Friday, March 6, 2009

Comanche Station

The final film of Budd Boetticher's acclaimed Ranown cycle — the seven Westerns he made with actor Randolph Scott — is Comanche Station, a typically solid, straightforward venture that recycles and shuffles around plot elements from the series' previous film, Ride Lonesome. In both films, Scott plays a man who's initially mistaken for a bounty hunter of sorts, riding the territory trying to strike it rich by trading in people, but who is actually on a private mission of his own. In the aftermath of an Indian attack, he falls in with a pretty woman and a group of no-good outlaws who want to relieve him of his bounty and his life. The two films share these basic elements, though the later film casts them in a new light. In Comanche Station, Scott's Jefferson Cody isn't bringing in a murderer to be hanged, but rescuing Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates) from the Comanche tribe who kidnapped her. Mrs. Lowe's husband had announced a $5000 reward for any man who brought her back to him, and naturally this attracts the attention of the rough outlaw Ben (Claude Akins) and his two younger partners, Frank (Richard Rust) and Dobie (Skip Homeier). Cody, of course, wasn't in it for the money; he'd lost his wife to the Indians ten years before, and had been looking for her ever since, going after any women he heard about in the increasingly slender hope of someday finding his own missing wife.

When attacking Indians throw Cody and Mrs. Lowe in with the three outlaws, the trip back to her hometown becomes a tense journey through some of the most astoundingly beautiful vistas to be featured in any of Boetticher's films. With the threat of Indians signaled in the hills by their pillars of black smoke and bird calls in the surrounding woods, Cody finds himself trapped between the Indians and the potential treachery of his riding partners. It hardly helps that he served as Ben's commanding officer in the army, and presided over the other man's dishonorable discharge. There's a lot of bad blood in their past, though Ben seems to foster a grudging respect for the honorable, straight-talking Cody — just not enough respect to dissuade him from taking a shot at that $5000.

Despite the high stakes, the film has a meandering, lazy feel completely at odds with the dramatic tension at its core. Perhaps Boetticher's defining characteristic as a director of Westerns is his recognition that plot is one of the least important aspects of these kinds of films. He often seems indifferent to concerns like pacing or narrative details or dramatic content, as epitomized by the way this film casually riffs on the plot of Ride Lonesome, essentially retelling the story with slightly different motivations driving the characters. His sense of pacing is deliberate and calm, following up a frenzied Indian attack with a long sequence of dialogue-free shots in which the group's train of horses winds across various Western landscapes. All of Boetticher's films have room for such moments, time to stop and appreciate the pictorial beauty of the surroundings, but this film in particular is as much a celebration of the land where it was made as it is an action story. Boetticher bookends the film with shots of the same rocky, barren terrain, like a strangely beautiful alien landscape, boulders piled high on top of one another. And his camera frequently sweeps across the widescreen vistas his characters are riding through; his takes are often extended enough to follow Cody and his group across a very large patch of land, slowly panning along with the trotting horses.

Boetticher also frequently slows the narrative down in order to allow for moments of unexpected humor, puncturing the deadly seriousness of so many other Hollywood Westerns. Frank and Dobie certainly fulfill the role of comic relief, particularly in the scene where Dobie impresses his friend by proving that he can read — not "books or newspapers," but simple signs at least. Later, after a long and heartfelt conversation in which Dobie describes his father's longstanding advice that a man has to "amount to something," Dobie concludes by lamenting, "it's a shame: he never did amount to anything." This dim-witted pair is comical but also kind of sad, in that they're obviously with the ruthless Ben only because they have no other real options, no chance to make anything of themselves unless they're holding a gun. Boetticher's comedy is never mean-spirited, never aimed at completely ridiculing or cutting down its target; there is always complexity and depth even to Boetticher's comic foils.

He even directs his wit at Scott himself, in a scene where Cody, after being wounded in an attack, is treated by Mrs. Lowe. She pours some harsh liquor on his leg, warning him ahead of time that it's going to hurt, but instead of taking it with the expected stoicism and steely reserve, perhaps emitting a quick rush of breath, Cody whoops and throws his hands in the air, exclaiming in pain and then jumping around on his one good leg for a while, shaking the wounded one around to soothe it. It's a startling moment because it cuts so directly against the archetype of the tough, squint-eyed Western hero. Under Boetticher's direction, Scott's hero can be funny, flawed, even silly, can feel pain: he's no stoic superman with a gunbelt, and all of Boetticher's films with the actor feature at least one moment like this. Boetticher loves Western tropes, and films like this revel in the typical lore of the West, but he loves undermining and tweaking these archetypal elements just as much. It's this sensibility, this love of the Western coupled with the desire to open up the genre, to explore its more unusual facets, that makes Comanche Station, like all of Boetticher's Westerns, such a fascinating exemplar of the genre.


Richard Bellamy said...

I know I've seen most of these Boetticher/Scott films back in the 60s - some on TV and some at the Saturday matinee at the local theater - but it's been a while. I was debating whether or not to buy the recent Bud Beotticher DVD collection, but now the image you posted above of that widescreen Western landscape has tipped the balance and I'm going to get it, watch the movies, and post some comments. I especially want to see Ride Lonesome.

A big fan of Westerns, I recently bought a three-movie collection: The Western Classics, containing The Gunfighter, Rawhide, and Garden of Evil - the latter being an obscure favorite of mine - with Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark, a great Bernard Herrmann score, and incredible Mexican landscapes. Have you seen it?

Ed Howard said...

I definitely wouldn't debate it: the Boetticher/Scott films are amazing and hold up as some of the best 50s Westerns. Ride Lonesome and The Tall T are especially good, but all of them are worthwhile.

I have not seen Garden of Evil, but I have a real love for The Gunfighter, one of my favorite minimalist Westerns. It's kind of like High Noon with a "bad guy" in the central role rather than a lawman, building tension over its length as Gregory Peck desperately tries to escape the consequences of his rep as a fast gun who everyone wants a shot at.

Richard Bellamy said...

Yeah, when I got the Fox Western Classics pack, I found myself enjoying The Gunfigher much more than I originally had. It's a very tight screenplay, and it builds tension in the same way High Noon does with the looming deadline. Yes, it's an excellent "minimalist" Western - also, a fine Gregory Peck performance.

I am finishing up a review of Garden of Evil and I will post it soon.

Richard Bellamy said...

Just finished watching Comanche Station and I have to say I like it better than Ride Lonesome. Yes, the pace is leisurely at times, but I was more taken in by the tension: the pursuing Indians; Ben's greed; Dobie's dilemma - and then the surprise ending involving Mr. Lowe.

I love the opening scenes - a couple of words of English dialogue - the mystery of what Cody is doing out in Comanche territory - and then Mrs. Lowe is thrown out on the trade goods. A wonderful opening sequence.

At Comanche Station - there's that stunning shot of Ben and his buddies being pursued - the long shot of them on the dusty ridge in the middle of the frame with the Sierra Nevada beyond the dust. It's a shot that rivals John Ford.

Again - I like the dialogue. As you pointed out, it's a nice exchange between Dobie and Frank about reading - and it works nicely as a sort of period element - how Dobie reads 'signs and wrappers and such."

I liked Cody better as a character here - and Scott's acting seems less wooden. Love it when he hands Mrs. Lowe the jacket: "Better slip into this - couple more miles, you'll be plum outta that."

Also, Mrs. Lowe has more character, I think, than Carrie Lane in Ride Lonesome.

Once again, there are no interiors in this film - all exteriors - a little more variety in the terrain here; and, at the end, I love how Cody leads his pack mule back over the ridge he crosses in the opening shot.

I really enjoyed this Western.

Ed Howard said...

Glad you liked it! So did I. Not quite as good as Ride Lonesome or The Tall T, but all of these Boetticher/Scott films are so good that it's pretty easy to see why different people would have different favorites. I've never really minded Scott's acting though. He's no more wooden than a lot of other stoic Western heroes, and I appreciate the easygoing humor he projects in a lot of these Boetticher films. And in these films he gets some great lines, like that one about Mrs. Lowe's shirt.

I was surprised by the ending just because so many of these Boetticher films are about contrasting the casual heroism of the Scott character against a more craven man who doesn't deserve his woman. This was a nice twist on that trope.

Richard Bellamy said...

I will watch The Tall T next.

A few last comments about Comanche Station: I did notice the hanging tree from Ride Lonesome. Also, I like how the stories take place in a sort of Otherworldly Western setting; places like Lordsburg are mentioned - but this could be taking place anywhere in the West. Towns are mentioned but never reached; characters and conflicts are always isolated in the open landscape. Of course, not including a town cuts down on budget - but it adds to the feeling of isolation.