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January 15th, 2013
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Ride Lonesome (1959)

Written by Burt Kennedy. Produced and directed by Budd Boetticher. Executive producer: Harry Joe Brown.

 

The Exquisite Chamber Westerns of Budd Boetticher

Ride Lonesome is the penultimate chamber western—a true psychological chess game–in what is known as the “Ranown Cycle” of movies starring Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher and written by Burt Kennedy. Much like the few humans depicted in the various landscape paintings of the Hudson River Valley School, the characters in this seven-film cycle are subordinate to the vast expanses of landscape stretching out ahead of them or towering over them. (Boetticher shot the films in Lone Pine, CA, where, since 1920, the looming Alabama Hills had long been the go-to location for movie westerns [and for exotic items such as 1939’s Cary Grant-starring Gunga Din, wherein Lone Pine sat in for India], reaching their heyday in the ‘30s but continuing on into the present day, with scenes from 2008’s Iron Man being shot there.) Revenge is a recurring theme in these movies, but nominal good guy Scott evinces as much ambivalence towards gunplay as he does toward verbosity—he has a conscience, that is, knows the horrible price violence exacts on a soul, and so pulls the trigger only reluctantly and usually when cornered. There is much art to admire in Kennedy’s taught scripts, in which the characters do rather than say and say very little when they do speak. One of Kennedy’s distinguishing signatures as a writer was the terse two-word answer, as Jaime J. Weinman noted at Something Old, Nothing New (Thoughts on Popular Culture and Unpopular Culture), citing the following examples:

CLAUDE AKINS: Killin’ Indians was what we was there for, wasn’t it?

RANDOLPH SCOTT: Was it?

 

RICHARD RUST: But we ain’t got a long gun, Ben.

CLAUDE AKINS: Ain’t we?

 

RICHARD BOONE (in The Tall T): Sometimes you don’t have a choice.

RANDOLPH SCOTT: Don’t you?

 

ROSCO P. COLTRANE (in Ride Lonesome): You’re bluffin’.

RANDOLPH SCOTT: Am I?

 

GUY (in Seven Men From Now): Well, then, we agree.

RANDOLPH SCOTT: Do we?

 

 

As Billy Stevenson notes at A Film Canon: With Ride Lonesome, the formalistic tendencies of the Ranown cycle reach their logical conclusion, producing a stark, minimal aesthetic that is one-dimensional at its weakest, and iconographic at its strongest. As with earlier installments, the narrative turns on an unlikely concatenation of types–a bounty hunter (Randolph Scott), his bounty (Billy John), his nemesis (Pernell Roberts) two gunslingers (James Coburn and Lee van Cleef) and a widow (Karen Steele)–gradually thrown together over the course of a journey–or, rather, whose gradual integration and conciliation with each other produces a journey–but with an unprecedented elision of interiority or introspection, as if simply elaborating the terms and processes in a mathematical equation. As a result, the strongest moments are highly imagistic, with iconography merely being the most marked instance of Boetticher’s tendency to overwhelm these figures with Cinemascope’s vast assaults upon the eye, as the narrative alternates between sieged constriction (and the ancillary preoccupation with imprisonment and amnesty) and seemingly interminable expanses of space, suffused with the alienating, objectifying gaze of the omnipresent Indians, until the final spectacle of the crucifix-like “hanging-tree” exudes a holiness that almost defies a direct gaze: “It’s been plain…so plain I couldn’t see it.” The result is something like how Bergman might have directed a Western.

 

Pernell Roberts and, in his first movie role, James Coburn in Ride Lonesome

Boetticher, who wrote one of Clint Eastwood’s classic films (1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara, co-starring Shirley MacLaine, directed by Don Siegal), broke in as a director in 1942 with Submarine Raider and subsequently padded his resume largely with war movies and crime stories. In 1952 he made his first splash with a western with The Cimarron Kid, which made an unlikely star of WWII hero Audie Murphy. In 1956, he first directed western movie icon Randolph Scott in the relentless Seven Men From Now (produced, like The Bullfighter and the Lady, by John Wayne’s company), with a script by Burt Kennedy, who became his Boetticher’s friend and collaborator through the entire “Ranown Cycle” of films. With Scott steady, taciturn and reliably conflicted, Boetticher and Kennedy crafted one gripping classic after another. Their films only look like standard-issue westerns from the outside. Look harder, and fascinating complexities are revealed.

Geoff Pevere at Mean Justice has posted the following well-considered profile of Boetticher and the Boetticher aesthetic:

Cecil B. DeMille might have worn the jodhpurs, but it was Budd Boetticher who really rode the horses, and you can feel the hardness of the saddle—and of the animals, and of the land beneath—in his movies. His west feels simultaneously more forbidding yet lived-in than that of just about any other director save Anthony Mann or Sam Peckinpah, and yet there’s also something almost wistfully beautiful about it: it’s an elementary place in all senses of the word, and the world and history’s most ideal setting for the playing out of high-stakes games of honor.

Boetticher was a privilege-born athlete and adventurer, one of those twentieth-century American guys whose sense of romantic masculinity probably had a lot to do with proving his vitality to a world understandably suspicious of rich kids with steamer trunks. But Boetticher proved a lot harder than most brats: he went to Mexico to become a bullfighter when gringos were unheard of in the ring, and he sold his first movie to John Wayne on the premise of authenticity: The Bullfighter and the Lady was a movie about a white American bullfighter made by one, and if the movie didn’t prove a smash, it certainly proved the director’s grit and mettle. There are traces of this in many of his early films, but they only emerge in full snorting gallop in the mid-fifities, when Boetticher embarks on a remarkable collaboration with producer Harry Joe Brown, writer Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott for series of seven low-budgeted westerns that are as good as westerns get even during this, the richest decade in the genre’s history. They are: Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Westbound, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, and they were all made between 1956 and 1960. And what makes them great? In a word, it’s precision. Cutting to both the dramatic and mythic core of the western, Boetticher told stories of lone men who ride out of a forbidding landscape equipped with both deadly skills and a clinging past. They are principled killers, but their principles are compromised by their vengefulness, and this is what must always be tested. Can killing be honorable—and yes, in these as in so many westerns, there is a kind of killing that is just so—if the motivation is personal? And so our lone man usually rides into trouble, or at least a place where trouble already thrives and needs managing, where he is called upon to do the right thing for the right reasons—which do not, it needs to be stressed, include getting back at the men who killed your wife. That they might have done so is one thing, but what they deserved to die for is not that but the betrayal of honor they’re guilty of. It’s a matter of principle and not personal feelings, and the difference between the two is a line drawn in the dust of some godforsaken abandoned stage station or corrupted small town main street.

This interest, in violence as an expression not passion but principle, is what keeps Boetticher’s movies so brilliantly and efficiently within their own limits: physical restrictions flow seamlessly into the thematic currents, and depth is always favored over scope. (Which you’ll get from the landscape anyway.) So watch how the movies play out their recurring themes with such confidence and ease, and how comfortably they unfold because they know how much can be said if you’ve got the right few words spoken by the right few men. This is why the villains are so seductively irresistible in these movies: because they know Randolph Scott’s loner so much better than we do, and they know his mission and test it accordingly. They’re his opportunity to restore honor but only if he recognizes himself in the stubbly faces of smiling, familiar desperadoes. If he does, he can let go and move on. Many times, he does so without even killing his tormentors, which tells you a thing or two about Boetticher’s universe of code-locked violence. If the reckoning comes before the bullets, there’s no reason to shoot.

 

Karen Steele as Mrs. Carrie Lane, whose husband has been killed by Indians in Ride Lonesome.

At Parallax View (Smart Words About Cinema), Sean Axmaker has posted excerpts from interviews he conduced with Budd Boetticher between 1988 and 1992 (Boetticher died in 2001), in which he questions him about, among other topics, the Lone Pine landscape as a character unto itself, and about the unusual and unpredictable ending of Ride Lonesome. To wit:

All three of the journey films, Seven Men From Now, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station, are shot in Lone Pine, California, and they have a very distinctive cinematic landscape.

Boetticher: I probably shot in Lone Pine in color more than anybody. They used to make pictures there in black and white, Roy Rogers films and stuff like that. You had everything there. You had rivers on one side of the road to San Francisco, you had mountains on the other, you had rocks, you had desert, everything. Can you imagine the desert in Ride Lonesome was fifteen minutes from those rocks, just on the other side of the road? They call them the Alabams. You can’t lose that way. When you make a picture in 18 days, which everybody should be taught to do, you don’t have time to fool around and get in an airplane and go to another city. And we had the same thing in Arizona when we made Buchanan Ride Alone and I think a couple of others. We had the city there and we had the desert and the cacti and the various things you need in the west. And we could still find the river where we buried Lafe up in the tree. You have to find all these things.

 

The Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, CA. Said Budd Boetticher: ‘Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station both start off with very long shots where you see how infinitesimal the cowboy was in those days up against all these rocks and all these mountains.’ (Photo from the website MidLife on Wheels.)

The landscape is not just background but very much another character in Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.

Well, it is. Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station both start off with very long shots where you see how infinitesimal the cowboy was in those days up against all these rocks and all these mountains. Lucien Ballard and I got up one morning at 4 o’clock and I told Lucien that I wanted to see Randolph Scott this big [puts his fingers together very small] in all these rocks. So we got a stretch out and rode as far as we could to the bottom of this lava mountain. Then got out and went on two pack mules and we went as far as the mules could climb. Then Lucien and I got off and it was beginning to get light and we climbed and climbed and climbed and climb to pick the first shot of the first day of shooting, which was tomorrow. We finally got to the top where I wanted to be and I looked out and I could see that where the sun in a while would come up, it was getting just a little pink. I looked at my watch and I said, “Luce, this is the first shot with a 25 lens at a quarter after seven tomorrow morning.” He said, “Wait a minute,” and he walked about ten feet and he dug a hole in the sand and there was a spike. He said, “Come over here and see which one of these shots you want best. Raoul Walsh and I made this ten years ago.” And I said, “I want mine.” So there’s nothing really new in the world. You know everybody said to me, “Why in the world didn’t you ever go to Monument Valley to make a picture? It’s so beautiful there.” I said “That was Jack Ford’s, you know, and nobody could have done it better.” Why should I go there and shoot the same rocks that he shot in all of his beautiful pictures, and a couple of bad ones? What I tried to do is do the same thing with Lone Pine, which I think we accomplished. When you’re there in the Alabams, which were all lava formations from eons ago, a man was very insignificant and that’s what they were in those days. They didn’t have all those psychological problems that today’s director thinks the western fellow should have. They were very ignorant, uneducated guys. They didn’t say, “The reason I’m like this is because my mother was a prostitute in Dubuque and she was befriended by someone who threw acid in her face and I’ve always hated men ever since.” You know that’s a lot of crap. They didn’t think like that.

Ride Lonesome is the only one of the Randolph Scott films where Scott and the antagonist come to the showdown, to where neither of them will turn back, and then they live. Randolph Scott goes off with his mission accomplished, and he’s off to start a new life and break all ties from this last one, and Pernell Roberts goes off to start something very much in the way that Randolph Scott and Maureen O’Sullivan do in the end of The Tall T.

Boetticher: The interesting thing is that wasn’t in the original script. Pernell Roberts and James Coburn were to be killed. And I called the studio, Sam Briskin, and I said, “Sam, I don’t want to kill these guys.” It’s halfway through the picture. And he said, “Well, you have to, they’re the villains.” I said, “No, I don’t have to, they’re charming, the people are going to love them.” Especially after the scene that Coburn says to him about the friendship, “Gee, I didn’t know that.” I mean you love this simple guy and that was Jim’s first picture and look what happened with him. And of course Pernell went right into his big series and nobody was more charming than Pernell was. So I argued and argued and argued, and this is very interesting, and I didn’t put it in the book. I said, “Sam, I’ll shoot it both ways. I’ll shoot it where they go free, and we’ll ad lib the ending,” which we did, “and I’ll shoot it when we kill them.” Well the darnedest thing happened. We had arranged, because the sun was going down, for all the transportation to be ready. Just by sheer accident, it happened to be in the way where we wanted to shoot. It was the last day of filming and it took them about two hours to get all the transportation, the busses and the trucks, moved. By that time the sun had gone down and we never got to do it. (laughs quietly to himself) So I took it back to the studio having failed to shoot the death scene and they liked what we did so much that they didn’t argue about it.

 

Ride Lonesome’s iconic ‘hanging tree’: ‘It all leads inexorably towards a stunning denouement, staged beneath the foreboding “hanging tree,” a misshapen and sinister-looking cross that is a focal point for the bad blood between Frank and Brigade. Boetticher expertly builds tension leading up to the final scenes, with striking overhead shots where the characters are framed between the crooked limbs of the hanging tree. But Boetticher then defuses the tension twice over: the showdown with the dreaded Frank, who has been mostly built up while offscreen, is fast and economical, while the expected confrontation between Boone and Brigade never even comes. Instead, the film slows down for a finale centered more on the emotional conclusions of the character arcs (Brigade’s thirst for revenge, Boone’s desire for redemption, Carrie’s quiet grief) rather than on action and violence. This unexpectedly moving ending is the payoff to Boetticher’s attentive handling of character and location. Rather than delivering the fast and furious gunplay he seemed to be building towards, Boetticher makes the finale definitively about the characters, about their pain and desires and ambiguous plans for the future. Conflicting, complex emotions waft through the final scenes like the black smoke of the burning hanging tree, signaling the close of a circle of violence and the possibility of new, more hopeful paths branching off. –from a précis of Ride Lonesome posted at Only the Cinema, www.seul-la-cinema.blogspot.com

Finally, the last word on Ride Lonesome comes from Alfred Eaker at 366 Weird Movies: Ride Lonesome (1959) was the first of Boetticher’s “Ranown” cycle to utilize the new CinemaScope process, and it does so impressively. The rich color and expressionist framing of desert canyon rock would only be topped in the series’ final entry, Comanche Station. Most fans of the cycle consider Ride Lonesome the best entry. While that remains debatable, it is certainly, in terms of composition and pacing, the most perfectly structured. It is also the most elegiac and, surprisingly, optimistic.

 

Selected Short Subject: Heckle and Jeckle, ‘Pill Peddlers’ (1952)

In a body building school, various animals are hard at work on their bodies, punching the punching bag, rowing the rowing machine, etc. Meanwhile, the bulldog instructor sleeps at his desk. But when the health nuts hear Heckle and Jeckle hawking fitness pills out on the street, they all rush outside to get some. The bulldog is furious and does what he can to get rid of these pests. But the Talking Magpies are too clever for him–at least until “The End” card appears. –by J. Spurlin at imdb.com. Jeckle has the English accent, Heckle the gruff New York voice.

 Created by Paul Terry, originally produced at his own Terrytoons animation studio and released through 20th Century Fox, the characters are a pair of identical anthropomorphic magpies who calmly outwit their foes in the manner of Bugs Bunny, while maintaining an aggressively mischievous streak reminiscent of the early Woody Woodpecker or Screwy Squirrel. Unlike Bugs Bunny, their comic aggression is often unprovoked, and in a number (perhaps most) of their cartoons (Moose on the Loose, Free Enterprise, The Power of Thought, Hula Hula Land) their foes win in the end. According to Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (1980) and Don Markstein’s Toonopedia, Paul Terry considered the Heckle and Jeckle series the best cartoons his studio ever made. (Source: Wikipedia)



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