Tag Archives: Budd Boetticher

Great Directors: Budd Boetticher

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 6, 2014

Budd Boetticher

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“Boetticher is one of the most fascinating unrecognized talents in the American cinema…Constructed partly as allegorical Odysseys and partly as floating poker games where every character took turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown, Boetticher’s Westerns expressed a weary serenity and moral certitude that was contrary to the more neurotic approaches of other directors on this neglected level of the cinema.” Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, 1968.  This was written long before the second wave of recognition for Boetticher’s work, at a time when he could accurately be called an “unrecognized talent.”

In 1950 Randolph Scott was exclusively appearing in western movies, and he was quite successful at it:  he was the biggest box-office star in the country.  Already in his 50s with his investments doing well, he was looking at the downhill side of his career.  By the mid-1950s the domestic grosses on his westerns were falling.  What he didn’t know was that his very best work in westerns was still ahead of him, thanks to Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah.

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Oscar Boetticher, Jr., was born in 1916 and grew up in Evansville, Indiana.  A star athlete at Ohio State, he traveled to Mexico after graduation.  There he developed an interest in bullfighting and a lifelong affection for the country.  A chance encounter with director Rouben Mamoulian led to a job as a technical adviser (on bullfighting) in the 1941 movie Blood and Sand.  He got his directing break ten years later when John Wayne’s production company Batjac asked him to direct The Bullfighter and the Lady, which he did using the name Budd Boetticher.  It earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story.

Soon after, he moved to Universal, where he made The Man from the Alamo, the 3-D western Wings of the Hawk and the World War II movie Red Ball Express.  In 1955 he made another bullfighting movie, The Magnificent Matador, beginning a frequent collaboration with cinematographer Lucien Ballard.  And he directed the first three episodes of the television series Maverick.

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Julie Adams watches Budd Boetticher direct a punch at a stuntman while filming The Man from the Alamo (1953).

Around that time Batjac had been developing a script by Burt Kennedy as a vehicle for John Wayne.  But when Wayne opted for The Searchers instead, the property was passed on to Boetticher.  He directed Seven Men from Now in 1956 with Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin and Gail Russell, and it began one of the most productive collaborations in the history of westerns:  the seven films of the Ranown cycle.  Ranown was the production company formed by Scott and his producing partner Harry Joe Brown; since Seven Men from Now was produced by Batjac, it is not actually part of that cycle, although it is often lumped together with them because all the other major elements of the team (director, star, writer) are the same.

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Boetticher with a couple of actors (John Wayne and Randolph Scott).

The Ranown productions were not large-budget movies, but they are tightly constructed, mostly filmed at Lone Pine and work well in terms of storytelling  In addition to being produced by Ranown and directed by Boetticher, they all star Randolph Scott, who was 58 when Seven Men was filmed, and the best of them were written by Burt Young.  Shot between 1956 and 1960, the four best of them are Decision at Sundown, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.  They also include Buchanan Rides Alone and Westbound.  Viewed as modest successes in the U.S. at the time they were released, they were accorded more cinematic respect in Europe, particularly in France.

In 1960 Boetticher made a gambler-gangster movie The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond and then disappeared south of the border into Mexico for much of the 1960s, trying to make a documentary on bullfighter Carlos Arruza.  The productive part of his directing career was over.  His last movie was A Time for Dying, also Audie Murphy’s last film.  Boetticher provided the story for Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara.  

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Boetticher directing Michael Dante and Randolph Scott on Westbound, 1959.

His best work was not widely seen in the U.S. after its initial release.  Batjac owned the rights to Seven Men from Now, and, like Hondo, kept it largely off television.  But with the coming of the DVD age, both Seven Men and the Ranown cycle of movies became more widely available and Boetticher, who had always been the center of a cult among western aficionados, became more widely known.  His teaming with Randolph Scott ranks with the John Ford-John Wayne and Anthony Mann-James Stewart pairings for the excellent westerns that resulted from it.  His career was shorter than others of the great directors, but it resulted in a remarkably compact and consistent body of work.  He died in 2001.

Visually, Boetticher’s best films were shot at Lone Pine, a desolate semi-desert landscape near the Owens Valley in southern California where many westerns had been shot going back to Roscoe Arbuckle and The Round-Up in 1920.  They are spare and clean, just as the stories are, without many close-ups or long shots, using mostly medium shots.  However, both Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station begin with a long shot of a single rider in the rocks–the sort of thing Sergio Leone would borrow for the initial shot of For A Few Dollars More.

Decades after his amazingly productive period in the late 1950s, Boetticher was asked about his working methods, particularly with screenwriter Burt Young.  “With the real Scott pictures [the Ranown westerns], Burt [Young] and Randy [Scott] and Harry Joe [Brown] and I had complete control and we all thought alike.  It was a pleasure because I had the best cameramen, who were my friends, and I had a producer I really liked because he didn’t bother me, Harry Joe Brown, and I don’t think there was ever a finer gentleman in the picture business than Randolph Scott.  And where John Wayne had a completely different attitude with young actors who were in his pictures, Randy would say ‘I sure like that young fellow,’ like James Coburn, ‘let’s give him more lyrics.’  In every picture I made with him, with the exception of Westbound [where they didn’t have control over the script], we made a star because Randy and Burt and I wanted to make a star.  And look at the list:  Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Craig Stevens, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, Claude Akins.”  It becomes clearer from his comments that he worked with a remarkably talented and congenial small team.  What he’s describing only works if the team has control, everybody is very capable and everybody trusts everybody else.  That elusive kind of lightning struck for him, Scott, Young and Brown for five years, and then it was gone.

BoetticherTallTRandolph Scott in The Tall T.

“I would read his [Burt Young’s] scripts and die laughing and be excited and call him and say, ‘Jesus Christ, this is really wonderful.’  That’s our preparation.  I got a great script and I shot it and I added to it.  That’s what a director is supposed to do.  If you take a good script and you can’t make it better, you’re not a very good director.  The writer has done everything he possibly can do to make it a good script.  Now, he delivers it to you, it should be to the best of his ability.  You’ve got weeks after that even before you’ve got to shoot, supposedly, where you can take a good piece of work and say, ‘Gee, I can improve it a little bit here, a little bit here, a little bit there,’ but that’s what directors should do.  We didn’t all get together like they do today and have meetings and say, ‘What do you think we ought to do next?’  We knew what we were going to do.  We made those Scott pictures in 18 days.  Three weeks, six days a week.  

“There are too many people today involved in making a motion picture.  Everybody has a different contribution, and you can’t do it that way.  A fellow might have a great idea for a sequence but the sequence may not fit the movie.  And his lovely couple of days shooting that look great on film in the rushes, they don’t fit in the picture.  Today I’ve been on sets of top directors and they say cut and they all have a meeting.  And they say, ‘What do you think we ought to do?’  And they say, ‘I don’t know, what do you think we ought to do?’  And they discuss it and then they decide.  Jesus, how can you make pictures like that?”

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Film historian and critic David Thomson wrote of the Boetticher-Scott westerns in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, calling them “…a remarkable series of Westerns, all made cheaply and quickly in desert or barren locations.  They have a consistent and bleak preoccupation with life and death, sun and shade, and encompass treachery, cruelty, courage, and bluff with barely a trace of sentimentality or portentousness.”

Bruce Ricker directed an excellent documentary on Boetticher in 2005, called Budd Boetticher:  A Man Can Do That, taken from a Burt Young-written line used more than once by Randolph Scott in the Ranown movies.  It’s 87 minutes long, and the executive producer was Clint Eastwood.  It’s part of the 2008 boxed set of the Ranown movies–minus Seven Men from Now and Westbound.

For more of Sean Axmaker’s interviews with Budd Boetticher, see  http://parallax-view.org/2008/11/02/budd-boetticher-and-the-ranown-films/

And for an extended biographical treatment of Boetticher by Axmaker, see http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/feature-articles/boetticher/

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Randolph Scott, Gail Russell and Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now.

Boetticher Essentials:  The Man from the Alamo, Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station.

Second-Rank Boetticher:  The Cimarron Kid, Horizons West, Seminole, Wings of the Hawk, Buchanan Rides Alone, Westbound, A Time for Dying.

Boetticher Non-Western Essentials:  None.

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Buchanan Rides Alone

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 6, 2014

Buchanan Rides Alone—Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens, Manuel Rojas (1958; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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One of the Ranown westerns based in a town, like Decision at Sundown, instead of being shot out in the Lone Pine countryside.  Agry Town, on the California-Mexico border, is corrupt, like Sundown.  The genial Texan Buchanan rides in from Mexico and has trouble riding out.  The sheriff, the judge and the hotel keeper are all brothers named Agry, with a son of the judge as a short-lived trouble-maker.  That seems to make four Agrys.

In a saloon, Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas), a wealthy young Mexican seeking revenge, kills Roy Agry, son of Judge Simon Agry.  Buchanan helps him as the sheriff’s men proceed to beat him, and both land in jail, Buchanan with his $2000 from his years in Mexico confiscated.

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Buchanan rides in–alone.

Sheriff:  “Oh, you don’t like this town?”

Buchanan:  “I don’t like some of its people.”

Sheriff:  “Me included?”

Buchanan:  “You especially.”

Sheriff:  “Oh, you’d like to kill me maybe?”

Buchanan:  “I’d like to give you what your boys gave me.”

Sheriff:  “Take the law into your own hands, is that it?”

Buchanan:  “No, just you.”

As matters play out, Buchanan is sent out from town in the company of two deputies who obviously have instructions to kill him.  One of them, Pecos Hill, upon finding that Buchanan is a fellow West Texan, turns on the other and kills him.  Buchanan is released and they hold a non-stereotypical impromptu funeral for the deceased gunman.  Pecos has a speech in which he declares that his deceased friend was a cheater and a thief who couldn’t be trusted, but otherwise was not a bad guy.

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Pecos (L.Q. Jones) delivers an impromptu funeral soliloquy, while Buchanan (Randolph Scott) looks on.

The three senior Agrys are all conspiring against each other.  Judge Simon is the most powerful, and has his own gunman, Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens).  Sheriff Lew Agry has several deputies.  And hotel keeper Amos Agry is playing one against the other for his own advantage.  Simon keeps trying to extract a $50,000 ransom from Juan’s family, while Luke wants to get the money and hang Juan, too.  Amos wants a cut of the money.  Juan escapes and is recaptured; Buchanan is released and recaptured.   After several reverses, all the players end up at the border scrabbling over the $50,000.  The Agrys are on the U.S. side, and Juan and Buchanan are on the Mexican side.  The money is on the bridge in the middle, and there is a stand-off.  Lew sends Simon to get the money and then shoots him while he’s on the bridge. Lew then gets shot in turn.  With the two effective Agrys dead, Buchanan gets most of his $2000 back and then hands the $50,000 to Juan and the town over to Carbo.

This is based on the 1956 novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward.  The writing credit for this one is attributed to Charles Lang (as is Decision at Sundown), and Randolph Scott as Buchanan is talkier than in Burt Kennedy’s scripts, with more humor.  However, Boetticher later confirmed that he found the Lang script unsuitable and had Burt Kennedy re-write it.  Since Lang’s wife was gravely ill and they needed the money, Kennedy generously allowed the writing credit (and the fee) to stay with Lang.  Still, it’s not really Kennedy’s best work as a writer. 

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Buchanan (Scott), Carbo (Craig Stevens) and a nameless horse.

Interestingly enough, there is no significant female role in this film, not even for Karen Steele (the statuesque Mrs. Boetticher).  Television private eye Craig Stevens (“Peter Gunn”) plays Carbo, Simon’s hired gunman who always rides in a carriage.  Stevens gets second billing, but his character isn’t very developed.  There is an early screen appearance by L.Q. Jones as the chatty young Texan Pecos Hill. 

This is not one of the more highly-regarded Boetticher-Scott efforts, but it’s enjoyable enough to watch.  Cinematography is in color by Lucien Ballard.  Like all the other Ranown westerns, this is fairly short, at 78 minutes.  Filmed in Old Tucson-Sabino Canyon, in Arizona, not at Lone Pine like most of the other Ranown series.  So, although it’s the only one of the Ranown films to be set in California, it’s the only one not to be filmed in California.  Director Taylor Hackford has commented that Scott’s Buchanan is a sort of precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, the character at the center of Sergio Leone’s influential Dollar movies. .

 

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Westbound

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 20, 2014

Westbound—Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Virginia Mayo, Andrew Duggan (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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Although this is usually reckoned about the least of the Boetticher-Scott westerns, it’s not terrible.  According to Boetticher, after the third of his pictures with Randolph Scott, he was told that Scott had an obligation to Warner Brothers to make one more picture, and this was it.  The Ranown movies were made for Columbia.  The best of the Ranown movies were written by Burt Kennedy; this was written by Bernie Giler.  The score is standard western movie music by Elmer Bernstein, though.

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Heading west, and meeting the young couple.

Scott is Captain John Hayes, returning to Julesburg, Colorado Territory, during the Civil War to make sure that gold from California gets to the Union, where it’s going.  Near Julesburg, he drops off a young couple, the Millers; the husband is a one-armed Union veteran (Michael Dante) and the wife is played by the Jane-Russell-esque Karen Steele.  In town, Hayes finds the Overland Stage in disarray, with its station closed and its stock gone.  His former flame, Norma (Virginia Mayo), has married Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a long-time rival with Confederate sympathies.  Putnam and Mace (the swarthy Michael Pate, an Australian actor who frequently played Indians), a hired gun, are behind the depredations against the Overland Stage.

Hayes hires the young couple to run a stage station at their ranch.  There are raids on various stage stations and various murders before Hayes has it out with Putnam and Mace in Julesburg.  At the end of the movie, Putnam is dead (as is the young one-armed Miller), and there is a visual implication that Hayes and Norma may resume their relationship.  But then Hayes makes it clear that Norma is going back East, and he’s more interested in the young widow Jeanie Miller (as was Budd Boetticher; she became Mrs. Boetticher).

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It’s short, about 75 minutes, and it’s not bad.  It just isn’t as good as most of the Ranown westerns Boetticher and Scott made.  Written by Berne Giler  This was one of the last Boetticher westerns to be released on DVD, in 2009.

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

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Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

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Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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Decision at Sundown

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 28, 2013

Decision At Sundown—Randolph Scott, Noah Beery, Jr., Karen Steele, John Carroll, Andrew Duggan (1957; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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Unlike most of the other Ranown westerns of the late 1950s, this one takes place mostly in a town.  The opening shot is not a lone rider making his way through the distant rocks of Lone Pine.  And the normally solitary Randolph Scott character has a sidekick played by the amicable Noah Beery, Jr..  And it’s written by Charles Lang, not Burt Kennedy, who wrote the best of the Ranown westerns directed by Budd Boetticher.  There are stories, however, that Kennedy did most of the writing without being credited.

However, Bart Allison (Scott) is seeking vengeance for matters relating to the death of his wife, as is usual with Scott characters in Boetticher movies.  He’s after Tate Kimbrough (played slimily by John Carroll), the corrupt town boss of Sundown, who’s about to marry spunky and beautiful young Kate Summerton (Karen Steele, who was Mrs. Budd Boetticher).  Allison is a Civil War veteran who’s heard that a dalliance with Kimbrough while he was gone led to his wife’s suicide.  There are good side characters in this one:  Ruby James (Valerie French) is Kimbrough’s long-time living-above-the-saloon paramour who’s not entirely reconciled to the marriage; Doc John Storrow (John Archer) has his own questions about Kimbrough, as does local rancher Morley Chase (Ray Teal). 

DecisionSundownWedding Breaking up the wedding.

By speaking up at Kimbrough’s wedding, Allison and Sam immediately are hunted by Kimbrough’s minions, including his pet sheriff (Andrew Duggan).  The battle takes most of the movie, as Kimbrough’s men take out Sam and Allison kills the sheriff.  In the end, however, though Kimbrough is a moral leper, he doesn’t actually deserve Allison’s vengeance because Allison’s wife dallied with a number of men.  The resolution is interesting; Allison gets his revenge, but not the way he thought he would.  And he’s not happy about it.  He’s not as admirable a hero as most of the Scott-Boetticher characters.  This is yet another case where the hero played by Scott doesn’t get Karen Steele, who probably ends up with the doctor.

DecisionSundownScott In desperate straits.

This is an interesting variation on the cowardly townspeople theme, though.  (High Noon, At Gunpoint, The Tin Star, the original 3:10 to Yuma, etc.)  It’s not, perhaps, one of the very best of the Ranown westerns, but better than an average western nevertheless.

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Two Mules for Sister Sara

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 27, 2013

Two Mules For Sister Sara—Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Manuel Fabregas (1970; Dir:  Don Siegel)

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This one stars Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine.  It’s directed by Don Siegel, from a story by Budd Boetticher, with music by Ennio Morricone.  All of that sounds great, right?  Somehow this is less than the sum of its parts.  Clint Eastwood has cited Don Siegel (director of Dirty Harry and The Shootist) as one of his two greatest directorial influences, along with Sergio Leone; he dedicated his last western, Unforgiven, to them. 

This features Clint in his early 1970s leather hat period (albeit the hat appears to be basically of the same design as he wears in the Dollars trilogy and Pale Rider; leather would be hotter than felt, though).  He is Hogan, a Civil War veteran and mercenary working for the Juaristas battling occupying French soldiers in northern Mexico in the 1860s.  In the movie’s opening scenes, he rescues an unclad Shirley MacLaine from three very unsavory American bandidos. 

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When she dresses, he’s surprised to find she’s a nun—Sister Sara.  She’s also working for the Juaristas, it turns out.  Hogan has agreed to help Col. Beltran (Manuel Fabregas) take the French garrison in Chihuahua in exchange for half the treasury.  Sister Sara knows the garrison well, having taught the French soldiers Spanish there before they discovered she was working for the Juaristas.  Together they devise a plan for attacking the garrison with Juarista support, so Hogan can collect his treasury, Sara can help the Juaristas, and Col. Beltran can root out the French from his country. 

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On their way to Chihuahua, Hogan is shot with a Yaqui arrow and Sara has to help him blow up a railroad trestle with a train full of French troops going to reinforce Chihuahua.  Arriving in Chihuahua, Sara leads them to a house with a tunnel going into the garrison—a house of ill repute, as matters develop.  Sara is a resident of the place who has disguised herself as a nun to escape French retribution.  They storm the garrison, Hogan gets his treasury, and in the end Hogan and Sara ride off together, this time with Sara in a more suitable bright scarlet. 

TwoMulesRedSara Now Red Sara.

It’s unclear what the two mules of the title refer to.  The pairing of a profane adventurer with a woman of God echoes The African Queen.  In fact, MacLaine was said to get along with neither Eastwood nor director Siegel.  As with many films from the early 1970s, much of the blood looks like red paint.  Watchable, but the script has some clunky dialogue and the story doesn’t hang together real well.  Some have suggested it would work better if Sara stayed a nun.  Story by Budd Boetticher, music by Ennio Morricone.  In color, filmed in Mexico.

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Ride Lonesome

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 18, 2013

Ride Lonesome—Randolph Scott, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, Lee Van Cleef, Karen Steele, James Best (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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One of the last Ranown westerns, and generally thought to be one of the better ones.  (The four best are Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.)  Randolph Scott is bounty hunter Ben Brigade, who captures stupid young killer Billy John (James Best) in the movie’s opening scene.  This is a manhunt/vengeance western, in which Brigade really wants to use Billy as bait for his older brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef, in his 1950s bad guy mode).  When Brigade was a lawman years ago in Santa Cruz, he had brought Frank to justice only to see him given a light sentence by a cooperative judge.  Frank then captured and hanged Brigade’s wife at the movie’s most potent symbol, the hanging tree.

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The young widow (Karen Steele) is not pleased.

The interesting relationship here is not Brigade’s with Frank or Billy John, or even with young blond widow Mrs. Carrie Lane (Karen Steele).  It’s with Sam Boone (played well by Pernell Roberts, with a very resonant voice), a sometime outlaw and longtime acquaintance of Brigade who wants to go straight and thinks possession of Billy John will enable him to obtain amnesty for his past crimes.  When Brigade doesn’t trust him and won’t give him Billy John, it’s not clear how far Boone will go to get Billy John.  He has some good instincts, but also some not so good.  The trip to Santa Cruz is complicated by hostile Apaches (who have caused Mrs. Lane to be a widow at the start of this movie), and supposed pursuit by Billy John’s brother Frank, who is apparently untroubled by the Indians.

Roberts’ Boone has the quintessential Boetticher-Scott-Kennedy line:  “Some things a man can’t ride around.”   Scott said it in The Tall T.  The line wasn’t exclusive to a Kennedy script; John Wayne had a version of it in Stagecoach and it has been used many times in westerns.

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Partners Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn).

There is a final showdown at the hanging tree, and things are sorted out.  Brigade doesn’t end up with the woman in this one (as he also doesn’t in Comanche Station, for example).  The movie’s memorable final image is of Brigade standing in front of the burning hanging tree, as his long-awaited vengeance crumbles to ash. 

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Brigade at Hangtree with Billy John.

A very good western, but not quite as good as Seven Men from Now and The Tall T, which both feature better bad men.  Pernell Roberts isn’t written to be bad enough, the opposite of Claude Akins in Comanche Station, who’s too obviously only bad.  Still, Roberts provides one of the principal dramatic questions:  Will he actually try to kill Brigade?  We think we know what the result will be if he does, and until we find the answer he’s the most talkative character in the movie.  However, if he were more obviously bad, maybe the ending wouldn’t work.

It has kind of a meaningless title with generic western resonance; “The Hanging Tree” or something like that would have been better, although it was used in a Gary Cooper movie about the same time.  Frank needs a little more development, maybe a little more explanation of the hanging.  There are indications he might be interesting if given a little more screen time.  Brigade spends almost all of the movie just being implacably righteous.  This was the first film for a young James Coburn (as none-too-smart Whit, Boone’s sidekick), and it got him cast in Face of a Fugitive and, more significantly for his career, The Magnificent Seven.  Steele is fine, but too 1950s blond and too young-seeming for Scott.  (She’s also in the Boetticher-Scott Westbound and Decision at Sundown, and she eventually married Boetticher.)  She does provide sex appeal and a certain kind of focus for the group; it just isn’t clear where she’s going at the end of the movie.  She’s not as helpless as many women in westerns, though.

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The movie’s most potent symbol burns.

The movie has the typical Boetticher opening shot, of a lone rider emerging from the distance weaving his way through Lone Pine rocks.  There are not a lot of close-ups; mostly the director uses middle-distance shots, with those and other shots using the dramatic scenery.

This has the usual Ranown team:  Boetticher directing, Burt Kennedy writing, Scott starring, Harry Joe Brown producing; cinematography by Charles Lawton, Jr. (not Laughton), and score by the Wisconsin-born composer Heinz Roemheld.  References to the territorial prison at Yuma sound like Santa Cruz (and Rio Bravo) are in Arizona Territory, although they may be in New Mexico or they may be entirely fictional. 

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The Tall T

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 17, 2013

The Tall T—Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Henry Silva, Skip Homeier, John Hubbard (1957; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

It is not clear what the title refers to; it is said to relate to Tenvoorde, owner of the 10-4 Ranch.  At one time the working title of the movie was “T for Terror” (see the trailer on the DVD).

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Patrick Brennan (Randolph Scott) is a former ramrod for that large Arizona ranch (the 10-4), now trying to establish his own ranch in the mountains.  While trying to get his former employer to sell him a seed bull for his own stock, he instead loses his horse in a bet.  (We see early on that he’s capable of making bad judgments, although he takes the consequences without complaint.) 

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He hitches a ride on a stagecoach driven by old friend Ed Rintoon (the excellent Arthur Hunnicutt) that is hijacked at a way station by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his two low-life confederates Chink and Billy Jack (Henry Silva and Skip Homeier).  They’ve already killed the station manager and his young son and callously thrown their bodies down a well.  They soon do the same to stage driver Rintoon.  Usher and his gang try to carry out a plan to get a ransom for Doretta Mims, the woman traveling on the stage.  Maureen O’Sullivan plays Doretta, the daughter of the owner of the largest copper mine in the territory, who’s just been married that morning to her father’s accountant Willard (John Hubbard)—a scurvy choice for a husband, as he shortly demonstrates.  Brennan plans to get away.  He ultimately does, and apparently ends up with the woman, too. 

TallT2 Captured by bad guys.

This was shot with a limited cast and budget in Lone Pine, as were the rest of Boetticher’s westerns with Scott.  This has a few edges to it, reminiscent of the Mann westerns of the 1950s.  It is spare movie-making, with the story told in relatively unadorned fashion in less than 80 minutes.  Nevertheless, there’s a lot of interest in the psychology of the characters, as in Seven Men from Now.  Richard Boone is great as a not-entirely-unsympathetic bad guy.  There’s an interesting balance between Scott and Boone; in some ways, Usher sees Brennan as who he himself might have been in other circumstances.  And might still be, only richer with the proceeds of this kidnapping-robbery-murder.

Randolph Scott and Richard Boone are great in this.  Maureen O’Sullivan, known mostly from her appearances as Jane in the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weismuller in the 1930s, is also very good.  Henry Silva and Skip Homeier make reliably nasty henchmen, in different ways.  Silva, with his Jack Palance face, went on to make a modest career of playing bad guys (see The Law and Jake Wade and The Bravados).  Homeier played a series of kids with guns in the early 1950s (The Gunfighter, Dawn at Socorro), but you can’t do that forever.  Sooner or later, you meet somebody faster with a gun, or drift into television parts.  Or both.

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Getting the girl, for once.

Note Henry Silva’s cooperative corpse helping Brennan rope his legs to drag him into the hut.  The plot is similar to Rawhide and Man of the West, with regular people being held prisoner by outlaws.

[Pat, to the freshly widowed and weeping Doretta, after he has killed three murderous kidnappers]:
“Come on, now.  It’s gonna be a nice day.”  [And they walk off arm in arm.  You might think they’d try to get the outlaws’ horses instead of walking all the way to wherever they’re going.]

From a story by Elmore Leonard (“The Captives”); the screenplay is by Burt Kennedy, as was usual with Boetticher’s better Ranown westerns.  As in Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (also from an original story by Leonard), some of the early action takes place in the town of Contention.  As with others of the Ranown-Boetticher westerns, this was not generally available until the release of the Boetticher set in 2008, so they have not been seen as widely as they deserve.  This is one of the four best of them.

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Seven Men from Now

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 14, 2013

Seven Men from Now—Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, Gail Russell, Don Barry, Walter Reed, John Larch (1956; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

In the opening scene, former sheriff Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) enters a cave from a driving rain storm and approaches the campfire of two strangers.  They’re a little edgy, and they start talking about a recent killing in the town of Silver Springs.  Stride sits at the fire and takes a cup of coffee.  One of the two asks Stride, “Did they catch the ones who done it?”  “Two of ‘em,” responds Stride, carefully watching the others.   They draw and Stride gets them both.  We don’t know why Stride was the one hunting them, but he walked right in and did it fair and square.  And according to the title there are five more to come.

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Randolph Scott as Ben Stride, looking for seven men.

On his way the next morning Stride crosses trails with the Greers, an eastern couple whose wagon is stuck in mud.  He helps them pull out and guides them to a deserted stage stop, where they encounter Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clete (Don Barry).  Masters is somebody Stride once put in jail, and who claims not to have been involved in the robbery in Silver Springs, although he’s interested in the stolen gold.  For a while the four travel together, and they rescue a man pursued by Apaches, only for Masters to kill him moments later as the rescued man tries to shoot Stride in the back.  Three of seven down; four more to go.

Masters has eyes for Annie Greer (Gail Russell), whose husband John (Walter Reed) is garrulous, unskilled in the ways of the west and perhaps weak.  Masters pushes John Greer in a remarkable scene in a wagon in the rain just telling stories, until Stride makes Masters leave.

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Masters (Lee Marvin) telling tales in the rain.

It turns out Stride is a widower; it was his wife working in the Wells Fargo office who was killed in Silver Springs.  Stride lost the last election for sheriff, and when he declined to take a job as deputy, his wife had to work.  He’s now attracted to Annie Greer, too, but she’s married and Stride has a strict moral code.  Stride and Masters are both heading for Flora Vista, which they think is the likely point for whoever took the Wells Fargo gold to try to get it into Mexico.  The Greers are going there to catch a trail west to California.

Masters reaches Flora Vista first after leaving the slower-moving Greers, and there he encounters Payte Bodeen (John Larch), the leader of the gang that planned and committed the robbery and murder.  Masters tells them Stride is on his way, and two of the gang are dispatched to intercept Stride in the desert before he gets to Flora Vista.  Stride gets them both, but injures his leg and loses his horse in doing so.  The Greers, following along behind in their wagon, find him and patch him up as well as they can.  John Greer admits that he had unknowingly agreed to take the stolen Wells Fargo box to Flora Vista, and he leaves it in the desert with Stride.  Stride figures it will draw the remaining killers to him.

He’s right, and it also draws Masters and Clete.  The final shootout for the gold is between Stride and Masters, and it’s great.  By the end of the movie, John Greer is also dead, more bravely than one might have expected, and there is the suggestion that Stride and Annie Greer might get together.  But they might not, too.  That makes this movie one of only two (along with The Tall T) of the Boetticher westerns where Scott may end up with a romantic interest.

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An injured Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) faces off against Masters (Lee Marvin) in the desert.

The editing of the shooting scenes is very interesting.  Although Stride wins at least two of these, we never actually see him draw and shoot.  We see Masters constantly playing with his guns, drawing them, loading them, twirling them, and he’s clearly fast, dextrous and confident.  Fast as Masters is, Stride is faster, but it’s mostly in our minds.  This is a remarkable contrast to how shootout scenes are shot in later westerns, especially after The Wild Bunch.

Scott plays much the same character in all the Boetticher westerns—capable, taciturn, obsessed with vengeance, sure of himself and that he knows all the rules.  Lee Marvin is one of the two best villains in a Boetticher movie, and although he is an obvious bad guy he’s not without a certain dangerous charm.  The interactions between Scott and Marvin make the movie memorable.  You can also see Scott’s frequent uncredited co-star, his beautiful dark palomino horse Stardust.

The script was written by Burt Kennedy for John Wayne, but Wayne couldn’t take the part of Ben Stride because he was scheduled to be in John Ford’s The Searchers.  However, this one was produced by Wayne’s Batjac Company and was successful enough to start a series for director Boetticher.  The rest were produced by Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown—combining their names in that of their production company, Ranown.

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This is the earliest and one of the best of the westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, all made during a surprisingly brief period in the late 1950s.   “Spare” is one word frequently used to describe the storytelling in them.  They typically don’t have large casts or budgets, and they’re not long, but they work well.  Burt Kennedy wrote this one, as he did the best of these collaborations.  This and the other Boetticher westerns were unavailable for decades, appreciated only by a small cult of fans and, of course, the French.  But you can now find them on DVD, and they’re well worth watching, especially the stronger entries in the series (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station).

 

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Comanche Station

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2013

Comanche Station—Randolph Scott, Claude Akins, Nancy Gates, Skip Homeier, Richard Rust (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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Jefferson Cody’s wife was stolen by Comanches ten years ago, and now every time he hears of a white woman among the Comanches he goes out and buys her back.  The movie opens with a typical Budd Boetticher shot of a lone horseman making his way through the Lone Pine rocks, and the horseman is Cody (Randolph Scott) on another such errand.  This time the white woman is Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates), and she’s grateful for the rescue but uncertain how she’ll be received when Cody returns her to her husband and family.

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Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott) barters with the Comanches for Mrs. Lowe (Nancy Gates).

Cody and the newly liberated Mrs. Lowe are resting up at Comanche Station, a stagecoach swing station locked up for now, when three other riders come up, engaged in a running battle with the Indians.  They turn out to be Ben Lane (Claude Akins), cashiered from the cavalry by Cody years earlier when Cody was a major, along with two younger henchmen.  Cody helps them fend off the Comanches, and they form an uneasy alliance until they can all get through to Lordsburg and safety.

One of Lane’s young guns is killed by the Comanches, and Lane saves Cody when Cody is attacked while reconnoitering—this despite the fact that everybody knows that Lane hates Cody and plans to kill him so he can collect for himself the $5000 reward offered by Mrs. Lowe’s husband.  So the question isn’t what he’ll try, but how and when, as it was in Seven Men from Now, The Tall T and Ride Lonesome.  We even have a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be (this is a Randolph Scott character we’re talking about, after all), but the interplay between the adversaries and the drawing of moral lines (or not) are what make it interesting. 

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Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott) and Ben Lane (Claude Akins), adversaries temporarily riding together.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Lowe thinks that Cody is only bringing her back to Lordsburg for the reward, too.  She clearly doesn’t understand either the degree of obsession that takes over Randolph Scott characters in these Boetticher westerns, or their unyielding moral rectitude.  So that has to play out, too.  Maybe her husband isn’t worthy of her and she’ll decide to ride off with Cody.  After all, Lowe can’t be much of a man if he doesn’t go after her himself, can he?

There are a couple of twists at the end, and this is one of the best of the Boetticher-Scott films.  As with the best of them, this one was written by Burt Kennedy, and there’s some good dialogue that provides character development and differentiation in very few words.  Scott doesn’t talk much, as usual, and when he does it’s in a convincing quasi-Southern accent.  (Scott grew up in North Carolina.)  Claude Akins as Ben Lane is playing a slightly more sympathetic bad guy than he is normally given, although the character of Lane doesn’t have the layers that, say, Lee Marvin or Richard Boone might have brought to the role.  His two young guns as played by Skip Homier and Richard Rust are excellent.  Nancy Gates, who retired from movies after this film, is attractive, feisty and convincing as Mrs. Lowe, although not as much is required of her. 

Much of the movie is spent either fighting Comanches or trying to get away from them, but there’s an undercurrent of sympathy for Indians that runs through this, as in other Boetticher films.  It’s usually voiced tersely by Scott at some point in the film.

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Cody (Randolph Scott) is surrounded by Comanches.

This was the last of the Ranown westerns directed by Boetticher, and although there are remarkable similarities in plot, casting, location and production team for all of them, they never become too formulaic.  Or if there is a formula, it’s so skillfully executed that they’re compelling nevertheless.  They’re enjoyable individually as westerns, and taken together they constitute a remarkable body of work within a short period of time.  For decades, this and the others were not available on video or DVD, but in late 2008 five of them were released in a set.  Boetticher’s and Scott’s best work can now be much more widely appreciated, as it deserves.  There could easily be two more of the Boetticher-Scott westerns on this list of greatest westerns –The Tall T and Ride Lonesome.   Randolph Scott hung up his spurs and retired from movies after Comanche Station, to be lured out of retirement only for one last movie:  the superb Ride the High Country with Joel McCrea.

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