An Unknown Now, He Made Westerns Of Spiritual Depth

Published in NY Times : September 3, 2000

. .SO often in the half-dozen low-budget, impeccably made westerns that Budd Boetticher directed in the late 1950′s, the opening shot features a lone horseman approaching the camera out of a lunar vastness of rock. We don’t know who he is, though his name always has a ring to it: Stride, Brennan, Allison, Buchanan, Brigade, Cody. You do know that he comes bearing the elemental promise of a story.

Once or twice he has nothing more on his mind than acquiring a new seed bull for his one-man ranch, or simply enjoying a drink and a good steak in the next town. In those instances, circumstances will swiftly conspire to raise the existential-absurdist ante and place his and others’ lives in dire jeopardy. But more often, this rider of the wasteland might as well be a spirit rather than a man. Somewhere, days or weeks or years ago, his heart has taken a deep wound that can never be healed. His essential story is already over. It remains merely for us to catch up on it as he settles leftover business — ritual, re-enactment, revenge.

The unfamiliar name Budd Boetticher (pronounced BETT-icker) is likely to be in the air this month, with tributes to him planned by the American Museum of the Moving Image and the New York Film Festival. The film festival will include, on Sept. 30, a retrospective showing of ”Seven Men From Now,” a 1956 picture directed by Mr. Boetticher, written by Burt Kennedy, produced by John Wayne’s production company, Batjac, and starring Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin. It is that rarity, a B-movie that turned out to be a masterpiece — a complete original in the western genre and as classical a piece of filmmaking as you could ask to see. Except that for the last couple of decades, asking did no good. The only print in clandestine circulation had turned pink and suffered such breakage that two of its most memorable deaths occur ”off screen,” during a splice break. The film has just been restored by the U.C.L.A. Film and Television Archive.

For its part, the American Museum of the Moving Image has pulled together a proper run-up to the film festival event. Over three weekends, Sept. 16 to Oct. 1, the museum will offer a comprehensive survey of Mr. Boetticher’s career, including all five of the westerns he and Scott went on to do in partnership with the producer Harry Joe Brown, emulating the commercially and critically successful model of ”Seven Men From Now”: ”The Tall T” (1957), ”Decision at Sundown” (1957), ”Buchanan Rides Alone” (1958), ”Ride Lonesome” (1959) and ”Comanche Station” (1960). (The five are out on video.)

Taken together under the leathery moniker ”The Ranown Cycle” (after Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown), these films constitute one of the most elegant and esteemed bodies of work in American film, whose spiritual and stylistic rigorousness had critics reaching for parallels in ”The Odyssey” and ”The Canterbury Tales.” The series remains — rivaled only by Val Lewton’s 1940′s horror films for RKO — the most remarkable convergence of artistic achievement in the history of low-budget moviemaking.

Each of the films stands alone, yet the series is strikingly cohesive. To have seen one movie is not to have seen them all; still, seeing them all has the effect of making any one look richer and more resonant. And although the storylines rehearse similar incidents, and similar characters recur, the storytelling is so spare and the rhythms are so canny that any attempt to synopsize the deceptively simple plots compromises the dramatic force and pleasure — the integrity — of the experience the films afford.

Typically — especially in the four films written by Burt Kennedy — the aging lone rider, Scott, makes his way through a hostile terrain (the same Lone Pine, Calif., stone piles coming to suggest a dinosaur graveyard), escorting a wanted man and/or an endangered lady. Soon an enterprising rascal appears, with one or more eternally adolescent gunslingers in tow. With hostile Indians and/or other banditos just over the horizon, the travelers form temporary common cause. The rascal chats up a storm. There is shared history and suspicion between him and the Scott character but curiously no bad blood. The rascal genuinely likes and admires Scott, whose attitude in return is harder to read. But that won’t, can’t, interfere with the rascal’s determination to get whatever it is that he ultimately wants from this journey, this accidental meeting. It’s clear that Scott and the rascal must conclude the journey with a fatal showdown. What’s also unsettlingly clear is that the nominal villain is possessed of great charm, intelligence, even a singular species of scruples. It will be a pure shame when Scott has to kill him.

The villains are always more affable than the Scott hero. More needy, too. They want something: money, yes, and maybe to arouse a response in the woman who’s part of the expedition. A droll Burt Kennedy specialty, deliciously road-tested by Lee Marvin in ”Seven Men From Now,” has the badman pitching woo at the lady (the lamp-eyed Gail Russell) in front of Scott (and her weak husband, Walter Reed) by genially pretending to discuss another woman he met once upon a time.

But mostly they want two other things still more: a fresh start for their misspent lives — and Scott’s respect. Richard Boone’s bandit leader in ”The Tall T” is the darkest and potentially deadliest of the series’ antagonists, but also the most hurtfully desperate to have the hero understand him. He despises his loutish partners in crime. (Boone’s quiet ”I do not like them” is one of the great line readings of the 50′s.) And he appears to have fallen in something like love with Scott, the man he holds captive. He’s a monster, but also very nearly a tragic figure.

Not that tragedy is the keynote for Mr. Boetticher — a former matadorand lifelong bullfighting aficionado — or conventional heroism either. His movies, with their circumscribed arenas and ritual progression, are cannily tailored to the limitations, as much as to the strengths, of Randolph Scott’s appeal.

A Virginia-born gentleman with chiseled features and a mostly granite acting style, Scott had grown old and overfamiliar in a decade’s worth of formula westerns. Ranown scripts stress wit and resourcefulness over rugged action, with Scott’s dry understatement and sandy rectitude playing beautifully off the garrulous likes of Mr. Marvin, Mr. Boone, Pernell Roberts (”Ride Lonesome”) and Claude Akins (”Comanche Station”).

They delivered the cornpone-metaphysical speeches; Scott would reply devastatingly in a maximum of three or four syllables. Moreover, the Scott hero’s moral-ethical strength does not exclude fallibility or the capacity for fear and awkwardness. In ”The Tall T,” something like friendship starts to bloom between Scott and Boone when Scott, climbing out of the dugout in which he has spent the night a prisoner, bumps his head on a low beam, provoking Boone to sustained, good-natured laughter and the offer of a cup of coffee.

Most of all, though, the bleakest running joke in the Ranown canon is death. It occurs often — only two people get out alive in half the films — though rarely from the angle and at the moment expected. There is never any gore or gratuitous violence. As a result, the demise is often more startling and grotesque than in any slow-motion bloodbath of the decades since the Ranowns achieved their austere purity. The very title ”Seven Men From Now” is a countdown in mortality, but the first death is simply reported. Scott enters that movie walking instead of riding because he had ”met up with some Chiricahua Apaches a while back.” They stole his horse? ”They et ‘im.”