A wonderfully good Western
We have of course reviewed the 1959 Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Western Ride Lonesome on this blog, along with the other so-called Ranown pictures, as any self-respecting Western blog would (and Jeff Arnold’s West is at least self-respecting, if not respected) but thanks to JAW reader Boppa’s recommendation, I have just read Kirk Ellis’s 2023 book on the movie, and I thought I’d say a little more on the picture today.
And by the way, I do recommend the book.
Mr Ellis (and he is not alone) regards this Western as the best in the series. “Marked by echoes of character, theme, and even dialogue from film to film, the Ranown series reached its apotheosis in Ride Lonesome, one of the starkest, leanest, and most unrelenting films in any genre of the period.” Yup – although I find every time I watch The Tall T or Comanche Station, I think that one is the best.
Shot in thirteen days for under half a million dollars, and often referred to as a B-Western, Ride Lonesome was nevertheless one of the best examples of the genre of that glorious decade the 1950s.
Much of that is of course down to its star Randolph Scott, in many ways the Western hero, stonier and more stoic than John Wayne, James Stewart, and the others, even Gary Cooper. Critic Mike Dibb talked of Scott’s “expressively inexpressive face”. Ellis’s opening words describe the central characters of these movies: “Loners. Drifters. Men bent on vengeance. Laconic in manner, economical in gesture, slow to anger but deadly when provoked … all played with stoic gravitas by Randolph Scott, a longtime marquee name then in the twilight of his career.” Writer Burt Kennedy said that John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Robert Mitchum, Robert Preston and Joel McCrea had all had a look at the first Boetticher/Kennedy role, Seven Men from Now, and passed. Scott was ideal, though. Boetticher later said, “The problem with Randy was that he was perfect. He never did anything wrong.”
In Ride Lonesome Scott is Ben Brigade, “a silent man even in his most talkative moments,” as he is called in Kennedy’s script, “who can best be described as the calm that comes during the storm.” Such characters are of course quintessential Western leads, “the hero who always seems to ride alone, even when he is with others”, as Bruce Hodson put it in his essay on Boetticher. We have already discussed the notion of loneness in Westerns on this blog (click the link for that), and what could be more ‘Western’ than the title of this one?
Scott’s antagonists in the different pictures were also fascinating. Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now, Richard Boone in The Tall T, Claude Akins in Comanche Station, and probably above all Pernell Roberts in Ride Lonesome all have what Ellis describes as a “mercurial combination of charm and threat.” They are more flamboyantly dressed than Scott’s character and they smile more and talk more, even if you sense they are just as deadly. Boetticher said, “Burt and I agreed that Western heavies over the years had been made much too heavy.” He added, “We set out to make our villains extremely attractive. Sure they were going to get killed – eventually – by our hero, but we wanted our audience to really love them while they were still kickin’.”
They also gradually grow closer to Scott’s hero, become almost an alter ego, until the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are pretty well indistinguishable, obverse and reverse of the same bent coin. That’s especially the case in Ride Lonesome because at the end, the ‘good’ hero Brigade is left standing, desolate and forlorn by the burnt tree (he does not ride off into the sunset), with no future that we can see, while the ‘bad’ man Boone will get his amnesty and, redeemed, ride off to start a ranch and a new life with his now partner Whit (James Coburn). The ‘bad guys’ have in fact become the most sympathetic characters in the tale.
Indeed, in Ride Lonesome there’s hardly a villain at all. The only serious bad guys (apart from the stereotype Indians, of course) are the captive Billy (an excellent James Best), who is only a sly weasel-like punk, and his brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef), the real quarry of Brigade, yet Frank hardly appears in the movie, and in the final shoot-out is disposed of immediately.
Ellis knew Boetticher and Kennedy well and is informative about the two creative forces, who, different as they were, reinforced each other’s talents. “Both Burt and Budd were at their peak working together and never ascended to the same heights individually.” I think that’s true. Boetticher didn’t make a Western as good after these ones (a few episodes of TV oaters, the frankly poor A Time for Dying and writing the spaghetti-esque Two Mules for Sister Sara), and Kennedy’s later career as a director was mixed, at best. In fact both men died within a few months of each other, in 2001. Do please have a look at this blog’s essays on Boetticher and Kennedy, by consulting the index, and indeed our articles on Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown.
Brown was another key, if often overlooked, member of the team. Historian Jon Tuska wrote, “Harry Joe Brown was the moving force behind these pictures.” It was Harry Joe who got Budd and Randy together. Kennedy said of Brown that “he knew how to put people together for a film. He was a good partner for Randy because he did the nuts and bolts. He worried about making the movie.” Brown was one of only two producers that Boetticher ever regarded with (grudging) admiration (the other was Aaron Rosenberg). Perhaps Brown’s principal contribution to the films was the locations. He had shot many pictures up at Lone Pine, including the Scott pictures The Doolins of Oklahoma and Hangman’s Knot. Ellis says, “No director before or since has made better use of Lone Pine’s severe beauty, especially in color and widescreen.”
EXT. EMPTY COUNTRY – DAY
Only the lonely wind as we watch a dust-drenched rider walk his dull gray animal toward us across a long reach of dead country.
That sets the tone for the whole movie.
Another key team member was Charles Lawton Jr, the director of photography. Lawton had shot The Tall T and indeed, with the exception of the great Lucien Ballard, who photographed six of Boetticher’s pictures, the director worked with Lawton more than any cameraman. Lawton spent the bulk of his career at Columbia and shot famous pictures there like Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai but in the Western domain he had done plenty of Randolph Scott oaters, and several for Delmer Daves, notably the visual masterpiece in black & white 3:10 to Yuma. He and Boetticher worked very well together and were especially good at using the widescreen format (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station were the only pictures in this series to use CinemaScope) to emphasize the loneliness, with small figures in a vast landscape. As Martin Scorsese said, “A lot of negative space was used … It makes the characters more lonesome.” And of course Ride Lonesome is shot almost exclusively outside; there’s barely an interior.
Boetticher, Kennedy, Scott, Brown, Lawton, the antagonists, the locations: Paul Schrader said, “It all came together in one of those magical collaborations that you have in movies when the right people at the right time find the right vehicle.” Aye. Boetticher later reflected, “Burt and Randy and Harry Joe and I had complete control and we all thought alike.”
The result, for us, is one of the most austere, pared back, relentless Westerns ever, and one of the very best.
PS I note that another book in the same Reel West series is Blood on the Moon by Alan K Rode. I think that film was one of the great noir Westerns and so doubtless I’ll be reporting on that tome at some future date!