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Budd Boetticher's low-budget ‘50s Westerns celebrated in new box set

Bruce Dancis
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

To call a film a "B-movie" gives it a name that almost assumes mediocrity. This was the moniker applied to the second film on a typical Hollywood movie double bill back in the days when audiences expected to watch two films for the price of their ticket. Usually made hastily on tight budgets, these films were often Westerns and generally ran in the 60- or 70-minute range.

Budd Boetticher was a B-movie director who primarily made low-budget Westerns in the 1950s. Yet his films have been praised by such acclaimed film directors as Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino and Taylor Hackford and by noted film critics in the United States and France. Their reasons are explained in several documentary features accompanying "The Films of Budd Boetticher" (five discs, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $59.95, not rated), a box set of five of Boetticher's best-known movies.

Made between 1957 and 1960 by the collaborative team of Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown and star Randolph Scott, the films - "The Tall T," "Decision at Sundown," "Buchanan Rides Alone," "Ride Lonesome" and "Comanche Station" - are now considered to be among the finest Westerns of all time. These films are packaged with a feature-length documentary, "Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That," audio commentaries and introductions by fellow directors.

"They're not just action movies," says Hackford. "They're thinking Westerns."

For his part, Scorsese praises Boetticher's films for the "precision of the story telling," their "amazing frankness" and "austerity," and "the starkness of the imagery."

The veteran actor Scott was nearly 60 when he made these films, and he brings a lean, leathery and unflappable countenance to his roles as a loner accompanied only by his guns and his moral code. Set in the treacherous lands of the post-Civil War Southwest, Scott invariably plays a decent man - a bounty hunter seeking vengeance, a trader trying to return captured settlers from Indian tribes or just an ordinary guy on the dusty trail - who is forced to confront evil, in the form of outlaws, unscrupulous lawmen or marauding Indians.

The stories in these five movies, mostly written by Burt Kennedy, are taut and suspenseful, even though, Scorsese points out, "You can look at them as one long, extended movie." That's not meant as a criticism, but a recognition of the skill and reliability of Boetticher's craftsmanship.

Almost as important as Scott were the bad guys in Boetticher's movies. In these Westerns, most of them written by Burt Kennedy, the major supporting players were nuanced, multi-dimensional characters who always blurred the dividing line between good and evil.

As film historian Jim Kitses wrote in "Horizons West," his classic book on Hollywood Westerns, "Boetticher's villains are so important that one can claim the stronger they are, the stronger the film." And in his DVD introduction to "Buchanan Rides Alone," Hackford praises the bad guys who are "morally ambiguous but absolutely fascinating."

It's no wonder that some of the villains and secondary players in Boetticher's films went on to have major careers in the movies and television, including Richard Boone ("Have Gun - Will Travel"), Craig Stevens ("Peter Gunn"), Pernell Roberts ("Bonanza"), Claude Akins and James Coburn.

Boetticher's Westerns were shot in the Lone Pine region of Southern California on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada near Mt. Whitney. It's rugged but starkly beautiful country that afforded Boetticher a variety of terrains and stunning backdrops. As critic Andrew Sarris, one of Boetticher's early champions, says on the DVD, "The landscapes ... are stripped of everything except what is necessary."

As good as these films are, it's important not to ignore their limitations. Eastwood, seldom given to overstatement and judicious with his comments, acknowledges the budget and time constraints Boetticher was under. "He managed to make pretty darn good movies, considering what he had to work with," Eastwood says in his introduction to "Comanche Station." Indeed, Boetticher had only 18 days to shoot each of these films.

Boetticher's movies broke no new ground among Westerns in their unfortunate portrayal of Indians. And, as Eastwood acknowledges, like other Westerns from the '50s these films feature women who manage to have perfect hair and makeup despite their frontier surroundings. Yet in other areas, such as the director's portrayal of Mexicans in the border drama "Buchanan Rides Alone," his perspective is quite progressive.

As the DVD documentary "Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That" shows, Boetticher's career fell off badly after making the movies included in this box set. An expert on bullfighting, Boetticher spent seven years working in Mexico on a film about the legendary matador Carlos Aruzza. That film, "Aruzza," eventually flopped at the box office, following the breakup of Boetticher's marriage to actress Debra Paget, his imprisonment in Mexico on a variety of charges and the loss of his savings. An obstreperous person who often clashed with Hollywood studio heads, Boetticher never again held a steady job in the movie industry.

This collection marks the auspicious debut of a new partnership between Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and The Film Foundation, a film restoration project led by Scorsese.

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