Budd Boetticher and Hollywood leading man Randolph Scott made a handful of Western films together, five of which they produced under Scott’s production company, Ranown Pictures Corp. This cycle — The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station — spanned the waning years of the 1950s and Scott’s leading-man viability. They very much belong to that era of Western stories, where the heroic do-gooder faces trials and tribulations in his pursuit of justice, but they’re also tinged with a darkness and gravity ahead of their time, right on the cusp of the genre’s cultural revision at the hands of 1960s filmmakers writing for audiences less enamored with the supposed glory of our country’s gunpowder-propelled expansion.
That’s not to overstate their general appeal or historic relevance: For the most part, these are just a set of particularly interesting Westerns that happen to stand slightly apart from the products of their time. They’re the sort to appear in both deluxe box sets (many of the features here are actually pulled from lower-resolution releases from Mill Creek a few years ago) and those giant DVD compilations of classic Westerns you find at big-box stores and gas stations. This new deluxe boxset from the Criterion Collection is, of course, gorgeous: the 4K restorations (completed by Sony Pictures) take full advantage of the Lone Pine location shooting, the set work and the depthless geography of Scott’s worn, aged face. In terms of appeal, this is the sort of set aimed at aficionados of the genre, willing and excited to pick apart the peculiarities that warrant the films such a boutique treatment. The essays by Tom Gunning and film critic Glenn Kenny make a good case for them, too, but truly, this feels like a collectors set for devoted genre fans first and foremost.
As a general fan of Westerns, I was pretty delighted to see this release show up at my door, and diving in was well worth my while. Each film grapples fundamentally with the idea of the West as a lonely, desolate place populated by people trying to find a place of their own — and what they’ll do to gain or keep it. Scott’s hero figures are complicated, sometimes dark individuals whose morals aren’t always the standard by which the world is measured and never will be. Each film opens with Scott riding into the story through Lone Pine scenery and most end with him just as alone, having experienced some mixture of the best and worst humanity has to offer. There are twists and turns, double-crosses and triple-crosses and gunfights and horseback riding. These five films are Westerns that embrace the darker, pulpier elements of their basic design.
Of the five films, I most enjoyed The Tall T, Bucanan Rides Alone and Ride Lonesome — which seems to be the consensus amongst film historians.
The Tall T is perhaps the lightest of the bunch where Scott is concerned. Adapted from a short story by Elmore Leonard, this adventure sees Scott’s protagonist, Brennan, captive alongside a pair of newlyweds when a group of bandits take over the coach in which they’re traveling. The real star of this picture is Richard Boone as Frank Usher, the villain of the piece, who delivers a great “in another life, we could’ve been friends” sort of speech to our hero.
Buchanan Rides Alone sees Scott as the titular man riding through a southern California town on his way to west Texas to buy some land of his own. He’s drawn into a conflict with the powerful Agry clan, who are at each other’s throats. Buchanan ends up fighting against the family on the behalf of another young man pulled into their orbit. It’s a sometimes murky and frequently curvy narrative with a satisfyingly violent denouement.
Ride Lonesome follows Scott’s Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter who saddles up with another group of riders on the way to deliver a bounty through Native American territory. His quarry, Billy John (James Best), is brother to an even more notorious outlaw, Frank (Lee Van Cleef), who has personal history with Brigade. What plays as an (admittedly problematic by today’s standards) story of frontiersmen and Native Americans hides a dark story of retribution that slowly reveals itself — also starring James Coburn, a Western legend in his own right, in his first role.
Along with the aforementioned essay and 4K restoration, the new Criterion boxset also features introductions to the films by filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Taylor Hackford, a new program with film critic Farran Smith Nehme about Randolph Scott and audio commentaries on The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.