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Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Westerns of Budd Boetticher


Thanks, Budd


Oscar Boetticher Jr. (/ˈbɛtɪkə/), known as Budd (1916 – 2001), did not direct great sweeping panoramic Westerns like John Ford or Howard Hawks, and he did not make complex psychological ones like Delmer Daves or Anthony Mann. Nor did he create fastest-gun-in-the-West action pictures like John Sturges or Clint Eastwood. But he made real Westerns nonetheless, and he was one of the greats.
 
Budd Boetticher, Western maestro

Beginnings

Boetticher was born in Chicago, raised in Indiana and was a star athlete at Ohio State University. After college he traveled to Mexico where he became fascinated with bullfighting. In 1951 he got his first big break when he was asked by John Wayne’s Batjac company to direct The Bullfighter and the Lady. He first rode the range, though, earlier than that, as assistant director (uncredited), on the set of the 1943 Randolph Scott/Glenn Ford picture The Desperadoes, directed by Charles Vidor for Columbia. How much input Boetticher had is difficult to say, but it’s a fun film. His first Westerns in the director’s chair were two forgettable black & white B-movies for Monogram, Black Midnight and The Wolf Hunters, in 1949. One thing, though: Black Midnight was Boetticher’s first use of Lone Pine locations. These were to become central to him.
 
Young Budd
 
Universal, 1952

But then came a ‘proper’ Western, Universal’s Horizons West in 1952, the first of three he did for them that year. This was not a great film, it’s fair to say. It’s a pretty standard oater about three Confederate soldiers returning to Texas after the war, brothers Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson, and ranch foreman James Arness. Hudson and Arness get right back into ranch life but Major Ryan can’t settle down and goes on to build an empire by rustling, corrupting judges and so forth. But it had good stars (especially Ryan) and definitely had its moments.

Later in the year he directed Audie Murphy in The Cimarron Kid, a Bill Doolin story. Yes, it’s a bit on the corny side; a lot of these Audie Westerns were. But some excellent character actors were used for the lesser parts: James Best, Noah Beery Jr. and Hugh O’Brian, among others. These were to become regulars. And like all Audie Westerns it’s nicely photographed, by Charles P Boyle this time, who had worked on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with Winton Hoch, so must have learned a thing or two. These two 1952 Westerns were not great art but they were perfectly satisfactory oaters.

The same year Boetticher directed a semi-Western rodeo picture, Bronco Buster, in which tyro John Lund is trained up by old hand Chill Wills. It’s essentially the plot of The Lusty Men, directed for RKO by Nicholas Ray earlier that year, which is a superior picture - indeed, close to a masterpiece. Boetticher’s suffers by the comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.

Universal, 1953

In ’53 Universal had him direct Rock Hudson again (Hugh O’Brian and James Best were once more in the cast) in the ‘Indian’ film Seminole. It was also Boetticher’s first use of Lee Marvin, as the sergeant. Something similar had been attempted in ’51 with Distant Drums. That picture had Gary Cooper starring and was directed by Raoul Walsh. Wow. Nevertheless, it wasn’t very good (typical early-50s Warners stodge) and this time Boetticher’s film gained by the comparison. There are weaknesses: Barbara Hale is pretty hopeless as Miss Muldoon, the trader in a low-cut blouse (a rather typical Boetticher female lead, it must be said). She paddles her own canoe across a sound stage interior, and documentary footage of exotic alligators and colorful birds is unconvincingly intercut with these scenes. The mad major (Richard Carlson) leads his men deeper into the swamp and this part goes on too long: the picture bogs down as much as he does. It’s the 1830s although of course they have 1870s pistols. But still, it’s watchable, certainly no worse than many early-50s Westerns and in some ways better. Rock was pretty good at Westerns, in fact.

Two more oaters followed for Universal and now Boetticher was beginning to get into his stride. The first was the very good The Man from the Alamo, again starring Glenn Ford (with Chill and O’Brian, natch). It was written by DD Beauchamp the Great from a Niven Busch story, so that helped. Victor Jory is the bad guy and that certainly helped. Neville Brand henched. It wasn’t specifically an Alamo story, more the tale of a defender who was sent out of the Alamo to carry word to the defenders’ families but is then branded a coward. I like this movie.
 
Perhaps Budd's best early Western
 
Hard on its hoofprints came Wings of the Hawk, a Mexican revolution picture with Van Heflin as the obligatory gringo south of the border. Budd didn’t get to go to his beloved Mexico to shoot it, though. It was done on the Universal backlot and up in the Simi Hills, Cal.  I quite like this one too, and it has Noah Beery Jr. again, very good as the revolutionary Pascual Orozco (it’s not a Pancho Villa picture for once).

Budd Boetticher was beginning to establish himself as, if not a leading director of Westerns, certainly a more than competent one. It was the end of his Universal contract, though, and Westernwise we’d have to wait for the start of the great cycle for which is mostly known among us Westernistas, the wonderful Randolph Scott Westerns 1956 – 60.

TV

Parallel to his big-screen Westerns Boetticher also worked on TV shows. Most notably he directed the first three episodes of the great Maverick series, War of the Silver Kings, (based on CB Glasscock's The War of the Copper Kings, which relates the real-life adventures of copper mine speculator F. Augustus Heinze), Point Blank, in which a waitress gets Bret out of jail to work as a spotter in a casino, and According to Hoyle, in which a southern belle cleans Bret out at poker. Boetticher mastered the dry humor of the shows with aplomb.
 
The first Maverick episode. That's the great Leo Gordon in the center.
 
Later, he did five episodes of Zane Grey Theatre, 1960 – 61, directing James Coburn, Lloyd Bridges, Claude Akins, Michael Pate, and Jack Elam, and one episode of The Rifleman in 1961, Stopover.

Boetticher was very good at the small-screen Western.

Boetticher and Scott

The Ranown pictures were the best thing Boetticher ever did. There were six directed by Budd:  Seven Men from Now (1956) The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Ride Lonesome (1959), Westbound (1959) and Comanche Station (1960). They all starred Randolph Scott, and he had never been better either (only in Ride the High Country would he be as fine). They weren’t all uniformly superb. The very best ones, the core of Boetticher’s work, were those for Columbia that brought together the team of Boetticher, Scott, writer Burt Kennedy, cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. and producer Harry Joe Brown. They were The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. These three are, I suppose, ‘B-Westerns’, but they are absolutely superb and real landmarks in the history of the genre.
 
He rode lonesome
 
They were, of course, a coherent body of work. They had the same star (though a different bad guy every time, each one good), the same director with a deep understanding of the genre, and in the case of the three at the heart of the oeuvre, the same pithy writer with a witty sense of irony, the same magnificent photographer (3:10 to Yuma alone would have marked Lawton out as a master), and, key, the same Lone Pine locations. They had similar plots – hero Randy on a revenge mission, basically – and they even shared certain lines of dialogue. They were all terse, laconic and spare.
 
Lone Pine. It would have to be lone.
 
If you are in California it is definitely worth a trip to the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, just to the east of the Inyo National Forest, about four hours’ drive from LA. The town has, these days, a population of around 2000. It’s no metropolis. But the surrounding area is (and has been since the early silent days) the ideal location for shooting Westerns. So many have been filmed there. There are no roads across; you can only go through on horseback. And Boetticher and his cinematographers, especially Lawton, were in their element there. You could set up a camera, turn it a full 360° and get a different view from each quarter. Rivers, meadows, and above all rocks, rugged enough to match even Randolph Scott’s face, everything you need to set a Western there.
 
Randy the Great
 
Ride Lonesome is such a key title because cowboys are generally lonesome and Randolph Scott in particular, and because the horse is key to these oaters, as to all Westerns. Boetticher loved horses. Watch the way in Comanche Station that Scott enters on horseback right to left, with Mt. Whitney in the background, and at the end of the movie symmetrically rides away in the same setting, left to right. Boetticher at his best. In his essay A Time and a Place: Budd Boetticher and the Western, Mike Dibb makes the point that though the term ‘horse opera’ is often used pejoratively, it is in fact apt, for it puts the horse at the center of the genre and emphasizes the pleasantly familiar stylized forms of action, character, speech, violence and, not least, music, which Westerns share with opera.

The bad guys are superb. Randolph Scott was a supremely generous actor who was ready to stand back and let other actors shine. A sort of opposite of Steve McQueen, if you like. No camera-hogging or scene stealing: he let his co-stars have center stage. And the bad guys were written as sort of anti-Scotts, with some of the hero’s qualities – and faults. They are often charming and roguish. Randy always seems to have known the characters from the past. Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now, Richard Boone (my favorite) in The Tall T, Pernell Roberts in Ride Lonesome, and the others, they were villains, yes, but with saving graces. Excellent casting, direction and acting.
 
Budd's baddies: Marvin, Boone, Carroll
 
Roberts, Duggan, Akins
 
Boetticher had little interest in the true history of the West, nor, really, in Western communities. He wanted lone riders righting wrongs. Everyone is a loner, in fact. Scott’s character is just the loneliest. He said, “The characters are more important to me than the ideas, because it's through the mind and the sayings and the actions of the characters that the ideas are born. I'm not concerned with what people stand for, I'm concerned with what they do about it.”
 

The pinnacle of Boetticher's career
 
His women were classic 50s stereotypes and usually buxom blondes, with cleavage. That’s the way Boetticher was. Karen Steele was a favorite. They were really very male films. The hero usually gets the gal once the villain has killed off her previous (and dubious) suitor.

The end of the affair

Boetticher entered the wilderness as far as film-making is concerned and he recounts this difficult time in his autobiography. He never again made anything remotely as good as the six Randolph Scott pictures. In 1969 he wrote and directed A Time for Dying, notable as Audie Murphy’s last Western (Audie has a cameo as Jesse James, again; of course he was Jesse his first Western too, in 1950). It’s an unsatisfactory film and not at all a Budd Boetticher Western in the proper sense.

In 1970 he co-wrote with the excellent Albert Maltz of Broken Arrow fame Two Mules for Sister Sara, a Clint Eastwood project directed by Don Siegel. Personally, I think it’s one of my least favorite Clintisms, but there we go. It’s a Mexican revolution tale again, and at least this time it was shot in Mexico, so Budd would have liked that. Boetticher devoted his last years to raising thoroughbred horses. He died in California in 2001.

A Time for Dying and Two Mules were Boetticher’s last essays in the holy genre of Western. But don’t think of him like that. Nor, really, for his earlier Universal pictures or the TV shows he did. Concentrate on those six Westerns he did with Randolph Scott, especially the Columbia ones. They are magnificent, and they establish Budd Boetticher as one of the greats of our beloved horse operas.

Duke, Randy and Budd

6 comments:

  1. Terrific. Ride Lonesome is, I think, the quintessential western title, and a magnificent picture to boot. I wonder if a BB-directed Ride the High Country would've been an even better picture...?

    Leo McKern? Never new he did a western on American television!

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  2. Ha ha, I meant Leo Gordon. I can't quite see Leo McKern as a heavy fighting in a saloon. But then, I don't really see Leo Gordon as Cromwell in A Man for all Seasons either...
    I'll correct it!
    Jeff

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  3. I'd include Seven Men From Now among the very great Boetticher films, along with the other three you mention. I'm really enjoying this series of posts on directors--good stuff.

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    1. Yes, Seven Men is very good too.
      Thanks for the comment!
      Jeff

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  4. I completely agree with you Jeff. The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station were the best of the best. Over the years I've gone back and forth over which one is my favorite of the three. Looking back, The Tall T has one villain you could kind of like (Boone), Ride Lonesome two (Pernell and Coburn), and Comanche Station three (Akins, Homeier, Rust). A good villain always helps make a good western and three makes it even better, so I guess I rank Boetticher's three best in order as 1. Comanche Station, 2. Ride Lonesome, 3. The Tall T.

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  5. Great article - another Boetticher/Scott picture was "Buchanan Rides Alone" from 1958. It's underrated, in my opinion; most viewers don't get that it's supposed to be a comedy.

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