they might be the same individual. (He even wears the same costume in two of the pictures and in two others merely exchanges a gray shirt and tan kerchief for a blue shirt and tan kerchief.) Impelled by a single purpose, he can become nearly obsessive in the pursuit of that purpose. The nature of that purpose is clear in each of the films. What is less clear is the motivation that drives him, his very inexpressiveness effectively masking the true nature of his motivation.
Scott makes it subtly apparent how fine a line exists between the righteous duty to achieve justice through retribution and the selfish desire to exact personal revenge through destruction. But even if you can occasionally see the dark side of the man peeking out from behind the mask, he never surrenders to the darkness that runs like an undercurrent through his character, always remaining at heart an honorable man. Even though he must overcome his opponents by matching their ruthlessness and exceeding their cleverness and calculation, he never abandons his sense of fair play. And at the end of the movie, when the foe has been defeated, there is little sense of triumph, only the feeling that the man's duty is at last completed and that he can now move to whatever lies ahead.