Sunday, February 1, 2009
Buchanan Rides Alone
Buchanan Rides Alone continues Budd Boetticher's famed cycle of Westerns starring Randolph Scott, although this is perhaps the series' lightest, silliest outing. All of the Boetticher/Scott Westerns are notable for giving the normally dour Western hero a sense of humor and a ready grin, but this film in particular is dominated by a loose, slapstick feel. The hero is largely incompetent, stumbling into the middle of trouble, getting out of it just as haphazardly, and then stumbling right back into the thick of things. Scott plays the lone Buchanan, who had just spent some time as a mercenary in Mexico, earning enough money to fulfill that most common of dreams for Western heroes: buying a piece of land all his own. On his way back to his West Texas home, however, he makes the mistake of stopping in the tiny border outpost of Agry Town, which is ruled over by the feuding, competitive Agry brothers: the nasty, greedy sheriff Lew (Barry Kelley), the hypocritical judge Simon (Tol Avery), and the comical, loyalty-switching hotel owner Amos (Peter Whitney). Buchanan only wants to stay a night and get a good meal before moving on, but finds that the townsfolk will do anything they can to relieve him of some money before he moves on: "this sure is a ten-dollar town," he quips with a sly grin. (As he says it, he casts a glance at a nearby saloon woman, as though wondering if perhaps she costs ten dollars, too.) Worse, he soon finds himself entangled in the longstanding rivalry between Lew and Simon when Simon's son, the no-good drunkard Roy (William Leslie), is killed by a rich Mexican's son, Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas), seeking vengeance for Roy's rape of Juan's sister.
Buchanan and Juan barely avoid a hanging when it turns out that Simon at least wants to present a façade of justice, and soon enough Buchanan's involved in a complicated plot to trade Juan's life for $50,000 in gold sent to town by Juan's father. Everyone wants to get a hold of that gold — preferably without losing the chance to hang Juan anyway — and Buchanan finds himself trapped in the middle, trying to protect his newfound friend, get back the gun and money that was taken from him by the corrupt sheriff, and get back on his path to home to buy himself some land. The stakes are high, but Boetticher treats the whole thing with a light touch and an eye for broad, comical strokes, playing down the ostensible seriousness of the plot in favor of a rambling, freewheeling atmosphere. For a Western hero, Buchanan isn't actually very formidable: he keeps letting his enemies get the best of him, and makes often frustratingly poor decisions. At one point, after getting the drop on three of Lew's thugs, he ties them up with a few weak strands of rope, admits he has no idea of what to do next, and then rides off, leaving the bad guys loosely tied up with their guns and their horses easily accessible nearby for the inevitable moment when they get free.
Moreover, Buchanan is rarely even an agent in his own victories. Moments like the one where he actually manages to ambush his enemies are rare. More often, his escapes from near-certain death are achieved via various deus ex machina, last-minute contrivances of chance and fortune rather than any inherent skill or fancy gunplay on Buchanan's part. The result is an odd Western in which the hero succeeds not because he's stronger, faster or smarter than his opponents, but because he's just plain lucky. So many of the great Westerns have a subtle Darwinist slant, advancing the idea that the hero is the guy who draws fastest, who's so formidable with a gun that his enemies can only best him by playing dirty, and so tough that his mere slit-eyed glare inspires quavery fear. Scott can certainly play this kind of hero, with his craggy face and tough-guy aura, but he's just as capable of playing a lighter kind of hero, smiling broadly and bumbling his way in above his head.
Buchanan's biggest streak of luck comes from his encounter with the sheriff's henchman Pecos (L.Q. Jones), who just so happens to be a West Texan like Buchanan. The comradely feeling between the two men, the result of their shared homeland, winds up saving Buchanan from one of the many executions he faces in the film, and makes Pecos his ally for the duration. One of the film's funniest scenes is the impromptu funeral that the slow-witted, somewhat cowardly but earnest Pecos is inspired to hold for a slain former buddy. The two men even bungle the funeral, which takes place near a river: unable to dig a hole in the ground without it filling up with water, they're forced to tie the carcass up into a nearby tree so the animals don't get at it. Pecos' eulogy — which includes an acknowledgment that the dead man was a card cheat and a thief, but not so bad in other ways — is a hilarious speech, made even more so by the way that Boetticher works Buchanan into the frame, casting wry sidelong glances at his companion's unbelievable oration. Boetticher further accentuates the morbid comedy of it all by continually cutting away from Pecos' sincere, squint-eyed face to a deadpan shot of the corpse's feet sticking out of the tree above.
The film milks some further comedy out of the character of Amos, who is continually running around the town, clutching his chest as though perpetually on the brink of a heart attack, spreading gossip and generally reacting with bug-eyed disbelief to everything he encounters. It's a broad, frankly comedic performance, practically a slapstick turn in the midst of a film where most of the other actors, including Amos' two brothers, are playing things straight. Buchanan, Amos and Pecos are often comic figures, bringing a light touch to the material, while more straightforward (and humorless) Western archetypes are embodied in the form of the noble Mexican lad Juan and the town's morally ambiguous gunman Carbo (Craig Stevens). Carbo is an interesting character, an adviser to the corrupt judge who seems to have a slightly greater sense of ethics and honor than any of the town's other prominent citizens. He's dead-serious and tough, a typical Western antihero. In another film, he might be the hero, his struggles with his sense of morality and rightness the film's central dilemma; here, he's relegated to the fringes, pushed aside by Buchanan's bumbling adventures.
On the whole, Buchanan Rides Alone is another interesting Western from the Boetticher/Scott team, a study in tonal contrasts in which a serious and often bloody drama is played for laughs, defusing the sense of real danger in this story. Instead, the film is a fun, lightweight take on the Western genre, one whose irreverent tone is best represented by the moment when Scott, languidly lounging back in the midst of a tense saloon standoff, actually winks at one of his adversaries. Try to imagine Gary Cooper ever doing that, and then you'll know exactly how different this film is from the typical genre programmer.