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Figures in a landscape
Budd Boetticher’s American myths
Related Links

+ Harvard Film Archive's official Web site

+ Harvard Film Archive's site for "Ride Lonesome: The Films Of Budd Boetticher"

Budd Boetticher, the subject of a mini-retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive, is a unique figure in American film. A specialist in that most classical, most despised of Hollywood genres, the Western, he did his major work within a five-year period (1956-1960) that saw the peak of American commercial cinema and the beginning of its decline. In his films, the classicism of that era finds expression in conscious archaism (what Boetticher described as the "1920s" photographic style of The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, his best film), in explicit definitions of heroism and responsibility, and in the loving repetition of gestures, situations, and lines of dialogue.

It’s as if he wanted to encapsulate, in a series of small films that flew far beneath the radar of the serious cultural commentators of their day, all the potential of the Western as a tragic and elegiac discourse on the absurdity and brevity of life. This will to classicism shows that Boetticher perceived the genre was near its end. In his heightening of violence, his proud humor, his reluctant turn to television, and his self-imposed exile (to Mexico, to make the film he considered his masterpiece), he became the Hollywood director whose career most sharply anticipated and suffered from the fall of Hollywood.

That fall is itself a myth about America, of equal power to the myth of the West. "My name is John Ford, I make Westerns," the greatest American filmmaker said. It might be said of Boetticher that he made not Westerns but the Western. Maybe there was a historical moment when something like the Western could happen; and Boetticher, through an alignment of his sly sensibility with a great star (the monolithic Randolph Scott) and favorable production circumstances (with Scott’s own company, Ranown), found himself posed to define this moment. After Boetticher came the decline of the big-budget Western into rambling and joky tedium, the shunting off of the small-budget Western to TV, and the flourishing of the Italian Western with its stylized exoticism and gore.

Boetticher’s West is self-contained, abstract. The world amounts to a man, some other men, a woman, rocks, a few buildings, and an implied endlessness of neutral landscape lying all around. Boetticher revels in the fundamental sameness of his films. Comanche Station (1960; December 13 at 9:15 pm) ends with the hero in the same position as at the beginning. Nature is absent, or dead, like the hanging tree in Ride Lonesome (1959; December 6 at 9:15 pm) that is the central symbol in the Boetticher-Scott cycle. Renewal is moral and individual, not natural and universal.

Yet the landscape remains important. The abstraction that’s one of the foremost qualities of Boetticher’s work wouldn’t register as abstraction without the grounding of the concrete environment he depicts. An argument of this from the contrary can be found in the arid unreality of the soundstage-bound "Stopover," Boetticher’s 1961 episode for the TV series The Rifleman, a minor curiosity that Harvard is programming on a bill with the legendary, long-unavailable first entry in the Boetticher-Scott cycle, Seven Men from Now (1956; December 3 at 7 pm).

The sententiousness of the dialogue in the Boetticher-Scott films (Burt Kennedy wrote four of the major ones, Charles Lang the other two) is another mark of their classicism. They are films of moral purpose, in which the characters constantly propose rules for how people should be. The view of life these rules imply is simple. Seven Men from Now: "A man ought to be able to take care of his woman." The Tall T (1957; December 3 at 9 pm): "A man should have something of his own — something to belong to, to be proud of." Comanche Station: "A man shouldn’t be alone"; "A woman should cook good." The Scott character in The Tall T memorably declares, "Some things a man can’t ride around" — and the line will be repeated by the sympathetic villain (Pernell Roberts) in Ride Lonesome.

Boetticher’s characters constantly judge one another, and their view of someone who falls short of the male ideal is unforgiving. The worst sins are hypocrisy and indecisiveness. From these sins the major Boetticher villains are exempt. Their much-admired stature can be ascribed as much to their consistency as to their charm. Lee Marvin’s crooked adventurer in Seven Men from Now and Richard Boone’s gang leader in The Tall T are prime examples of Boetticher villains who judge themselves and others with eyes as clear as those of the filmmaker himself. The villain (Claude Akins) of Comanche Station even pronounces his own epitaph: "It’s a pure shame, ain’t it, how a man will push himself for money."

"Survival to most people means just staying alive," says the town boss (John Carroll) in the anti-revenge tragicomedy Decision at Sundown (1958; December 4 at 9 pm). "To me it means more than that." This is the credo of all Boetticher’s villains; it’s also that of Carlos Arruza, the Mexican bullfighter to whose exploits Boetticher dedicated seven years of his life, emerging with a film, Arruza (1969; December 2 at 7 pm), whose perhaps unintended message is that the hero’s quest for self-consistency leads only to the recurrence of the same. Yet as the choric doctor (John Archer) says in Decision at Sundown: "What man knows how a life should really be lived?" Boetticher insists, anyway, that life has meaning: in film after film — even in the most absurdist of them, the black comedy Buchanan Rides Alone (1958; December 5 at 9 pm) — people bury their dead and are appalled when that ceremony is breached.

Bruce Ricker’s 2005 documentary about the director (December 2 at 7 pm) takes as its title a line that’s spoken in both Seven Men from Now and Ride Lonesome: A Man Can Do That. For Boetticher, man is free. I apologize for the sexist generic term "man," but the fact is that in Boetticher’s world, man may be free, but woman is a prize to be admired or defended (Ride Lonesome), or a plaything (Legs Diamond), or a witness to her husband’s achievements (Arruza). Yet in all these male structures, the role of the woman is crucial. She comes from a higher world than the pitiless one in which the male protagonists struggle for money and kill one another. In Seven Men from Now, the heroine (Gail Russell) takes on a symbolic importance that’s all the greater for her irrelevance to the calculus of the plot. In Comanche Station, the scorn of the heroine (Nancy Gates) for the hero’s presumed money-grubbing motives is decisive; so is the surprise intervention by which, in Decision at Sundown, the villain’s mistress (Valerie French) keeps the climactic shootout from ending in death.

There are almost no close-ups in Boetticher; his is a cinema of relationships against landscapes. His art lies in creating a frame that holds his half-allegorical figures together and that clarifies their dual existence. The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station are ideal examples of movies whose conflicts and sentiments are expressed through the characters’ looks at one another and whose meanings are created by the director’s look, which takes in all the characters at once and gives them value and nobility.

Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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