The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Table of Contents March 2009 Return to Table of Contents
TV Series
Robert F. Liu, ASC
Isidore Mankofsky, ASC
DVD Playback
Budd Boetticher
Chungking Express
ASC Close-Up
The Films of Budd Boetticher (1957-1960)
1.85:1/2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Sony Home Entertainment, $59.95

Director Budd Boetticher had been toiling away as a reliable but anonymous Universal contract director when John Wayne offered him a Burt Kennedy-penned Western titled Seven Men From Now. Wayne’s other commitments kept him from starring in the film, so Boetticher cast Randolph Scott as a cowboy seeking vengeance for the death of his wife.

The terse, intelligent 1956 release was an artistic and commercial success, and thus began a remarkable partnership between Boetticher, Scott, and Scott’s producing partner, Harry Joe Brown. Together these men were responsible for five Western classics in four years: The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, films that have come to be known as the “Ranown” series. As if this were not enough, Scott and Boetticher collaborated on an additional movie during the same period, 1959’s Westbound, a minor achievement in their canon but a highly entertaining oater nevertheless.  
The run of seven distinguished Westerns directed by Boetticher in a period of five years is reminiscent of Preston Sturges’ output in the early 1940s, when he cranked out seven beloved comedies (including The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels) in a comparable amount of time. Like Sturges, Boetticher used the framework of a popular genre to express extremely personal ideas and to present a very specific view of human behavior— and, like Sturges, he was unable to sustain such an intense pace of creativity for very long. Even though Boetticher’s reputation rests largely on only a brief moment in his career, his influence is profound and enduring: Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Clint Eastwood are all vocal fans of his work, and filmmakers Paul Schrader and Taylor Hackford, among others, rank him alongside John Ford and Anthony Mann as a master of the Western genre.

Home-video releases of the Ranown films in their proper aspect ratios have long been a holy grail of Western devotees, and Sony’s new Boetticher boxed set provides excellent transfers of all five pictures (Paramount released Seven Men From Now a couple of years ago, leaving Westbound the only Boetticher-Scott movie unavailable on DVD). Viewed together, the films are remarkably similar in many ways: aside from Buchanan Rides Alone, they all revolve around a man with a haunted past who seeks vengeance, redemption or both and whose moral ambiguities make him a spiritual mirror of the villains in the stories. The movies are all rigorous moral examinations that ask questions about what revenge and violence do to a man and about how circumstances inspire some men to heroism and others to evil. Yet for all these weighty issues, the Ranown Westerns are also as out-and-out fun as movies get; the dialogue is consistently witty; the action, dynamic, and the plotting (in which the characters’ loyalties and motivations constantly shift), ingenious.

Perhaps the best of the movies in the new Boetticher box is Ride Lonesome (1959), one of three pictures in the collection photographed by Charles C. Lawton Jr., ASC, who also shot The Tall T and Comanche Station. As a contract cinematographer at Columbia, Lawton worked on other Scott-Brown Westerns prior to working with Boetticher (He also photographed Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai.), but for sheer compositional purity and expressiveness, it is hard to beat Ride Lonesome. The story follows Ben Brigade (Scott), a bounty hunter who captures a wanted murderer but takes his time getting the killer to his destination — he wants the criminal’s brother (Lee Van Cleef) to catch up with him so he can settle an old score. 

Ride Lonesome is the first of the Ranown Westerns to be shot in Cinemascope, and Boetticher and Lawton use the wider frame to expand upon visual ideas established in the earlier films. Theirs is not a cinema of lush, sweeping vistas; rather, it is of barren, jagged rock formations. There are no gardens in Boetticher’s West, just punishing landscapes in which men ride alone, cut off from society. By taking advantage of the increased negative space allowed by the ’scope aspect ratio, Boetticher and Lawton increase the sense of isolation that defines Scott’s characters throughout the series. They also allow the image to get very dark in some effectively executed, day-for-night scenes, which are perfectly preserved on the DVD; the shadow detail and contrast are excellent throughout the film, and the colors in the many daytime exteriors are vibrant as well.

The mono soundtrack is clear and flawless, as is the case on all five films, which have been lovingly restored and transferred.

Ride Lonesome contains an insightful commentary track by film historian Jeremy Arnold, who packs his narration with production history and background on Boetticher and the cast. The disc also includes a five-minute interview with Scorsese in which he discusses Ride Lonesome’s style and themes and acknowledges its influence on his own film The Departed. Scorsese provides a similar interview on the Tall T disc, and comments by other directors accompany each of the other titles, including Eastwood on Comanche Station and Hackford on Decision at Sundown (photographed by Burnett Guffey, ASC) and Buchanan Rides Alone (one of Boetticher’s six collaborations with Lucien Ballard, ASC). Hackford also contributes an affectionate and illuminating commentary track for Comanche Station, and film scholar Jeanine Basinger does the same on The Tall T.

The best supplement in the box is the 90-minute documentary A Man Can Do That, an exceptional overview of Boetticher’s life and career that is as amusing and moving as any of his films. Trailers for all five features round out this first release in the “Collector’s Choice” series, a partnership between Sony and Scorsese’s Film Foundation that, based on the evidence of this boxed set, holds great promise for classic-film buffs.

<< previous || next >>