Sunday, August 2, 2009


The 1950s were the golden age of the American western. It fell to Europeans to innovate in the genre in the 1960s in response to a drop in U.S. production, which was itself a backlash against a glut of western programming on television. John Ford still had a few westerns in him, and Sam Peckinpah was just getting started, but with the debacle of Cimarron Anthony Mann had made his last western, and Budd Boetticher's 1960 film was his last with Randolph Scott, who himself had a rendezvous with Peckinpah waiting before retirement. Something was changing in American cinema, but on this occasion it was business as usual for Boetticher, Scott, screenwriter Burt Kennedy and producer Harry Joe Brown, which meant closing out what is arguably the best series of "B" westerns ever made.

The "Ranown" films are considered Bs because their budgets were limited and their running times were brief. But the cheapness of Comanche Station only sinks in when you notice how few sets Boetticher uses. On the other hand, he has landscapes that would be the envy of any producer or art director, and if no one told you about the budget you'd say the film looked pretty lavish, since it does. Boetticher complements the landscapes with his most mobile camerawork of the series, racing along to follow hard-riding horsemen and Indians while making judicious use of crane shots to open up our field of vision. This last film is the best looking of the set.

But some corners have been cut. You notice that from the recycling of the theme music from the previous entry, Ride Lonesome. The story itself is a variation on some elements of that film. In Lonesome Scott has to collaborate with some questionable characters to transport an outlaw to where they can collect the bounty on him, and Scott has to worry throughout the picture over whether his colleagues will kill him to claim the bounty for themselves. In Comanche Station Scott, as Cody, makes a dangerous lone venture into Comanche territory to trade for the life of a captured white woman, Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates). It takes his Winchester rifle to seal the deal.

They then fall in with Lane (Claude Akins) and his minions Frank and Dobie, who happened also to be hunting for Mrs. Lowe. They divulge that Mr. Lowe has offered a $5,000 reward for his wife's return -- a fact that Cody hadn't mentioned to her, having given the impression that he acted entirely on his own benevolent initiative. This lowers her regard for her original rescuer, but Lane and company are no prizes, either. In any event, now they must ride together to Lordsburg, avoiding newly hostile Comanches, with Cody concerned that Lane might kill him to claim the reward for himself. Worse, Lane tells his lackeys that Mr. Lowe will pay up if his wife is delivered dead or alive....

What distinguishes Comanche from Lonesome, and elevates it in my opinion, is the degree to which the conflicts in the plot are caused by misunderstandings. Nancy will learn that she has misunderstood Cody's motives, since the hero has a very personal reason for hunting after every kidnapped white woman. Cody's antagonism toward Lane is exacerbated by misunderstandings. He assumes that Lane provoked the Comanches by going scalphunting among them. He assumes that because he testified that Lane had done so when both were in the Army, resulting in Lane's disgrace. It turns out that Cody was wrong about Lane this time, and Kennedy leaves open the possibility that he might have been wrong about Lane in the past. Lane could have a genuinely righteous grievance against Cody to add to his more mercenary motive for possibly killing him. But he's one of Kennedy and Boetticher's honorable villains (though perhaps also the most villainous of them all), risking his neck to save Cody from a Comanche attack, though that may be because he wants the honor of killing Cody himself. Akins is an ideal actor for this sort of part, and individualizes it with his signature call of "Hello!" whenever anyone addresses him. He's like other Boetticher antagonists in at least giving lip service to the idea of settling down to a normal life, while his partners are even more ambivalent about their work, Dobie (Richard Rust) finally turning on Lane rather than join in bushwhacking Cody.

There's a final misunderstanding that gives Comanche Station a poignant little twist. Cody had said that he was unaware of Mr. Lowe offering a reward for his wife's return. Lane confirms that he did, but he uses that fact, and especially the "dead or alive" bit to question both Lowe's manhood (why doesn't he go after his wife himself?) and his love for Mrs. Lowe. You can see that the lonely Cody sees an opening here, but when we finally learn why Mr. Lowe did not go out to the rescue, there's nothing left but for Randolph Scott to resume his lonely ride through the wilderness. His disappearance into the rocks from which he emerged at the start of the picture is a fitting thematic close to the entire series.

Dramatic, often brutal moments from Comanche Station

Comanche Station closes out the Sony Budd Boetticher collection, which was one of last year's top DVD offerings. It includes some audio commentaries and celebrity intros by Clint Eastwood (for this film) Martin Scorsese (for Ride Lonesome) and Taylor Hackford, as well as a feature-length biography of Boetticher that originally appeared on TCM. For the sake of argument, I'll rank the five films in the set, with the understanding that all of them are superior westerns from the genre's peak period.

1. Decision at Sundown
2. The Tall T
3. Comanche Station
4. Buchanan Rides Alone
5. Ride Lonesome

And here's the trailer, uploaded by CultExtras:


Sam Juliano said...

"What distinguishes Comanche from Lonesome, and elevates it in my opinion, is the degree to which the conflicts in the plot are caused by misunderstandings..."

Nice point there Samuel. The camerwork in this entry doe srate at or near the top in the series, and yes, I quite agree that this is the best "B" series of westerns of all-time, in fact one of the best "B" series in any genre, ranking with Val Lewton's RKO horror. Fine historical lead in and contexual analysis.

Corners have indeed been cut, and the theme music is an obvious rehash.

Your ranking seems perfect, although I would politely switch Nos. 1 and 2, but they are all exceptional, so its simply a matter of slight preference.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, these five are pretty tightly packed, so it wouldn't surprise me to see any of them named best of breed.