Saturday, February 21, 2009
The penultimate film in Budd Boetticher's Ranown cycle of Westerns starring Randolph Scott is the masterful Ride Lonesome, one of the director's finest films. As the title suggests, Scott's Ben Brigade is certainly a loner, a bounty hunter on the track of cowardly killer Billy John (James Best), but throughout most of this film Brigade does not, in fact, ride alone. After catching up with Billy, who's wanted for shooting a man in the back — his jittery insistence that it was "a fair fight" seems pretty hilarious in light of the facts — Brigade soon enough finds himself tangled up in all sorts of problems beyond just getting Billy back to Santa Cruz to stand trial and, most likely, be hanged. Not only is Billy's vicious brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) hot on Brigade's trail, but the bounty hunter runs into the stirrings of an Indian war that threatens to erupt at any minute. He finds the lovely Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) holed up at a waystation where she's waiting for her husband to return from gathering some lost horses. In her husband's absence, she's unwillingly acquired the company of Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn), two thugs and bandits whose bad reputation Brigade knows well. When it turns out that Carrie's husband has been killed by the Indians, who are now preparing to attack, the whole group throws in together, heading towards Santa Cruz with Frank and the Indians in pursuit.
This plot is basically a compendium of all sorts of Western standards shuffled together: the Indian attacks, the outlaws chasing the good guys towards a final showdown, the frontier woman who needs to be protected (though Carrie is, as usual for Boetticher, pretty tough in her own right). The film also borrows some of the basic scenario from Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur: like James Stewart in that film, Brigade is a somewhat unwilling bounty hunter, not the kind of man you would normally expect to be tracking other men for money. It's always obvious that not everything is as it seems here, that Brigade has some ulterior motive for what he's doing. This film also shares with Mann's film the tension of three men all vying for the same bounty, with their prisoner trying to play them against one another. Boone and Whit want to bring Billy in because there's an offer that anyone who delivers the outlaw will get their own crimes erased by amnesty — this is particularly appealing to Boone, who desperately wants to go straight, to be able to sleep without fear and set up a ranch of his own, that most common of Western goals. To achieve this, he's willing to endure this one last run, and even a possible face-off with Brigade, with whom he shares a good-natured, friendly rivalry.
As usual, Boetticher is remarkably even-handed in dealing with these characters, investing all three of the rival bounty hunters with well-developed personalities, never allowing Boone and Whit to become the villains of the piece despite their designs against Brigade. To some extent, this is because Van Cleef's Frank, who's barely present in the film, is established as such a horrifying villain entirely through exposition. Brigade describes a long-ago act of outrageous nastiness that only seems worse when Frank casually admits that he barely remembers doing it; he's such a thoroughly evil guy that even the worst crimes imaginable don't seem to make much of an impression on him. In comparison, Boone is simply a guy who's made some mistakes and wants his chance at redemption, while Whit is the folksy comic relief — who even gets a wonderful scene where he's genuinely surprised by his partner's generosity and friendship, shocked that he's viewed as more than just the goofy sidekick. This generosity is as much Boetticher's as Boone's: the director seldom views bit players and stock types as extraneous.
The recycled nature of Ride Lonesome's plot ensures that Brigade and his companions progress through a relatively predictable sequence of scenes familiar from countless other Westerns. The Indian attack sequence, in particular, feels like it could fit neatly in virtually any Technicolor Western of the period, with the heroes crouching down behind a low stone wall, the Indians charging around in circles along the perimeter like targets in a shooting gallery, waiting to be picked off. Boetticher dutifully hits notes like this, but he seems far more interested in the overall journey these characters are taking — and the final destination where all expectations are brilliantly upturned — rather than the stops along the way. Boetticher's Westerns are almost always formalist takes on the genre, whether in the taut suspense of The Tall T or the claustrophobic chamber set pieces of Decision at Sundown. Here, Boetticher is working in the wide open spaces of the West, resulting in some of his most stunning images. Much of the film takes place in long shots of flat vistas, where groups of horse riders are just black dots in the white sand, kicking up clouds of dust in their wake. Unlike, say, John Ford, who often used geography loosely and expressively, for its visual qualities rather than to convey a specific location, Boetticher's sense of space is precise. He uses landmarks and recurring scenery to indicate the progress of Frank's pursuing party, who pass through the same ground, framed from the same angles, as Brigade and his group. This gives the latter half of the film a rhythmic quality in its pacing, as scenes are repeated with different characters in the shot.
It all leads inexorably towards a stunning denouement, staged beneath the foreboding "hanging tree," a misshapen and sinister-looking cross that is a focal point for the bad blood between Frank and Brigade. Boetticher expertly builds tension leading up to the final scenes, with striking overhead shots where the characters are framed between the crooked limbs of the hanging tree. But Boetticher then defuses the tension twice over: the showdown with the dreaded Frank, who has been mostly built up while offscreen, is fast and economical, while the expected confrontation between Boone and Brigade never even comes. Instead, the film slows down for a finale centered more on the emotional conclusions of the character arcs (Brigade's thirst for revenge, Boone's desire for redemption, Carrie's quiet grief) rather than on action and violence. This unexpectedly moving ending is the payoff to Boetticher's attentive handling of character and location. Rather than delivering the fast and furious gunplay he seemed to be building towards, Boetticher makes the finale definitively about the characters, about their pain and desires and ambiguous plans for the future. Conflicting, complex emotions waft through the final scenes like the black smoke of the burning hanging tree, signaling the close of a circle of violence and the possibility of new, more hopeful paths branching off.