THe Tall T, Budd Boetticher
Photo: Criterion

Budd Boetticher’s ‘Ranown Westerns’ Are Complex and Ambiguous

The heroes and villains in Bud Boetticher’s Ranown Westerns are less mighty opposites than mighty complements.

The Ranown Westerns
Budd Boetticher
18 July 2023

The Ranown westerns are produced by Randolph Scott (“Ran”) and Harry Joe Brown (“own”). They’re directed by Budd Boetticher, a trained matador and Westerns aficionado who arranged his films for a clean, strong impact defined by his characters and their relationships. Critics have observed that his people are staged in open spaces, as in a bullring, and dance around each other until it’s time to strike. It’s a simmering, violent, downbeat vision of the world that passes fast and efficiently. All his films are over before the 80-minute mark, sometimes before 75, and that’s something of a lost art.

Such a vision must be dominated by strong personalities, and the visibly aging Scott in his early 60s is the perfect taciturn hero, square of jaw with a wide smile full of teeth. He’s more like a spirit or force of nature generated by the rocky domain than a particular man. It’s as though he’s called up to confront his match in the evil forces around him. He’s not the perfect virtuous type personified by a white-hatted Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, and the villains he matches are also multi-faceted, like mirror images of himself that took a different path.

So, the heroes and villains in Boetticher’s films are less mighty opposites than mighty complements. The Ranown or Boetticher-Scott films belong to the 1950s trend in Westerns, adopting more complexity and ambiguity than the standard Saturday afternoon fare. It’s abundantly clear that we want Scott on our side when things get rough. Boetticher even stated that he wanted his villains to love and admire Scott.

Biographers and fans don’t quite know what to do with the fact that Scott lived for so many years with Cary Grant, even during each of their short-lived first marriages. As I watch the Ranown Westerns, I must assume they were produced by a star who had full control over his career and image, and tailored vehicles that felt comfortable for him. I see them in that light.

Criterion’s box isn’t the first video rodeo for these five films. Sony issued them as a DVD box in 2008, and the extras from that set are retained here. Further, Scott and Boetticher made two other Westerns. Their first film, Seven Men from Now (1956), came from John Wayne’s Batjac Productions and had been intended for Wayne until he suggested Scott take his place. That’s not in the box, and neither is Westbound (1959), a Warner production by Boetticher and Scott without Brown.

For that matter, Scott and Brown produced a long string of westerns directed by others from the ’40s through the ’50s. So if we say “Scott-Brown westerns”, there’s plenty not in the box. If we say “Boetticher-Scott westerns”, there’s two not in the box. One day, somebody’s gonna make a massive honking Randolph Scott Westerns box, and cowpokes will be swooning all over the prairie. Until then, let’s see what we have.

The Tall T (1957)

The opening credits of The Tall T present us with the rocky hills of Lone Pine, California, as Randolph Scott emerges on his horse from a distant crack and slowly advances to the front of the image. We’ll learn his character is Pat Brennan as he arrives at a stagecoach station run by Hank Parker (Fred Sherman) and his little boy Jeff (Chris Olsen). Jeff, at the foregrounded square-shaped water well, knows Pat’s horse and rushes forward joyfully to greet him. Until he recognizes Pat, Hank is wary and armed with a shotgun. We get a sense of lonely camaraderie laced with suspicion and danger in the middle of nowhere.

Jeff is a very 1950s gosh-darn, clean-cut, all-American boy, and Olsen had that market cornered for a minute. The previous year, he’d played endangered tykes in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life. Shockingly, The Tall T will go farther by the end of the first act. Jeff and his dad are being introduced only to give the audience an injection of sick dismay that heralds the arrival of three very bad dudes.

The villains arrive quietly and casually from the shadows, without a by-your-leave, to rob a stage populated by a stranded Brennan, the typical picturesque tobacco-spitting sidekick Rintoon (Arthur Honeycutt), a fancy-duds polecat by the name of Willard Mims (John Hubbard), and the “plain as an adobe wall” but rich woman he’s just saved from spinsterhood, Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan). A plan is quickly hatched to ransom Doretta to her rich daddy in the town of Contention. These names are great.

The boss baddie, Frank Usher, is played by method-acting Richard Boone in full command of the quiet, charismatic badassery of which he was a master, the evil equivalent of his quiet, charismatic heroism in the television series Have Gun, Will Travel. He hinted a weary disgust at the unworthiest around him in either mode while restraining himself until his tightly wound spring snaps.

In The Tall T, he and Brennan recognize each other as kindred coiled dangerous souls, and their relationship will be a strange kind of courtship as Usher almost tries to convince Brennan that they belong together on a little ranch somewhere, if only Usher can get rid of these two hot-headed bits of “trash” he runs with. That’s not even subtext; he says this, more or less.

Usher also claims that he never “tripped the hammer” on anybody but lets the “young guns” do that. Those guns are Chink (Henry Silva) and Billy Jack (Skip Homeier), and they’re very bad and very cold. Usher is disgusted at the way they talk about women all the time. (For the record, Chink is probably of Mexican origin, thanks to a tequila reference.)

Doretta spends much of these two days stashed in the large womb-like mine, with its single votive candle to the side like a lone canary. This dark arena is where Brennan tells her the brutal truth about things and gives her a kind of pep talk about knowing your own worth if you expect others to know it and that sometimes you have to walk up and take what you want.

I’m reminded of Rock Hudson’s character in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), essentially telling Jane Wyman’s character that she needs to be “more of a man”. Rather, he explains what a man’s gotta do, just like Brennan will tell Doretta, “there’s some things a man can’t ride around”.

Brennan wants Doretta to stop being a respectable daddy’s girl and find the angry spark to let her defend herself and survive this situation. That leads to a struggle between Brennan and Billy Jack of vividly Freudian symbolism. Sometimes, a shotgun isn’t just a shotgun.

In the Ranown Westerns, Scott is typically unassociated with women unless she’s safely dead in the past. He doesn’t have to play any romantic mush. His strongest relationships are with men who like him, even if they’re on the wrong side.

As Jeanine Basinger says in her commentary (retained from the old Sony box), “nobody knows what is the Tall T. Boetticher said he didn’t know”. Elmore Leonard’s original story was “The Captives”, which was the movie’s planned title until it changed. We may speculate that it’s the name of Brennan’s little ranch. Perhaps it’s the name imagined by Usher for his future place, which means it’s the paradise he’ll never see. The American Film Institute Catalog’s summary for this film claims that Brennan’s former ranch, owned by Tenvoorde (Robert Burton), is the Tall T, which would make it an extremely incidental detail.

Charles Lawton Jr.’s Technicolor photography is excellent, as is the beautifully constructed yet taciturn script by Burt Kennedy, who’d written Seven Men from Now and would script Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, both shot by Lawton. All these Columbia productions feel like family affairs and variations on a theme made by the same people.

Decision at Sundown (1957)

Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone are the two films in the box written by Charles Lang instead of Burt Kennedy, and they’re the most radical. Not only are they unpredictable, it’s as though Lang has never seen a Western and doesn’t know how they’re supposed to end. Both have Scott’s character blowing into a mean, dispirited town and catalyzing reform by exposing corruption and collaboration.

Decision at Sundown opens with Bart Allison (Scott) seemingly about to commit the stagecoach robbery that didn’t come off in The Tall T. He orders the stage to stop in the midst of a green grassy valley and sends it on its way after his chum Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) arrives with an extra horse to take him to Sundown.

The town is dominated by Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), the local boss who’s got everyone under his thumb through greed and intimidation. Today’s Kimbrough’s wedding to Lucy (Karen Steele), who’s not exactly the shrinking violet on her wedding day that Doretta was in The Tall T. We learn that Lucy has gone after Tate as the most eligible man in town, despite knowing of his liaison with Ruby (Valerie French), the fancy barmaid or whatever she is.

Bart and Sam have been tracking Kimbrough for three years, and Bart interrupts the ceremony in a ham-handed manner. Bart and Sam get holed up in the stable while Kimbrough’s bought-and-paid-for sheriff (Andrew Duggan) tries to rout them. The whole town gathers at the saloon to watch the fireworks and get drunk. The barkeep (James Westerfield) says, “If you’d been tending bar as long as I have, you wouldn’t expect so much of the human race.”

Bart is a Texan who returned from the Civil War to find his wife had killed herself over the varmint Kimbrough, so Decision at Sundown appears to follow the pattern of certain other films where Scott avenges a dead wife who’s conveniently out of the picture. Except this script throws those manly certainties out the window as soon as Lucy tells Bart off for ruining her wedding and infers that women have their own minds and he should wonder if he wasn’t man enough to keep his wife.

She makes him angry, of course, and it turns out Sam has more information that Bart doesn’t want to hear. As it dawns on the audience that the hero bent on self-righteous vengeance may not have all the facts straight, the seemingly craven Kimbrough reveals that he’s not the moral nullity he seems. Decision at Sundown‘s wrap-up is a doozy. Perhaps the town redeems itself, but nothing goes as Bart expected. The script explodes the concept of a man fighting for his wife’s honor and perhaps reverses it.

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

If the primary relationship for Scott’s hero in Decision at Sundown is with the buddy who’d do anything for him, Buchanan Rides Alone shows his character charming no less than two young men into throwing their lot with him. Here’s a story entirely about transactions between men with not a woman in sight –except a couple of minor decoys whose sole function is to signal heterosexuality.

Agry Town is on the US/Mexico border. The Mexicans in sombreros live on one side of the bridge, the corrupt white Agry family on the other. The big-bellied Agry brothers own everything, dominated by Judge Simon Agry (Tol Avery), who’s running for Senator and has his eye on the California governor’s seat. He puts up with petty corruption from his brothers, Sheriff Lew Agry (Barry Kelley) and hotel-keeper Amos (Peter Whitney).

Simon’s drunken hot-headed son Roy (William Leslie) has brought on his “inevitable” fate by tom-catting across the border and getting his face scratched by a “Mexican hellcat”. Worse, her hot-headed brother Juan De La Vega (Manuel Rojas) avenges her by showing up to shoot Roy and claim the act proudly.

Buchanan (Scott) is a drifter passing through town after fighting in a Mexican revolution. When he sees handsome Juan getting beaten up by several guys, he jumps in and throws a few fists, which results in the sheriff deciding to hang them both as conspirators. Buchanan’s friendship with Juan becomes the heart of the story. Much is made of Juan’s wealthy and honorable father, clearly a better boss than any Agry.

Things get infinitely more complicated than can be easily described as the plot spins through 77 minutes with at least one scene of colossal carelessness by the heroes. Suffice to say that the Agrys are thoroughly greedy, while Buchanan’s manly honest ways even encourage the defection of a fellow Texan, young Pecos (L.Q. Jones). Buchanan tells him, “A man shouldn’t do a job if he doesn’t cotton to it.” Another rule to live by. Juan and Pecos get a lovely two-shot closeup.

We haven’t mentioned the second-billed actor, Craig Stevens, of television’s Peter Gunn fame. Stevens was known for looking and sounding like Cary Grant without being so expensive. Here, he wears a sharp black hat as Carbo, the judge’s right-hand factotum. He gets one of those decoy scenes where he flirts with a maid, so we won’t imagine he has other reasons for living with the judge.

In theory, Carbo must be the mighty gunslinging baddie against whom Buchanan should have to face, but as I’ve said, the writer doesn’t appear to have ever seen a Western. He’s written a tale full of handsome men who like each other, while nobody has any use for the ugly and powerful Agrys.

But hold the phone – we may give Charles Lang too much credit. According to Wikipedia sources and Jeremy Arnold’s commentary on Ride Lonesome, Burt Kennedy rewrote Lang’s script without credit. That makes sense in light of darkly humorous moments like Pecos’ eulogy for the man he shot. Those have the Kennedy touch.

Ride Lonesome (1959)

The last two films in The Ranown Westerns set are technically the only two that give the name Ranown in the credits instead of Scott-Brown. They use Cinemascope and have some interaction with Native Americans. Boetticher uses widescreen to increase the space and depth already present in his films, and his staging and editing of shots remain economical, simple, and vivid. He still generates emotional meaning by arranging his characters in the frame as they speak in Burt Kennedy’s down-home vernacular.

Like The Tall T, which also has a lonely stagecoach outpost, Ride Lonesome begins by introducing Scott’s distant figure emerging from the Lone Pine rocks as another manifestation of the landscape, even colored the same as his buckskin leather. As a special surprise, the shot pans left to reveal another character languidly waiting for him.

This is Ride Lonesome‘s first confrontation. Bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Scott) has arrived to arrest smiling young killer Billy John (James Best) and take him back to be hanged. As a demonstration of the widescreen aesthetic, one shot presents a closeup of Brigade’s rear and hip holster at the left while the entire Billy John grins and poses on the distant right.

Andrew Sarris famously referred to Boetticher’s Westerns as floating poker games in which the characters are forever bluffing and calling. This scene is a perfect example, and as film historian Jeremy Arnold observes in his commentary, virtually all the dialogue will be these combinations of people bluffing and bargaining. Indeed, the plot of Ride Lonesome bluffs the audience, and the hand won’t be revealed until the last ten minutes. When the cards are laid down, we like having been fooled.

We might think Ride Lonesome is about taking Billy John for the bounty and avoiding the looming threat of his brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) coming to free him. We might think it’s about two wanted pals, Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Witt (James Coburn in his debut), coming along for the ride with an eye to claiming Billy John to win amnesty, even if they have to bump off Brigade. We might think it’s about escorting the sultry widow, Carrie Lane (Karen Steel, last seen in Decision at Sundown), and who will “get the girl”.

We might even think Ride Lonesome is about the small band of Mescalero Indians who cause trouble as a plot device for ten minutes and provide an injection of action because one of them wants to trade a horse for the blonde squaw. We’d be way off. They’re only here to do some stunt riding in a circle, like at a shooting gallery, until Carrie manages to settle the dispute personally.

Boone and Witt summarize Ride Lonesome‘s sociopolitical history in a pithy dialogue. Witt says they all get along under a treaty. Boone says he knew a couple that got along for years until the wife blew her husband’s head off because she was mad at him, which is an interesting parallel. “We ain’t done nothing to them,” avows Witt to Boone, who answers, “We’re white. That’s good enough.” Class dismissed.

Not to give too much away here. Ride Lonesome is really about the nature of Brigade’s lonesomeness, which is rooted in a past trauma he can’t get past and which has burned up his life the way he’s going to burn something in the final powerful image, a symbol of letting go and freedom that’s somehow more ominous than hopeful. Maybe it’s that black smoke dissipating in the blue sky along with his old hopes, the life that’s moved on.

As for Boone, who serves as the film’s likable “villain” (or one of them) and Brigade’s more cheerful and hopeful doppelganger, he courts and makes proposals to both Carrie and his buddy Witt. He wants Witt to be a ranch partner straight down the middle. “I like you,” he announces, and pleased-as-punch Witt exclaims, “I didn’t know that!” It’s among the many charming and surprising moments of interaction that define these films and make us want these folks not to die in the dust – and makes it hurt when some of them do.

Wait till Ride Lonesome shows its hand. Boone utters a line that could summarize the Ranown films: “Funny, ain’t it, how a thing can seem one way and then turn out altogether somethin’ else.”

Proof that Kennedy scripted both films is that Boone repeats a line from The Tall T when he says, “There’s some things a man can’t ride around.” This is another sign of his character’s parallelism with Scott’s persona. Watching this series of Westerns one after another brings up all kinds of repeated lines and resonances to underline how they seem like variants and tangents, and they still keep going in unexpected directions.

Comanche Station (1960)

In Ride Lonesome, Scott’s character rides forth to parlay in sign language with a Mescalero who wants to trade for a woman. In Comanche Station, Scott’s Cody is the one who advances into Comanche territory to trade goods for a white woman. In other ways, it’s like Kennedy is re-imagining The Tall T with different dynamics for the bad guy, his two young guns, and the same climactic device of encouraging the woman to run out of bullets.

Kennedy’s script also freely recycles his own lines, such as “I could never have enjoyed spending that five thousand if I’d done you that way.” All this repetition and variation in Comanche Station only increases the richness for those who can pick up on it. As Martin Scorsese notes in one of his introductions, it’s as though all these films occur in the same world. Once again, Comanche Station is shot around Lone Pine, with a black-hatted Scott emerging from the distant landscape on his horse. As always, the staging of extended shots is masterful in their simplicity.

One bit of dialogue explains why the Comanche are on the warpath. Two white scalp hunters massacred women and children in a village. For a moment, Cody suspects the trio of bad travelers might be responsible. He thinks so because of a Cavalry incident that resulted in a court martial for Ben Lane (Claude Akins). That was another story about a peaceful Indian village. So, white depredations of the past and present are Comanche Station‘s context and partly explain why Cody is no longer in the army. We’ll later learn of another reason driving him to ransom white hostages.

The woman he rescues is Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates), and her role in Comanche Station resembles the heroines in The Tall T and Ride Lonesome. In all these films, the men openly evaluate the women’s appeal and speculate on how they’d act if this woman were their wife. Scott’s heroes always remain reserved from these exchanges, but in Comanche Station, he comes within a breath of telling her that he has feelings. Except for The Tall T, however, Scott always rides away alone.

While Usher in The Tall T hates his “young guns” and wishes he could settle down with Scott’s character, the young guns in Comanche Station get queasy around Ben and would like to be done with him. One of the guns is even played by the same actor, Skip Homeier. The other is Dobie (Richard Rust), who “runs kind of gentle, maybe too gentle”. Cody makes him a proposition: “You could ride with me a ways. A man gets tired of being all the time alone.” The Ranown films tend to be more tender about who’s going to mentor the young men than who’s got eyes for the woman.

Criterion’s box contains six discs, three in the UHD format and three standard Blu-rays. The configurations are different, the content the same. Among the archival documentaries where Boetticher is interviewed, a standout is Taylor Hackford’s public television profile from 1971 in which Boetticher discusses his career and demonstrates bullfighting moves. Farran Smith Nehme offers a new lecture on Scott’s film career and his underrated skills as an actor. One can’t imagine western fans being unsatisfied with this set.