Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ride Lonesome

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.


John said...

Nice review Ed. I love the Boetticher/Scott westerns in general and Ride Lonesome is one of their best. The 1950's was a classic period for westerns. Consider not just Boetticher but the Mann/Stewart westerns along with Ford's classic "The Searchers",Hawks "Rio Bravo" and Steven's "Shane."

Ed Howard said...

Agreed all the way, John, I love 50s Westerns. But I never thought that I'd ever find a body of work within the genre to rival the Mann/Stewart collaborations until I started watching the Ranown cycle: now I'd place these films (especially this one and The Tall T) on the same high tier.

Joel Bocko said...

Great movie, which I just saw for the first time a few weeks ago. It seems to both summarize and trascend the other Boetticher films (at least the ones I've seen) and feels like Boetticher's swan song.

Richard Bellamy said...

I just finished watching Ride Lonesome yesterday, and I really enjoyed it. I'm a big fan of The Naked Spur and the darker Westerns of the 50s. Because of your posts on Boetticher's five Westerns, I went out and bought the pack, and I'm going to enjoy watching them. (I may have seen some of them back in the 60s.)

Most of all, I like the visual aspects of Ride Lonesome. The opening shot is amazing. We see the rock jumbles of California's Alabama Hills with the Sierra Nevada and Mt. Whitney beyond - a vast panorama with those very distinctive rocks suggestive of such ruggedness and turmoil. Then, gradually, we see the approach of Brigade, growing from a tiny dot.

I love the simple mise en scène. You get a few characters and maybe part of a fence or tiny dwelling and they’re surrounded by that vast landscape, or a shot of two men riding out in the middle of nowhere. Each shot is dramatic – and perhaps the most dramatic is the shot of “Hang Tree” in the middle of a flat open space – later the burning tree in bold contrast. Each shot develops the harshness of the setting, which seems to reflect the harshness of the men’s motives. The scenes are all exteriors; there is no interior to provide any sort of refuge from man or nature.

Scott is certainly wooden in the delivery of his lines – that’s why I always loved John Wayne’s unique expressiveness over Scott’s acting – but he has great lines to deliver.

Ed Howard said...

I'm glad my posts inspired you to check out the Boetticher set, Hokahey. Boetticher's formal precision is nearly unrivaled among Western directors: he has a geometric sense of space and an intuitive eye for striking compositions that make use of the lines and curves of the natural world.

That hanging tree can also be glimpsed in the background of Comanche Station, though in that case the grassy field has been flooded and the tree's base is underwater, so I guess it was shot in a different season.

Richard Bellamy said...

"A geometic sense of space" - well said; that's what I was trying to say. Some of the shots are so perfect that they are thrilling - even if it's a shot of characters just talking.

In case you're interested, I posted a review of Garden of Evil.

Dave said...

I know that this review was posted months ago, but I just began following your blog recently (which is excellent, by the way) and wanted to comment on this film. I just watched it today for the first time and am in love with it. This was the second Boetticher film that I have seen -- the other being The Tall T -- and while I liked the first, I thought that this one was as good as nearly any western. It very much reminded me of some of the "psychological westerns" of Anthony Mann. I noticed that somebody else pointed out that Randolph Scott comes off as wooden at times, which I definitely agree with. That's the only real negative that I can find about the film. Visually, it's beautiful... that last shot of the hanging tree in flames is incredible. The supporting cast is outstanding as well.

I'm thinking that I'm going to need to pick up the Boetticher box set. I am a huge fan of the western genre, but Boetticher is a director that I have not explored all that much. If even one of his other films are as strong as Ride Lonesome, I'd be ecstatic.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment, goodfellah. I think the Boetticher box set is absolutely essential. My favorites from it are this one and The Tall T, but all the films are great. You'll also doubtless enjoy Comanche Station, which has a somewhat similar plot to this film but is probably the most visually striking film Boetticher made. The films in the box set provide a pretty good range of styles and moods -- you'll get to see him and Scott working in more of a light, comedic mode in Buchanan Rides Alone, for example -- and the box is a real treasure for Western fans.

Aaron said...

This response is extremely late, but I've been making my way through these films this past week and took a look at your reviews after I watched each film (I've yet to watch Comanche Station).
I must say I'm surprised to see Scott's acting consistently called "wooden." I know this is a common complaint, and I believe Scott even agreed with this assessment. But I must say that it's not something that ever would have occurred to me. His performances, for me, are one of the most compelling elements of these films. If I had to sum up his style in a word, it would probably be "elusive." He is extremely hard to pin down, and this is no doubt aided by the fact that he barely seems present in some of these films - the secondary characters often seem more central and I would guess that they often get more screen time (though maybe that's just the impression I come away with). But Scott's persona - whatever it is - casts a shadow over all these films. There is actually a wide range of personalities from Scott's characters on display throughout the cycle. Often he's goofy or folksy, good-natured, avuncular. Other times he's dour, grim, humorless. He's often witty, but other times he comes off as slow-witted. He can be tough or meek. Occasionally he seems to be the moral center of the film, and other times he's clearly misguided. In The Tall T, he seduces Maureen O' Sullivan (though she is supposed to be plain). But in Decision at Sundown, he is a cuckold, he plays one of the most emasculated "heroes" I've ever seen in a genre film. People seem to be regard his character with a mix of awe and pity. In Sundown (for me, the most fascinating of the series so far, if not the greatest), his partner Sam is highly devoted to him but at the same time is protective of him - did Sam sleep with Mary too? In Ride Lonesome, Carrie seems fascinated by him, but rides off with Boone. In other films, he seems oddly asexual. Throughout all these films, there's something remarkably consistent running through all these performances, but it's extremely hard to define. Unlike Wayne or James Stewart, who have finely tuned personas, Scott is harder to grasp. So I just wrote this response to come to his defense here...honestly, I don't find anything wooden about him.