Budd Boetticher’s unique approach to screen villainy started, oddly enough, with John Wayne. This icon of American/Western goodness and heroism had befriended Boetticher when the star’s production company stepped in to produce the director’s 1951 passion project, Bullfighter and the Lady, a picture largely based on Boetticher’s own experience as a budding matador. Though it ultimately had a souring 37 minutes excised before release (done after John Ford convinced executive producer Wayne that the film was too long), Boetticher and Wayne nevertheless entered into another project together, this time a Western called Seven Men from Now.

Working off a Burt Kennedy script, Seven Men from Now (1956) was developed by Batjac as a vehicle for Wayne himself, but when Wayne opted for another film, the acting duties went to Randolph Scott. The success of the picture resulted in a collaborative outgrowth between Scott and producing partner Harry Joe Brown — combining their names for a company known as Ranown — and it was under this banner that Boetticher directed a string of five other Westerns, all of them starring Scott and all but one written by Kennedy. This included The Tall T (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960); Decision at Sundown (1957) did not feature a Kennedy screenplay. A seventh feature in this collective, Westbound (1959), was reluctantly directed by Boetticher for Warner Brothers in order for him to proceed with The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). Something of an outlier in the grouping — no Kennedy, no Brown — Westbound nevertheless still stars Scott and does contain a number of the defining traits that emblazon this seven-picture cycle. Boetticher had his Western precursors before 1956 — Horizons West in 1952, for example — but these seven films were quite unlike any of his prior features and were, indeed, quite unlike the Westerns being made by anyone else at the time. In a genre often viewed as the quintessential arena for good versus bad conflict, frequently identified with a white hat versus black hat simplicity, by the 1950s, such elementary expectations were challenged by the likes of Anthony Mann, whose succession of films with James Stewart defied the concept of a customary hero, and even John Ford, that most traditional of the genre’s proponents — there is scarcely more of a Western anti-hero than Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), the film Wayne made instead of Seven Men from Now. Boetticher, though, took a different path to this characteristic upending. His Westerns still have their “good” good guys (albeit a few who are moderately belligerent), but here, it was the ambiguous antagonist who received the unconventional treatment. To begin with, they were, in many cases, not so very bad. Or, at the very least, they certainly weren’t unappealing or insipid. Quite the contrary. If not stealing the film entirely, which they regularly did, their presentation was such that what the marginal hero did or believed was of little consequence or interest by comparison to their own engaging, flamboyant, and fascinating personas.

Budd Boetticher

Seven Men from Now (1956)

For the ostensible villain to emerge as they do, however, and to stand out from the pack of predictable rogues, the good must first be established, enabling a jockeying point of contrast and a stabilizing foundation from which the alternative becomes so evidently unusual. As portrayed by Randolph Scott, the heroic figures in this Boetticher series are usually distinguished by traits assigned to most Western idols: bravery, civility, an upright moral agenda, and so on. Scott’s characters operate in comparable comfort to their hostile counterparts, their confidence owing to the assuredness of a stalwart man in the right. Physically, Scott exhibits a rigid bravado, his laconic exterior never wavering to the level of behavioral eccentricity the way the villains do. And his heroes are usually solitary figures, content to stay that way. They have a marked sympathy for the outsider or the oppressed (Ben Stride in Seven Men from Now has profound understanding of the threatened and hungry Chiricahua), and they express a respectful “yes ma’am, no sir” obligation toward women and elders. There are some slight tests of this compliant veneer — see Decision at Sundown’s impudent Bart Allison in particular, a vengeful man who comes across as a rather brash, bossy, and stubborn individual — but there is still no denying he is the good guy, and in other forms, like Scott’s Pat Brennan in The Tall T, most suggestions of dubious ethical uncertainty are toppled by a Shane-like decency.

If the villains are not exactly the “true hero of the film,” as Jim Kitses contends,1 it is accurate to suggest that as omnipresent as Scott’s heroic variations are, they nevertheless appear usurped by those on the opposite end of the good-bad spectrum. Most conventionally, in terms of narrative instigation, the villains are the motivating factor in nearly all that transpires, functioning as either those whom Scott purposefully seeks out or those who end up involving an unwitting Scott in some sort of skirmish. This in itself is not so strange; such conflict is the genesis of most Western yarns. But in these films, the antagonists are more than mere foils. They are exceptionally worthy of Scott’s time and the viewer’s attention. And to achieve this, beginning with the seven men of Seven Men from Now, Boetticher exhibits a penchant for tension derived from the capable villain, a man who can stand on equal footing with Scott’s hero. Because these are capable men, they effectively oppose Scott’s single-minded goals or simply his unsuspecting routine, and they do so in a way that appears genuinely formidable. Rare is the prominent Boetticher bad man who becomes essentially extraneous; they typically command just as much deference and notice as any of Scott’s central figures. From this equality, Boetticher crafts a taut impression of potentially dangerous significance, born from the strength of Scott’s given adversaries — their physical, mental, and symbolic strength.

Though it is brief, the first scene In Seven Men from Now, in which Scott’s Ben Stride happens upon two of the seven thieves holed up in a cave, is an emblematically tenuous interaction, establishing the pervasive leery skepticism that extends from Scott to those he encounters along the way. Here and elsewhere, characters question one another, they provoke without saying too much, and everyone is on guard. There is a palpable distrust that at once works on the level of spectator tension but also advocates that the bad men are not merely dispensable opponents, but are dynamic in their own right and, perhaps most importantly, are abstruse in terms of their evident aspirations: how can one be sure of what they’re going to do if one isn’t even sure of what they want? Characters — good and bad — are introduced with secretive, suspicious pasts, their intentions initially unclear to each other and the viewer. One need look no further than Seven Men from Now, in which Lee Marvin’s Bill Masters unsteadily settles as either Stride’s friend or foe, depending on any given situation. Stride’s banter with the curiously suspect Masters is a constantly fitful exercise in uncertainty and mutual wariness. Throughout these seven films, such caustically enthralling exchanges will allot the villain an intellectual authority and an expressive appeal seldom afforded to the conventional heavy. The interactions with the Scott hero are engaging and fraught with clever combativeness, principally enhanced by two key factors: the performances (while Scott stars, those who play his challengers are given the more impressive material), and the finely-tuned development of these bad men, courtesy of the respective screenwriters — Kennedy especially — and Boetticher’s own leveling. Like two boxers facing down one another at the weigh in, challenging each other but not yet acting out, the Scott hero and his opponent(s) embody a cagy awareness that produces the pleasurable spectacle of contentious competence and the reciprocated mindfulness of their violent potential.

Budd Boetticher

Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now

While there is a burgeoning suspicion that Masters is up to no good, when one learns Stride had once locked him up, the credible likelihood of a personal vendetta begins to influence all of his actions, no matter how commendable they may be (at one point, he guns down one of the titular seven men, saving Stride’s life). And yet, even when he sets his pervy sights on Gail Russell’s Annie Greer, or when he purposefully needles Stride, Greer, and her husband, John (Walter Reed), one is not totally opposed to his character. Throughout these seven films, such attraction to the villain is sturdy and captivating, for they are often the most mischievously mesmerizing. So complicated is the charm of Masters, for example, in no small part thanks to a devilish turn by Marvin, that one is more shocked by his cold-blooded murder of his expendable sidekick, Clete (Don Barry), than would be the case if he had actually shot down Stride.

The sympathy Boetticher elicits for his villains, insofar as it stems from their initially ambiguous presentation, where intentions and personal backstories are seldom clarified in full, is likewise manifest with Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), the “big man in Sundown” in the 1957 film that bears its name. Though he has the populace on edge, how and why is never fully explained, and not everyone there is wholly opposed to his presence or this apparently iron first with which he rules. He has his minions, he is getting married to Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele), and he has the kind but shady lady Ruby James (Valerie French) loyally on the side, so there are at least a few people who can stand his presence (though there are hints of his domestically abusive capacity). Making the easy identification of Kimbrough as the obvious villain all the more precarious is the dapper and formal appearance of Carroll in the role, adding a touch of class that contrasts to Scott’s roughhewn dullness. Decision at Sundown further complicates the perception of Kimbrough as the explicit bad guy when Allison enters town bent on revenge and is, as mentioned above, rather abrasive himself. His motivations are muddied and, in a sense, his off-putting aggressiveness actually begins to assuage the cut-and-dry notion of Kimbrough as the undeniable villain who has it coming. It is nearly an hour into the film, which is itself just seventy-seven minutes long, that one discovers exactly what drives Allison. It turns out Kimbrough had a fling with Allison’s girl, but not only did he not kill her, as the hero suggests (she committed suicide), but she had flirtations with an extensive host of other men as well. For much of the film, though, as Kimbrough’s hyped transgression is not yet entirely stated, the view of him as the obvious villain is skewed and influenced by Scott’s position as the good guy, not necessarily by what is actually shown in the film. Kimbrough has his other rivals — the skeptical Dr. John Storrow (John Archer) is one — but as far as bad guys go, from what we actually see here, he is comparatively tame.

That Scott is the generally recognisable hero in these films contributes greatly to how one perceives his challengers. Were the viewer not introduced to the world of these villains through the subjective eyes of Scott’s lead, as in the Kimbrough beef, their apparent badness would perhaps seem less obvious. There is a similar situation in Buchanan Rides Alone, where Scott’s title character enters into the border town of Agry. There, a dominant family, from which the town received its name, has built a large-scale presence, judiciously and economically. For all intents and purposes, the town is led by a quartet of brothers: Simon Agry (Tol Avery), a level-headed judge keen to play politics, the antagonistic sheriff Lew Agry (Barry Kelley), the bumbling hotel clerk Amos Agry (Peter Whitney), and the reckless punk Roy Agry (William Leslie), who is soon killed, setting up the conflict of the picture. Roy’s behavior appears par for the course, but the other three are introduced only in the wake of this incident, leaving one to wonder if the family is habitually “bad,” or are they simply responding to an extraordinary situation. In other words, are they always like this, or is their negative behavior the result of what recently transpired? And for that, should they receive some reprieve?

Furthermore, the family unit of Buchanan Rides Alone is an example of where Boetticher and his writers define their villains as somewhat unlikely collaborative individuals who, though seemingly malicious, are surrounded by a loyal detachment of friends, family, or simply just followers. Even in a film like The Tall T, where Richard Boone’s Frank Usher has distain for his associates — Chink and Billy Jack (Henry Silva and Skip Homeier) — he is still part of a team, something that cannot be said for Scott’s character in this film or any of these other six Westerns. Scott’s hero confronts an established grouping, while he is by contrast a solitary individual, usually emerging as a lone figure from the vast landscape. The villains, on the other hand, are part of a team (albeit a precarious one), consisting of anywhere from at least two and up to seven or more. So, there is something of a concerted solidarity with the bad that one does not always see with the good. Scott’s Ben Brigade becomes perilously aware of this in Ride Lonesome, when his bounty hunter character finally tracks down the renegade Billy John (James Best). Though the outlaw appears alone, others are lying in wait amongst the surrounding rock, and for much of the film, Billy John banks on the inevitable assistance of his brother, Frank (Lee Van Cleef). At the same time, Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn), two men also seeking Billy for the promise of amnesty, are another pairing opposed to Brigade as the isolated actor. The bad guys may be bad, but they have something Scott’s characters do not: they have each other. The primary exception to this is Westbound, where Scott’s Captain John Hayes does begin to form a small circle of allies (though it was never his intent) and his good guy is made all the better by these sympathetic aides. Otherwise, even if betrayal is eventually a part of the criminal equation, for much of each film, and for the years that preceded the events of the depicted narrative, the bad men are sociable, concerted, and, given the size of some of their squads, welcoming.

Budd Boetticher

The Tall T (1957)

In addition to this camaraderie, the Boetticher villain is granted an attractive wit and an endearing opportunity for elucidation, further contributing to their ambiguity and the atypical engagement. In The Tall T, when they are not sizing one another up, Scott’s Pat Brennan and Boone’s Frank Usher engage in light, superfluous banter. They interact with a degree of reciprocal respect and trust, arising even when Usher seeks and accepts Brennan’s word and validation over that of his associates. Usher, a practiced professional, confides in his valiant captive about his impatience with the juvenile antics of Chink and Billy Jack, who are only concerned with women and drink, and he derides his compatriots as frivolous simpletons. Usher has a striking proclivity for irreverent conversation and he boasts a strong sense of infectious, albeit twisted, humor, laughing when Maureen O’Sullivan’s Doretta Mims burns her hand, for example, or when Brennan conks his head on a beam. He also expresses a surprisingly thoughtful openness with Brennan. In the course of their idle chit-chat, he admits his loneliness and confesses his dreams, ideals, and, truth be told, his respectable goals for a better life. So convincing, if deceiving, is the superficial courtesy of Usher that the viewer only feels like Brennan and Doretta are in danger when he is not around.

With this kind of behavior, Boetticher’s key villains are rarely bad for the entirety of any particular film. They are friendly, funny, and there is an admirable, though sometimes wobbly, dependability. Men like Masters express an aptitude for playing both sides, while Boone and Whit are trusting of Brigade and his methodologies, relying on his abilities to attain their own objective. This ambivalence occasionally draws uncomfortable parallels between the bad and the good, as when Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) points out the ostensive similarity between Brigade and the other bounty hunters, arguing they behave like, “two dogs fighting over a bone,” willing to kill each other over the same reward. In Westbound, the opposing factions want the desired gold for their own one-sided interests while, in formulaic Western fashion, the Native American populace in the series — prominent and mostly faceless — represent an external threat to all, forcing reluctant collaboration between the disparate parties. Because the villains are often handled with a strong degree of consideration, and because Scott’s men get a pass due to his established hero status (no matter how suspect he may be), such equivalents lessen the sting of the bad men, suggesting, in many cases, they are not so very different. If this doesn’t always tarnish Scott’s characters, it does lend a shine to the villains. “They’ve made mistakes like everybody,” Boetticher argues, “but they are human beings, sometimes more human than Scott.”2 Though their unlawful motives are eventually brought to light, for a considerable portion of each film, from Marvin in Seven Men from Now to the trio of baddies in Comanche Station, most are doing what they do as opportunists with reasons only a few stops removed from Scott’s own.

Budd Boetticher

Decision at Sundown (1957)

When even his villains have their redeeming or riveting value, it should be no surprise that Boetticher’s complex treatment of badness also extends to those who straddle the fence as neither good nor bad. There is, for instance, a widespread antagonism throughout Decision at Sundown, including with and from the sheriff, Swede Hansen (Andrew Duggan), who skims the periphery of the immediate conflict and the general animosity of the town. In The Tall T, Willard Mims (John Hubbard) is a victim to be sure, but because he offers up his wealthy bride as bait, he is also a coward and is never given a favorable view by anyone. Standing within the Agry clan, but refraining from the brotherly quarrels is Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens), who exhibits some decorum as a pragmatic intermediary. Just as there is multileveled deceit in these films, there are also levels of opposition. And these designations are likewise in flux, as in Comanche Station, where the triad of Dobie (Richard Rust), Ben Lane (Claude Akins), and Frank (Skip Homeier) are all open to the idea of murder when necessary, but only Lane dares suggest killing the freed Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates), for whom a reward is offered “dead or alive.” While neither Dobie nor Frank like the idea, neither is especially keen on an honest living either. However, as the film progresses, Dobie has a change of heart, questioning the way Lane treats he and Frank and professing his desire to “amount to something.” He even attempts to excuse his more wicked counterpart Frank by saying he, “never knew anything but the wild side,” and Lane tries to justify his own actions by blaming his cutthroat incentives on the “hard country.” It is surely rare in a classical Western, and it goes to Boetticher’s credit, that such psychological complexity is bestowed upon anyone but the hero.

That said, however, there are those in this Boetticher septet who are unequivocally bad, those with a willingness to go further than others in terms of their violent capability, but they are few and far between. In Westbound, again the relative anomaly of this series, Clay Putnam’s hired gun Mace (Michael Pate) has his own band of thugs, and they are never given anything near the slightly sympathetic touch of Putnam (Andrew Duggan), who is still a generalized “bad guy.” Though Putnam is Scott’s basic nemesis in the picture, the two of them sharing a professional and personal grudge, Putnam is content to simply pick off the stagecoach carrying the gold — “everything short of bloodshed” — while Mace would rather just kill for it. One can also identify the unambiguous bad guy by their acceptance of traditional Western taboos, as with the eagerly homicidal Chink and the back-shooting Payte Bodeen (John Larch) in Seven Men from Now. Even Frank ultimately shoots Dobie in the back, thus cementing the negative status of the former and the considerate status of the latter.

The cramped cave that opens Seven Men from Now, in which Ben Stride faces down a pair of lawless thieves, is an apt staging of social entrapment, confined conflict, and uncertain possibility. It is a compositional strategy Boetticher frequently employs. In that film alone, it is repeated twice: in the back of the Greer wagon and in a tightly-packed medium shot when Bodeen is introduced and a group of men glare at each other in skeptical silence. This type of dense arrangement reflects the form of these seven films generally; they are nothing if not short and sweet examples of efficient storytelling, taking place in compressed time periods and settings, where the various strands of contention connect in a single location over the course of a little more than 24 hours. Correspondingly, these Boetticher Westerns are often compared to a bullfight or other sporting event, with an assigned arena and an allotted period of time. There are two sides — opposing but not necessarily “good” or “bad” — each subject to rules of conduct in contests of talent and comportment. According to Kitses, Boetticher’s movies exist “as parodies of the morality play, insisting on a sophisticated relationship with the audience, an agreement to reject simplistic notions of good and evil and to recognize that violence and injustice are less the property of malignant individuals than of the world itself. No one ever feels the impulse to hiss a Boetticher villain.”3 One chooses sides, perhaps, but an honest recognition of the other’s skill is also expected. It’s a question of individual identification, but also equitable ethical resolve, tolerance, and oftentimes prickly compassion.

 

Endnotes

  1. Kitses, Jim, Horizons West. (London: British Film Institute, 2004), p. 181.
  2. Kitses, Jim and Gregg Rickman, eds. The Western Reader. (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), p. 198.
  3. Kitses, Horizons West, p. 177-78

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.