Comanche Station

The Budd Boetticher films screening at BIFF are: The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), Seven Men From Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960).

For more details, visit: the BIFF website

These notes are from the 10th Brisbane International Film Festival 2001 catalogue and have been published here with the kind permission of the Festival’s artistic director.

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“There are some things a man can’t ride around.”

- Pat Brennan (Randy) to Usher (Richard Boone) in The Tall T

Now 85 years old, Oscar ‘Budd’ Boetticher (pronounced Bet-ick-her) is one of the last surviving directors from the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, when skilled craftsmen such as Don Siegel, Anthony Mann and Samuel Fuller could imprint their personalities on low-budget movies. Although fewer than half of his 32 films were westerns, it was in this most popular of genres that Boetticher made his mark, particularly with a series of films (the so-called Ranown cycle) in the late 1950s, starring the taciturn Randolph Scott. The Ranown collaborations include Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Comanche Station and Ride Lonesome. Indeed, the latter title concisely summarises the essential story line these films explore in such rich variations. Scott plays the hero who always seems to ride alone-even when he is with others.

The defining passion in Boetticher’s life-which helps explain the elemental quality of his films-is bullfighting. While convalescing from a football injury in Mexico in the 1930s, Boetticher became fascinated with the sport, eventually becoming a professional matador. This skill gave him his entrée to Hollywood; he was hired as a consultant on Rouben Mamoulian’s 1940 production Blood and Sand. Boetticher worked his way up the studio food chain, and became a proficient director of low-budget crime films and thrillers. In 1951, while working for the B-movie factory Republic Pictures, he was given the opportunity to write and direct his first truly personal film, The Bullfighter and the Lady, starring Robert Stack in a role strongly modelled on Boetticher’s own experiences in Mexico.

Boetticher’s fascination with bullfighting was driven by an interest in ritualised behaviour, the codes of machismo, the sport’s combination of brutality and grace and, of course, the primal nature of its climactic showdown. These elements were powerfully transferred to the westerns he began to direct in 1956. Marked by unflagging narrative momentum and sheer physical beauty, these films exhibit mastery and versatility. They move freely between wide-screen and standard composition, between shadowy black-and-white and bold Technicolor. Yet they are consistent in tone and ethos.

In his landmark essay on Boetticher, in the influential genre study Horizons West, Jim Kitses writes:

The moral of Boetticher’s films is thus a simple one: everyone loses. Life defeats charm, innocence is blasted. The world is finally a sad and funny place, life a tough, amusing game, which can never be won but must be played. If Boetticher’s films can darken to near-tragedy, the pessimism is always held in check by an innate response to the absurdity of it all, the way in which we are forced to take up roles in a farce. It is this comic awareness in Boetticher that is behind what appears a natural classicism.

Boetticher’s own life took a tragicomic twist in the 1960s when, at the height of his career, he shunned Hollywood and went to Mexico to undertake a labour of love-a documentary about his close friend, the legendary matador Carlos Arruza. Over the following seven years, an epic series of misfortunes beset the project, climaxing in a car wreck that killed Arruza and several members of the film crew. Boetticher’s marriage fell apart, and he spent time in jail and in a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown. Despite some favourable reviews, Arruza was a box-office flop, and Boetticher has only directed one other film since, the playfully black A Time for Dying (1969), with Victor Jory as a monstrously comic Judge Roy Bean and Audie Murphy in a cameo as outlaw Jesse James.

Always an independent spirit, Boetticher never seemed interested in Hollywood’s rules yet he did play the game long and well enough to leave his mark. Hollywood gave him the latitude and structure to create his finest work, most notably The Bullfighter and the Lady, the Ranown cycle and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. Boetticher regards Bullfighter and Seven Men as “the two best films I ever made”. Yet it is in Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station that the controlled objectification of tension and appropriateness of form and style approaches perfection. Fully realised chamber works, the Ranown westerns stand as testimonies to Boetticher’s overarching talent, his stark but comic direction coalescing with Burt Kennedy’s wit and Scott’s iconic presence.

The apparent limitations of the world portrayed-a precisely drawn microcosm-ultimately become the films’ strengths. The tragicomic immersion of the Ranown cycle in male rituals and codes defines meaning in the western analogous to the way codes and rituals define the meaning of the bullfight. Informed by the seductive pleasures of style centred on Scott but extending to all the characters, this very immersion, tempered by irony, reveals something of the ambiguities and contradictions at the heart of machismo and an ethos of extreme individualism. The final great achievements of the traditional western, the Ranown films are also something of a watershed; the post-classical westerns of Leone, Peckinpah, Eastwood et al., owe more to Boetticher than to John Ford.

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The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951, 35mm, B&W, 124mins)

To be introduced by John Flaus

Director: Budd Boetticher Producer: John Wayne Script: Budd Boetticher, James Edward, Grant Ray Nazarro DOP: Jack Drapper Editor: Richard L Van Enger Score: Victor Young Production co: Republic Pictures Corporation Print source: UCLA Film and Television Archive

Cast: Robert Stack, Joy Page, Gilbert Roland, Virginia Grey, John Hubbard, Katy Jurado

The Bullfighter and the Lady

A young American film producer Chuck Regan (Stack) aspires to be a bullfighter and looks to an ageing matador, Manolo Estrada (Roland), to teach him. Manolo reluctantly agrees. Regan is brash, exhibitionistic and inconsiderate. Manolo is mature and serene. As Paul Schrader puts it, ‘Regan is an individualist, Manolo is a formalist’. Regan’s exhibitionism-his desire to perform in the bullring without the methodical training of the apprentice matador-leads to tragedy.

This semi-autobiograhical film, part romantic action picture, part documentary-perhaps the most authentic portrayal of bull-fighting to have come out of Hollywood-was the first on which Boetticher put his preferred name ‘Budd’. It has a primal quality that looks forward to the Ranown cycle. Bullfighting is more than a sport, it is a ritual. Schrader has noted the continuing tension in Boetticher’s films, between ‘sport and ritual, individual and icon’, a tension that is played out through irony in the westerns but remains intriguingly unresolved in The Bullfighter and the Lady. Regan is mysteriously transformed in the ring from exhibitionist to icon, from an aggressively individualistic American to a matador performing a timeless ritual.

To play on double bills the film was brutally cut by nearly 40 minutes but has been since restored by the UCLA Archive to Boetticher’s original edit of 124 minutes. The title is a Hollywood concoction; Boetticher’s chosen title for his original story (which was nominated for an Oscar) is ‘Torero’.

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Seven Men from Now (1956, 35mm, Colour, 77mins)

To be introduced by John Flaus

Director: Budd Boetticher Producer: Andrew V McLaglen, Robert E Morrison Script: Burt Kennedy

DOP: William H Clothier Editor: Everett Sutherland Score: Henri Vars Production co: Batjac Productions, for Warner Bros Print source: UCLA Film and Television Archive

Cast: Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, Lee Marvin, Walter Reed, John Larch, Donald Barry

Ben Stride (Scott) is hunting down the men who killed his wife during a robbery. He encounters two outlaws (chillingly played by Marvin and Larch) in the desert. The bandits are intent on getting their hands on a gold shipment being secretly carried by a couple from back east (Reed and Russell).

For many years thought to be lost, Seven Men from Now only recently has been rediscovered and restored to its former Technicolor glory by the UCLA Film Archive. Although a Batjac production, this was the first of the six collaborations now known as the Ranown cycle named after the Scott-Brown production company. (The other two films not included in this retrospective, are Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone.) The subsequent five were Ranown productions. Burt Kennedy worked with Boetticher on five of the six scripts (one uncredited). Kennedy’s script for Seven Men lay on the shelf at Batjac (John Wayne’s production company) until Robert Mitchum offered him $110,000 for it. Suddenly Wayne liked it, so the story goes, and passed it on to Boetticher, who found the script ‘brilliant’ and readily agreed to Wayne’s condition that Scott, then near the end of his acting career, play the lead.

Both Boetticher and Kennedy (the latter has acknowledged Boetticher as co-author) obviously derived pleasure from playing with recurrent elements; Seven Men and the other three films to be screened this year at BIFF are essentially the same story. Each employs a journey structure that Andrew Sarris has aptly described as ‘partly allegorical odysseys and partly floating poker games in which every character takes turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown’. In Seven Men, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station Scott is driven by his past; here his coldness is partly guilt which makes him more ruthless. In the two later films the possibility of starting over again, represented by Gail Russell in Seven Men and by Maureen O’Sullivan in The Tall T, is either absent or available only to others.

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The Tall T (1957, 35mm, Colour, 73mins)

To be introduced by Bill Collins

Director: Budd Boetticher Producer: Harry Joe Brown Script: Burt Kennedy DOP: Charles Lawton Jnr Editor: Al Clark Score: Mischa Bakaleinikoff Production co: Ranown Print source: Columbia Tristar

Cast: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, Henry Silva

A stagecoach robbery turns into a murderous game of bluff and double bluff between Pat Brennan (Scott) and the villain Usher (Boone). Also involved are Usher’s two psychopathic offsiders, a cowardly businessman and his heiress wife, both of whom are held hostage with Brennan. The power struggle becomes more complex as an affinity emerges between hero and villain. Boetticher has acknowledged that in every one of the Scott pictures, he could have traded Randy’s part with the villain’s. In The Tall T both men choose to imprison themselves in roles from which there is no escape from a deadly showdown. ‘There are’, Brennan says, ‘some things a man can’t ride around’, as the comic interplay turns to violence and sad irony. This male code of honour is the driving force in the Ranown films. Although he says he hates the word, Boetticher has admitted that he was ‘the worst macho in the world’. However, in his vulnerability, Brennan is close to Ben Stride in Seven Men. He is allowed to express fear and the heroine offers him a chance of the life Usher longs for.

Although not a journey film, The Tall T has similarities with Seven Men in moving from a pastoral to a desert setting, reversing the movement of Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. All four were shot on the same locations near Lone Pine in northern California.

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Ride Lonesome (1959, 35mm, CinemaScope, Colour, 73mins)

Director: Budd Boetticher Producer: Budd Boetticher, Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott Script: Burt Kennedy DOP: Charles Lawton Jr Editor: Jerome Thomas Score: Heinz Roemheld Production co: Ranown Print source: Columbia Tristar

Cast: Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Pernell Roberts, James Best, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn

The most elegiac film of the Ranown cycle is, in some ways, also the most optimistic. Lawman Ben Brigade (Scott), having captured a young gun, Billy John (Best), is joined by two amiable outlaws, Sam Boone (Roberts) and his offsider Wid (Coburn). For Brigade, Billy John provides the means to take revenge on Billy’s brother Frank (Van Cleef) who hanged Brigade’s wife many years previously. For Boone and Wid, Billy John will gain them an amnesty if they bring him in, dead or alive. A source of sexual tension in the group is the newly widowed Carrie Lane (Steele) personifying the woman’s role in the series: an object of desire, mystery and comfort, but not a person in her own right. The journey of the group is a reversal of the conventional race-against-time structure. Tension develops almost casually as Brigade strings out the ride in order to engage Frank, who is stalking them with the intention of freeing his brother. The comic touch that runs through the series here twists the ironies deeper, merging into the tragic lyricism of the memorable final scene.

Ride Lonesome is a notable example of early CinemaScope when the whole width of the screen was deployed creatively, not only to place characters in the landscape but also to place them in relation to each other with special coherency.

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Comanche Station (1960, 35mm, CinemaScope, Colour, 73mins)

Director: Budd Boetticher Producer: Budd Boetticher Executive Producer: Harry Joe Brown Script: Burt Kennedy DOP: Charles Lawton Jr Editor: Edwin H Bryant Score: Mischa Bakaleinikoff Production co: Ranown Print source: Columbia Tristar

Cast: Randolph Scott, Nancy Gates, Claude Akins, Skip Homeier, Richard Rust

Jefferson Cody (Scott), an ageing loner whose wife was abducted by Indians 10 years earlier, is still searching for her, in the process rescuing other female captives. Here he journeys to Lordsburg with Mrs Lowe whom he has just rescued. He is joined by Ben Lane (Akins), an older gunman, and his two delinquent offsiders Frank (Homeier) and Dobic (Rust). They are interested in the substantial reward offered by Mrs Lowe’s husband for her return.

After the relative optimism of Ride Lonesome, this, the last of the series, although in many ways a companion film, returns to the pessimism of the earlier works, albeit with ironic humour even more deceptively casual. The repetitions and subtle variations in situation, characterisation and setting-for example, the hanging tree in Ride Lonesome reappears in the middle of the river in Comanche Station-becomes a source of pleasure. Both photographed by Charles Lawton Jnr, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station are fine examples of CinemaScope’s ‘open’ image before the small screen began to dictate image composition.

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Introduction adapted and expanded from notes for a Boetticher retrospective, The American Museum of the Moving Image, New York, 2000.

References

Dibb, Mike, “A Time and Place, Budd Boetticher and the Western”, an essay published in The Movie Book of the Western, edited by Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye, Studio Vista, 1996

Kitses, Jim, Horizons West, Thames & Hudson, 1969

Schrader, Paul, “Budd Boetticher: A Case Study in Criticism” (1971), an essay reprinted in Schrader on Schrader, edited by Kevin Jackson, Faber & Faber, 1990

Wollen, Peter, essay (as Lee Russell) in New Left Review, No. 32, July/August 1965, pp. 78-84, reprinted in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, BFI Publishing, 1998

About The Author

Bruce Hodsdon has written on Jerzy Skolimowski and surrealist documentary for Senses of Cinema, the Carlton Ripple for Screening the Past and contributed to The Little Black Book: Movies.