To anyone interested in the Western genre, classic American cinema, and/or the history and art of film, the DVD release of director Budd Boetticher's five Columbia pictures starring Randolph Scott is a world-class event. For sustained and distinctive achievement in B-movie filmmaking, these movies--often referred to as "the Ranown cycle"--are rivaled only by the horror films Val Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s. In each case the "B" is strictly a matter of budget and release pattern, not quality. Unlike the Lewtons, however, the Boetticher-Scott films have rarely been properly showcased in America, either individually or as a collective experience--in Martin Scorsese's observation, "one long extended movie" whose echoes, recurrences, and variations accrue extraordinary power and richness. The series properly originated with Seven Men from Now
(1956), a movie not included here (but available separately) because it was made for another company. That picture more or less accidentally brought together Scott, Boetticher, and neophyte screenwriter Burt Kennedy--an uncanny blending of talents and qualities to create a great, thoroughly original Western that became the paradigm for the Ranown cycle. All the films run about an hour and a quarter and were shot in 10 days or so. In each, Scott plays a lone-riding man of few words with a personal, indeed private, mission to complete. Details of his backstory are few, and parceled out judiciously so that the understanding of both the audience and the other characters keeps evolving over the literal or figurative journey the film describes. In most cases, there's a key rival or adversary who poses the greatest threat to Scott's mission, yet is also the person closest to Scott in spirit or capability--often a disquietingly sympathetic figure whose necessary showdown with Scott occasions considerable regret. In keeping with Boetticher's own experience in Mexican bullrings, the climactic action takes on the spatial and spiritual overtones of a corrida
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
Few auteur directors are more revered and beloved than Oscar "Budd" Boetticher, Jr., who lived a life more amazing than any movie. And few films have been more eagerly-awaited on DVD than the spare, adult westerns he made at Columbia in the late 1950s, all starring Randolph Scott, most written by future director Burt Kennedy, and co-starring such outstanding actors as James Coburn (in his film debut), Richard Boone, Maureen O'Sullivan, Pernell Roberts, Lee Van Cleef, and Craig Stevens. Now, at last, you hold them in your hand: THE TALL T, DECISION AT SUNDOWN, BUCHNAN RIDES ALONE, RIDE LONESOME and COMANCHE STATION. Rounding out the set is Bruce Ricker's acclaimed feature-length documentary, A MAN CAN DO THAT, executive produced Budd's friend Clint Eastwood. Sony Pictures and The Film Foundation are honored to present one of the absolutely essential collections of this or any year.