Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Lately I've been setting my clock, so to speak, by the ongoing survey over at Goodfella's Movie Blog in which Dave posts his favorite for another year every other day. It's inspired me to look at some films I've had on my shelf for awhile, thinking them essentials, without really watching them. Dave'll hit 1959 this weekend, and that prospect inspired me to go back to my Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott box set to tackle their fifth collaboration. I finally took a look at their first go together, Seven Men From Now, last weekend, and maybe I'll double back and deal with that one at another time. For now I'm going to review the fourth of five films the team released via Columbia Pictures.

This time around, Scott bears the unlikely name of Ben Brigade, which Columbia thought would be a selling point for the film. They emphasized it in the poster and the trailer, and I suppose it conveys that Scott has the strength of a multitude, though not in the same way that Steve Reeves did when he played Hercules. Brigade is a bounty hunter who heads into a typical Boetticher rocky landscape to apprehend Billy John, a wanted killer who has tried to lure our hero into an ambush, but chickens out of it once convinced that Brigade can take him out before dying. Billy tells his partners to summon his brother Frank, who is sure to crush Brigade before Billy can hang.

Along the way, Brigade picks up a woman, Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) and two typically personable Boetticher gunman, Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn). Mrs. Lane has most likely lost her husband to the Indians, while Boone sees Billy John as his ticket to a normal life. The reason is that, apart from the bounty on Billy's head, in which Brigade is presumably most interested, the state has promised amnesty to whoever brings in the outlaw. It took a while for Boone to figure out what amnesty meant, but now he wants it, and if the government will forgive all sins upon delivery of Billy, then what would one more death matter -- Brigade's, that is. Boone is one of those up-front sorts who makes his interest clear to Brigade. He has enough of a code of honor to want a fair fight if it has to come to that. For the moment, it's in both men's interest to work together, since there are Indians about and Billy's gang, plus Frank, is on the way.

Karen Steele (above) proves regrettably less formidable than her gun-toting entrance promises, while James Coburn (below) proves more formidable in later films.

Yet Brigade seems to be taking a lot of chances, like riding through open country when there are other routes available. It seems to Boone that Brigade may be inviting a confrontation with the gang, or Frank in particular, which makes his own scheme more dangerous. But he sticks to it, not least because of his growing interest in the newly minted Widow Lane. As for her, the more she understands of Brigade and Boone's conflicting motives, the more she despises both men. Her indignation at their rivalry for bounty seems to steer the film toward Naked Spur territory, but it eventually emerges that bounty is a secondary concern for Brigade, and that Billy is but a means to the end of revenge on Frank at a site of Brigade's choosing, one of dire significance for both men. Partly out of self-interest in Billy's fate, and partly out of respect for Brigade's grievance, Boone commits himself and Whit to stick around for the showdown with Frank's gang, the danger of which can best be illustrated by showing you Frank.

Ride Lonesome is a sort of torch-passing film, though Randolph Scott had a few films left in him, given the presence of future action star Coburn, imminent Bonanza star Roberts, and eventual spaghetti icon Lee Van Cleef. These younger actors aren't all fully formed yet. It seems strange to see Coburn playing the simpleton stooge to Roberts, for instance, while Van Cleef still lacks the essential coolness that he only acquired in Italy from Sergio Leone. He doesn't really have much to do here, given how Frank is built up, and doesn't really come across as the supervillain we might have expected.

Seeing Van Cleef in this picture helps solidify the impression created by the late revenge angle that Ride Lonesome is, arguably, the closest Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy come to a spaghetti western. Brigade wants to have his showdown with Frank at an old hanging tree where, we learn, Frank had hung Brigade's wife after Brigade, then a sheriff, had put Frank in prison. The difference between a "Ranown" western and a spaghetti western is that, in this movie, we are told what happened to Mrs. Brigade, while a spaghetti western would have shown it. One approach is not automatically preferable to the other, but the difference is significant. That doesn't mean that Ride Lonesome isn't brutal at times. I've noted before that the Boetticher films have moments of violence that sometime exceed what we'd expect from Fifties Hollywood, and here we get the threatened revenge hanging (lynching, really) of Billy John apparently realized.

It looks like Boetticher and Scott never made a really bad western, but in my estimate Ride Lonesome is the weakest of the five I've seen out of the seven they made. At 73 minutes it actually seems a little padded. Boetticher was working in Cinemascope for the first time and may have indulged himself in more landscape shots than were strictly necessary, beautiful though they are. There's also a pointless subplot with Indians who want to trade a horse for Mrs. Lane and get violent when refused. The Indian fight has a perfunctory quality that's unusually disappointing from Boetticher. But the main weakness of this film, as I see it, is Pernell Roberts, who simply lacks the gravitas of such past Scott antagonists as Lee Marvin and Richard Boone. He just doesn't seem like the sort who should be ordering James Coburn around, and his romantic musings over the pneumatic Karen Steele are rather embarrassing. It's a tribute to Kennedy's plotting, if not his dialogue, that you remain interested in the simmering conflict between Roberts and Scott and uncertain of how it'll turn out.

Randolph Scott rides toward the foreground in the rocky opening sequence of Ride Lonesome.

But the general virtues of Scott and Boetticher redeem this film. It is a treat for fans of western landscapes, and Randolph Scott is his good old grim, laconic self. Coburn and Van Cleef are fun to watch while still in relatively raw form, and Steele is easy on the eye. There were better westerns made in 1959, but Ride Lonseome is a decent representative sample of the Hollywood adult western in its peak period.

Here's the trailer, uploaded by CultExtras.


Dave (Goodfelladh) said...

I agree with your sentiments that there were better westerns made in 1959... but, I think _very_ highly of this one. I consider this to be the best film that Boetticher and Scott ever made together. That final image that you include in the review is as memorable a closing shot that I can remember. I would actually consider Ride Lonesome to be among my favorite 9-10 westerns I've ever seen.

Samuel Wilson said...

Dave, I simply hold Ride Lonesome to an exalted standard set by Boetticher and Scott themselves. Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone are all better films, and Lonesome, for me, really suffers only by comparison to them. I'll be watching Comanche Station shortly while mulling over whether to shell out the money the Warner Archive asks for Westbound.

Sam Juliano said...

Yeah, this may be the weakest, yet as you vigorously note it's still a very fine B western in a set that really doesn't have a weak link. And Dave's Goodfella series has me all wound up too Samuel. We are all hopelessly addicted, but in a good way. I must commend you on an excellent review here. I hung with every word. I haven't seen WESTBOUND.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I'm holding out for Westbound to turn up on TCM. For all I know, it's been there already, but I'll be looking out for the next time.