It's scarcely coincidental that the three Ranown titles on a par with Seven Men from Now were likewise written by Burt Kennedy. The Tall T (1957), based on an Elmore Leonard story, centers on a life-or-death situation with Scott and another man's just-married bride (Maureen O'Sullivan) held hostage in the backcountry by three cold-blooded killers. Its fierce air of menace is enhanced by a bracing strain of dark humor, and Richard Boone is brilliant as the outlaw leader, an intelligent man who loathes his brute partners in crime and craves Scott's respect--even as he won't hesitate to kill him. Ride Lonesome (1959), widely regarded as the series peak, maddeningly has been the hardest to get to see, especially in the CinemaScope format Boetticher deploys so fluently. This time Scott is a man bringing a jokey outlaw (James Best) out of the badlands, with the apparent intention of collecting the bounty. Because local Indians are on the warpath, he's soon acquired unwanted traveling companions--a stationmaster's wife (Karen Steele) and two amiable galoots (Pernell Roberts, James Coburn) looking to take Scott's prisoner away from him. And somewhere behind, riding hell-for-leather with his gang, is Best's outlaw brother (Lee Van Cleef). This was Coburn's first film, and upon recognizing the young man's unique talent and appeal, the director wrote new material on location to enlarge his part. Comanche Station (1960) closed out the cycle with its purest, sparest manifestation. Scott rescues a white woman (Nancy Gates) from longtime captivity among Indians and sets out to return her to her husband. Chief rival in this case is Claude Akins, appropriating a few moves of Lee Marvin's from Seven Men from Now. The opening and closing images of Comanche Station define and crown this magnificent body of work. Yes, we've skipped a couple of titles--merely damn good movies rather than masterpieces. Critics habitually pegged Scott as a limited actor (an opinion in which he good-naturedly concurred), but he rises to the offbeat challenge of Decision at Sundown (1957), whose would-be hero gets just about everything wrong, from the nature of his grievance to the impact his quest has on everybody else. Unlike Boetticher's celebrated journey Westerns, this is a town movie, and so is Buchanan Rides Alone (1958). Buchanan, too, is a bit of a departure in being free of guilt or obsession; the happy-go-lucky cuss is merely passing through the border community of Agrytown on his way back from lucrative adventures in Mexico when he falls afoul of the corrupt clan running the place. Boetticher's dry sense of humor informs all these movies, but this one is played close to outright comedy--very black comedy. It's also the only Ranown entry whose cheapness is conspicuous, with tacky sets, crude Pathe Color (with which cameraman Lucien Ballard struggles gamely), and an uncredited score scrapped together from the Columbia music library. But as its criss-crossed motives and multiple betrayals play out, you may find yourself wondering whether this sardonic movie might have inspired Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961).
There's a bonus to the set, a feature-length portrait, A Man Can Do That. Written by film critic-historian Dave Kehr and exec-produced by Clint Eastwood, the documentary includes testimonials from Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Towne, and other directorial admirers, plus the eloquent participation of Boetticher himself a year or so before his death in November 2001. Each of the Kennedy-scripted Ranowns gets a full-length audio commentary (Jeanine Basinger's on The Tall T is a model of historical perspective and stylistic appreciation), and there are pre-film introductions by Eastwood (Comanche Station), Martin Scorsese (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome), and Taylor Hackford--but watch these after seeing the movies, to avoid spoilers. As for the DVDs themselves, these movies have never looked better. Even Buchanan Rides Alone. --Richard T. Jameson