Friday, March 6, 2009


The fourth collaboration between star-producer Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher, and the third in Sony's Boetticher box set, is billed as a "change-of-pace, light hearted" film. I suppose that's true, relatively speaking, amid the grim business of the Scott-Brown (or Ranown) series, but "hard-boiled" is the term that came to my mind. Its purported light-heartedness is akin to the tough-minded irreverence toward authority, propriety, and even life and death that we associate with the modern-dress hard-boiled genre. Scott himself is more light-hearted here than the blasted wreck of a man he portrays in Decision at Sundown, the previous film in the series, but most of the comedy here is fairly dark.

This time, Scott is Tom Buchanan, who we meet crossing the border bridge between a Mexican village and Agry Town, California. "He don't look like much" is one townsman's appraisal of the newcomer, who's willing to sell his guns and ammo. He's followed closely into town by some young hothead named Roy, riding hard as if from someone. Roy bumps into a man named Lafe and instantly wants to fight him. "Why don't you grow up?" Lafe protests as Roy storms into a tavern.

Buchanan sets himself up in the Agry Hotel, where Amos Agry is the proprietor. A Simon Agry is running for Senate, while Lew Agry is the sheriff here. After settling in, our hero heads to the tavern for dinner, and finds Roy still running amok. When Roy gets into his personal space, Buchanan slugs him. He then learns that he's hit Roy Agry. "Ain't there anyone in this town who ain't an Agry?" he asks.

Having ordered a bottle, he offers Roy a conciliatory shot, but Roy takes the whole bottle. He needs liquid fuel, apparently, before he settles scores with Buchanan. "Do you know what I'm gonna do?" he asks menacingly. "If you keep pulling on that bottle, I know what you're gonna do," Buchanan answers.

Amos checks out the scene at the tavern, and knows that a liquored-up Roy is bad news. He hustles over to the sheriff's office as fast as his girth and his apparent bad heart will take him to urge Brother Lew to intervene. Lew can't care less, however. Meanwhile, Buchanan enjoys his meal while Roy drains the bottle.

Before any showdown can happen, an angry young Mexican charges across the border, challenges Roy and shoots him. That alerts Sheriff Lew, who runs over with his men to beat the crap out of both the Mexican and Buchanan, who's stuck in the middle of things. Both men are promptly dumped in jail, where custom dictates that the sheriff must wait until they wake up before hanging them.

While Buchanan and the Mexican await their fate, Carbo, a top minion of Judge Simon Agry, goes to his boss's house to let him known that Roy, his son, has been killed. "It was inevitable," the judge says. Carbo advises him to stop Sheriff Lew from hanging the men. Holding a trial instead will bolster Simon's law-&-order credentials. In addition, Carbo has an important bit of intelligence: the Mexican is Juan de la Vega, a son of a rich Don. Doubly inspired, the Judge rides to town to stop the hanging, promising a trial the following morning.

After the jurors turn in their shot glasses ("Judge don't want no more liquored up opinions like we had at the last trial," Waldo the bailiff explains), Buchanan tells the court that he grew up chasing cows ("Which cows?" someone asks) and has since been "a fighter," pretty much a mercenary. Sheriff Lew describes him as "just another hardcase on the dodge" and accuses him of setting Roy up to be shot by Juan. He gets the impression that Buchanan isn't happy with Agry culture.

Lew: So, you don't like this town.
Buchanan: I don't like some of its people.
L: Me included?
B: You especially.
So, you want to take the law into your own hands?
No, just you.
Despite such provocative talk, Buchanan has convinced the judge that he had nothing to do with Roy's death, and is acquitted. Juan cuts his own trial short by declaring, "I killed your son, and I'm glad." He's sentenced to hang, but Buchanan has struck up a friendship with the Mexican, whom he senses to be of good character (he shot Roy, after all). He offers the sheriff a deal: free Juan and Lew can keep all the money he confiscated from Buchanan at the time of his arrest. No deal: Lew is determined to be rid of Buchanan and orders him out of town, escorted by Lafe and Pecos. Meanwhile, Esteban Gomez from Mexico visits the Judge and makes an offer similar to Buchanan's to the Sheriff. Acting on behalf of Don Pedro de la Vega, Gomez offers 30 blooded horses for Juan. The Judge wants $50,000 instead. Amos, who's been arguing with Lew over the division of the Buchanan spoils, overhears the negotiations

Meanwhile, Buchanan fully expects to be killed by his escorts. Luckily, Pecos, the most likable of the Agry minions, "don't cotton to this job." "A man oughtn't do a job he doesn't cotton to," Buchanan suggests.

When the moment comes, Pecos shoots Lafe instead of Buchanan. They give Lafe a sky burial in a tree, carving his name in the trunk as a marker. Pecos explains that he had to save Buchanan as a fellow West Texan. "So long, Lafe, you died real good," he says to his former friend.

Back in Agry Town, Amos lets Lew know he has dirt on the Judge, but wants money before telling. Once he finds out about Simon's scheme, the Sheriff resolves to "spit right in Simon's eye" by getting to the money first. He takes Juan out of jail, intending to deliver him to Don Pedro and collect the ransom. But his men stop at the once-abandoned cabin where Buchanan and Pecos are hiding out. After Pecos stalls them, Buchanan gets the drop on them and frees Juan. Of the Sheriff's goons, Waldo the bailiff had been most rough on Buchanan earlier, so our hero avenges himself by ramming his rifle butt repeatedly onto Waldo's foot to make him talk. Once they know, what's next? "I ain't sure," Buchanan admits.

The good guys leave the Sheriff's men tied up, but none of them ever earned their merit badges. While none of the bad guys can free themselves, they can move close to one another and work on each other's bonds. By the time that Buchanan sends Juan and Pecos across the border, the bad guys are in a position for ambush. They kill Pecos (His last words: "Tell Buchanan...") and recapture Juan.

While this is going on, the townsfolk are impatient for a hanging, but Gomez has delivered the ransom to the Judge, who sends Carbo to free Juan. Juan's not there, of course, but Buchanan soon arrives to get his money back at gunpoint. Before he can make good his escape, Waldo and company return with Juan in tow. They outgun Buchanan, who surrenders and is jailed with Juan again. Amos huffs and hustles to tell Lew that the plan is back in effect, but Lew is looking for Gomez, who is still waiting at the Judge's place, where Amos ends up. Carbo beats the truth out of Amos, and he, the Judge and Gomez rush to the jail to free Juan, despite the public's mounting frustration over the lack of entertainment. Nobody stays in jail for long, however, as we go into a climax of hostage exchanges, fratricide, and a shootout over a bag of money on the border. The story ends with Carbo, who seemed smarter than all the brothers, taking charge of things in Agry Town

Carbo: Like you say, this is my town now.
Buchanan: Mr. Carbo, you can have it.
Carbo: Don't just stand there, Amos. Get a shovel!

Buchanan Rides Alone approaches the farcical with all the switches of poor Juan in and out of prison like the pea in a shell game. The film's "light-heartedness" really consists in its refusal to moralize about the sordid events it portrays. Scott's character is only the least vicious, least money-grubbing (except maybe for Pecos) of the characters. If you've forgiven my pun above, let me say that source novelist Jonas Ward probably meant the "Agry" name to be some kind of mockery of the agricultural virtues of the yeoman farmer types who are more often the heroes of western stories. The actors who play the brothers aren't familiar to me, but they're a convincing family group of stocky, money-grubbing creatures. Craig Stevens, on the verge of becoming Peter Gunn, makes the most of the underwritten role of Carbo, suggesting someone who knows he's smarter than his bosses and maybe meant for better things. As Pecos, the still-young L.Q. Jones makes a charming impression in the most genuinely light-hearted role in the picture.
Randolph Scott is once again effortlessly convincing as an authentic personality rather than an archetype. For all that the advertising emphasized the star's bigness and tallness, he portrays Buchanan as quite an ordinary person rather than a cowboy superman. Buchanan is a different character from the wily survivor of The Tall T and the hysterical avenger of Decision at Sundown, and the more I see of the Boetticher films the more impressed I am by Scott's versatility within the generic confines of the Western. As for Boetticher, I hope my screen captures give some hint of his pictorial skills. While skies sometimes looked grainy on my monitor, this is otherwise a lovely outdoor film to look at. Boetticher and scripter Charles Lang maintain a careful balance of comedy and often brutal drama, becoming all business when they need to but always capable of injecting hard-boiled humor into any situation. Like the other Scott-Browns, this is done in under 80 minutes without making you fell short-changed. I don't know if Scott, Boetticher and Harry Joe Brown felt constrained by their B-picture mandate, but they seemed consistently capable of telling a story effectively without sacrificing deeper effects. They really don't make them this way anymore, and that's a shame. Here's the trailer.

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