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The Ranown Westerns 4K

by Glenn Erickson Aug 12, 2023

Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher.   “Pure western heaven” is the catchphrase for Budd Boetticher’s perfectly-scaled ruminations on ethics and actions in an imperfect wilderness. The five RANdolph-brOWN features here present Randolph Scott’s range rider as an icon of masculine nobility. The new 4K encodings transport home theaters to a lost era of horse-opera charm, with dramas that reward adult attention. And don’t forget, no cowboy star rides a horse better than Randy.


The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1186
1957-1960 / Color / 2:35 widescreen & 1:85 widescreen / 307 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 18, 2023 / 149.95
Starring: Randolph Scott
Leading Ladies: Maureen O’Sullivan, Karen Steele (2), Valerie French, Nancy Gates.
Noble Villains: Richard Boone, John Carroll, Craig Stevens, Pernell Roberts, Lee Van Cleef, Claude Akins.
Hopeful Sidekicks: James Best, James Coburn, Skip Homeier (2), Henry Silva, Noah Beery Jr., L.Q. Jones, Richard Rust.
Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr. (3), Burnett Guffey, Lucien Ballard
Screenplay by Burt Kennedy (3), Charles Lang Jr. (2),
Produced by Harry Joe Brown
Directed by
Budd Boetticher

An old-school athletic Man’s Man who earned a worthwhile film career with both talent and personality, Oscar ‘Budd’ Boetticher Jr. lived life as an adventure. Part of his youth was spent fighting bulls in Mexico, and he kept up his horse ranch way into retirement. Boetticher began as a spoiled rich kid, but one who found friends wherever he went. He was sent to Mexico and then Hollywood by a family trying to keep him out of trouble. Connections may have helped him leap from technical advisor to film director, but there’s no denying the quality of his work. His most personal masterpiece Bullfighter and the Lady is the most respectful Hollywood movie ever made about a Mexican pride and culture, through the tradition of the bullring. Boetticher proved himself the equal of any journeyman studio director in gritty films noir and classic gangster material; he even made a silk’s purse out of a sow ear in Universal-International’s least promising war movie.

Randolph Scott’s ‘noble’ screen persona persisted through other cowboy movie trends, even the psychological ‘adult’ westerns. In Mel Brooks’s vulgar comedy Blazing Saddles, a group of town-folk swoons at just the mention of his name:

“Oooh! Randolph Scott!”

But the a joke of respectful recognition: the western star was an unimpeachable hero to Mel Brooks, too.

Randolph Scott still rates a high level of respect. For this fan the magic clicked with a first viewing of Sam Peckinpah’s  film Ride the High Country. The single image of Scott riding on a Sierra lake shore is what did it: the horse is at full gallop, but Scott’s hat makes a clean line forward, as if riding on rails. That’s a western hero, alright.

 

Critical studies peg Boetticher’s relationship with producer Harry Joe Brown as the impetus for his emergence as a major director of westerns. This Criterion 4K Ultra HD / Blu-ray set carries the name The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher. To be more accurate, three are ‘Scott-Brown’ productions and the last two in CinemaScope were made under the ‘Ranown’ banner, combining the names of producer and star. They were not ‘major’ movies but dependable, respectable performers. Columbia invested in them because they were economical, easy to market and risk-free — Randolph Scott was a star any studio could take to the bank.

The Ranown pattern was actually set the year before at John Wayne’s Batjac company. In Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now with Randolph Scott, Gail Russell and Lee Marvin, the small-scale format is already in place, with the key collaborator being first-time screenwriter Burt Kennedy. The superior Seven Men from Now really belongs in the same group as the Columbia features. Unless one has access to an old DVD it’s not easy to see — all of the Batjac films are presently out of circulation, stuck in unrestored limbo. Never dismiss hard-media home video.

Burt Kennedy’s screenplay template is tailored for economy. The main ‘villain’ opposite Randolph Scott is often a standout opportunity for a lesser character actor. Instead of star power, they showcase expressive color cinematography in interesting locations by ace cameramen like Burnett Guffey and Lucien Ballard. But the real praise goes to the writing and direction. Kennedy’s format reexamines the standard ‘oater’ formula. Some of the bad guys are quite sympathetic and some of Scott’s ‘heroes’ are rather inflexible, even downright hostile. The West they occupy is a negotiable playing field: it isn’t all Black & White hats, and even the bad guy enjoys a winking sense of humor.

The Kennedy ‘villain’ tends to be talkative and likable; more often than not he hides a yearning for the same peace and security sought by the hero. The two men evaluate one another and debate their conflicting philosophies. Because Scott’s standard character is not easily provoked, the antagonist will try to shake things up by broaching sensitive topics with a third party, usually the woman of the piece. Critic Andrew Sarris called the movies ‘floating poker games’ in which the two male leads test one another for weaknesses. The one-on-one final confrontations are ‘improvised rituals’ that sometimes correlate with director Boetticher’s great love for bullfighting.

These are indeed formalistic westerns: everyone follows a personal code. The codes create an understanding between adversaries that doesn’t need to be explained. Scott, for instance, won’t shoot anyone in the back, no matter what. More than one villain rescues Scott’s character, against his larger aims, on a point of honor. Scott keeps his mouth shut even when a woman mistakenly impugns his motives. Action determines character, and Scott’s westerners remain true to their personal natures.

 


 

Although similar in form, each Ranown picture has its own special distinction. The original story for The Tall T is by the celebrated writer Elmore Leonard. The show plays with an almost comedic tone before being upset by a brutal standoff; we wonder if the early reels in which Pat Brennan (Scott) tries and fails to win a bull were an add-on. Along with the honeymooning Mimses (Maureen O’Sullivan and John Hubbard) Brennan finds himself held prisoner by road agent Usher (Richard Boone) and his young killers Henry Silva and Skip Homeier.

The trio of villains is outstanding, with the great actor Boone playing off the sinister Silva and crude Homeier. As adapted by Burt Kennedy, Elmore Leonard’s moral tangle comes to the fore when the new husband turns out to be more than willing to desert his wife. Pat Brennan is forced into some brutal decisions of his own — to defeat the outlaws he needs Doretta Mims’ cooperation. The murder of innocents makes for a grim change of tone, and a shotgun killing is particularly intense.

 


 

For Decision at Sundown the Ranown Cycle breaks with Randolph Scott’s standard characterization. Accompanied by his easygoing pal Sam (Noah Beery Jr.), the vengeful Bart Allison (Scott) comes to town to kill the rich Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), who Bart holds responsible for the death of his wife. It’s Kimbrough’s wedding day, and Allison coldly informs the bride Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele) that she’ll be a widow by sunset. The ensuing standoff in the streets becomes more complicated when Kimbrough’s mistress Ruby James (Valerie French) becomes involved.

As written by ex-actor Charles Lang (Boetticher’s The Magnificent Matador), Decision has a decidedly more sober tone. In this one Scott is not only a murderous threat, he’s entirely wrong. In fact, one can easily imagine the same story with the Bart Allison character played as a stock villain. Of the six features, Decision has the most town interiors. Boetticher’s blocking of groups of men in bar rooms, etc., is just as adept as his work out in barren locations like Lone Pine. The leather jacket Scott wears in this film is either the same one he uses in Ride the High Country, or a close copy.

 


 

The amusing Buchanan Rides Alone plays with a sly sense of humor. It was filmed in the same Arizona ‘movie town’ featured in many westerns, notably Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Much like Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars, loner Buchanan arrives in corrupt Agry Town and finds himself arrested as part of a land/politics dispute. The promise of a ransom for another prisoner, young Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas) is enough to pit members of the Agry family against each another. Deputy Pecos (L.Q. Jones) switches loyalties to help Buchanan and Juan, setting the stage for a cross-border skirmish. Standing off to one side of the slaughter is Agry’s hired gunfighter Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens), an equally cool customer who takes an immediate liking to Buchanan. Other able Agry villains are assayed by Peter Whitney, Tol Avery and Barry Kelley.

Randolph Scott wears a curious too-small hat in this one, perhaps to fit with his essentially humorous character. Although some killings occur, it’s the lightest entry in the series. Writer Charles Lang this time toys with an almost tongue-in-cheek tone; everybody seems to be having a good time, even the flustered bad guys. Craig Stevens’ cool gunman amuses by simply staying away from foolish confrontations.

The film begins with a fine off-color joke: Buchanan calls Agry Town a place where everything seems to cost $10, and then does a double-take at a bar girl.

 


 

Boetticher graduates to CinemaScope in Ride Lonesome, with writer Burt Kennedy back to perfect his ‘Ranown’ formula. This time Scott is Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter with a private personal agenda. Brigade captures wanted outlaw Billy John (James Best), and proceeds to take him back to justice through dangerous Indian land. Captor and prisoner become fellow-travelers with the newly- widowed Carrie (Karen Steele) and a pair of less-threatening outlaws, Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and his sidekick Wid (James Coburn, in his first feature film appearance).

The territory wants Billy John so badly, an offer of amnesty has been issued for whoever brings him in. Weary of his life as a fugitive, Boone very badly wants to use Billy to clear his record. Brigade refuses to cooperate, or to hurry the desert trek. In fact, he wants Billy’s very dangerous outlaw brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) to catch up with them. The threat of Indian attacks ups the tension both within and without.

Ride Lonesome is perhaps the most compact and formally perfect film in the series. The scenery and action are spare; Boetticher reserves his strongest composition for the stark hanging tree waiting at the end of the trail. The visual acuity avoids complications, with only the periodic wild Indian attacks a concession to oater conventions. The finale springs an an extremely satisfying character/plot twist. If Randolph Scott was already thinking of hanging up his spurs, Kennedy’s near-perfect screenplay could have persuaded him to sign on.

 


 

Randolph Scott’s last twenty movies had been westerns, a number that goes up to 34 if one skips a single cameo appearance in a musical. His final Ranown picture Comanche Station was to be his last movie, until Ride the High Country enticed him to come out for one last fling. Commanche Station is so similar to Ride Lonesome in setting and basic action pattern (a desert trek) that they don’t make good co-features. We once theorized that they had been filmed back-to-back, but author Jeremy Arnold’s research found that they weren’t.

After his somewhat meditative Ride Lonesome, Burt Kennedy’s work here is downright wistful. Like a ghost of the desert, Jefferson Cody (Scott) has searched ten years for his wife kidnapped by the Indians. He ransoms a white woman sight unseen, and is at first disappointed: she’s Mrs. Lowe (Nancy Gates), a captive only recently gone missing. They are joined by outlaw Ben Lane (Claude Akins) and his sidekicks (Richard Rust and Skip Homeier). Lane talks a good line but is fundamentally a killer. Itching to reap the reward for Mrs. Lowe’s return, Lane is soon goading Cody about the unavoidability of a showdown.

The treatment of Scott’s bounty hunter can be fairly described as poignant. When Mrs. Lowe wrongly presumes a mercenary motive for Cody’s rescue mission, he stays quiet, without defending himself. But both Cody and Lane wonder what kind of unworthy husband would not make a personal rescue effort for such an attractive wife. Cody is weary of his years on the trail. We can see that he wishes that Mrs. Lowe might end his own loneliness, but he doesn’t let on.

For a movie about a desert trek, Comanche Station seems to end in the same place that it started, among the rocks of Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills. Even more oddly, the hanging tree seen in Ride Lonesome returns for one shot, in the middle of a flooded area. As the Ranown pictures do not maintain a continuity in character or story, the tree feels like a mistake. It is more likely just a reminder of how home video has changed the way we see old movies. They couldn’t normally be studied and re-viewed to make such close comparisons.

 


 

Although these are conventional films and Scott’s characters are conventionally chivalrous, the series does advance a few surprising insights about how men relate to women. In The Tall T Brennan forcibly kisses the terrorized Doretta Mims, but only to make her stand up and fight for herself. Bart Allison in Decision at Sundown is in denial about his wife’s true nature, and learns his lesson by witnessing another woman’s commitment to her man. Brigade in Ride Lonesome shows tenderness to Carrie but is too consumed by vengeance to respond to her overtures.

Several Boetticher films carry a sub-theme about falsely judging other people. Jefferson Cody of Comanche Station is obsessed over his lost wife, and too quick to underestimate the husband of Mrs. Lowe, the woman he rescues from captivity. But Mrs. Lowe guards her privacy, much the same as does Cody. The truth of relationships can only be determined when action decisions need to be made.

Other story aspects aren’t nearly as progressive. The Ranown films show respect for the Native American Indians, yet they’re mostly used as a generic threat to provide commercially-mandated action. The fairly ridiculous Indians of Comanche Station wear loincloths in the scorching desert and are outfitted in obvious rubber skullcaps with Eastern-style Mohawk hairstyles.

Much more respect is shown the Mexican characters in Buchanan Rides Alone, whose sense of decency and honor is alien to the Anglo residents of Agry Town. The sight of the rational, principled Mexicans watching the greedy Gringos blow each other’s brains out is a pretty accurate image of the America as seen by foreigners. That might be expected from the director of Bullfighter and the Lady is the most insightful movie ever about a ‘gringo’ in Mexico.

Moral values are upheld even when Randolph Scott’s characters fall short of the mark. The hero and villain are certainly compared, but they are not the ‘binary opposites’ seen in some of the films of Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah. They don’t combine to form a complete personality, as might the main characters of Ride the High Country or Bend of the River. The villain invariably recognizes the superior moral position of the Scott character, and tries to charm his way into Scott’s good graces — if only to make killing him easier.

All of the films are solid, satisfying western adventures. Randolph Scott is 63 in Comanche Station. Scott’s years as a youthful leading man were long gone, and his noble profile had become a chiseled sculpture, but his graceful presence remained a pleasure to watch. And of course, nobody rides a horse like Randolph Scott. If you happen to be a fan of Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country you’ll love these pictures. Peckinpah and his producer Richard E. Lyons weren’t exploiting Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, but celebrating their grand western careers.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray set of The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher is good news for discerning fans of Hollywood Oaters: the shows have all been remastered and digitally finessed in 4K by Sony Pictures Entertainment. The set is presented in handsome packaging, three 4K UHD discs with Dolby Vision HDR, and three Blu-rays containing the films and Criterion’s special features.

As all the encodings look terrific in 4K. These ‘big sky’ westerns really make fancy home video setups shine. Some online reports have criticized the color choices and even mentioned the grain. 4K of course shows everything, but in our estimation these are all great improvements on the 2K Sony transfers seen on earlier import discs. These pictures are all over sixty years old, and earlier masters were all over the place for grain and density. My notes say that The Tall T had been given one of those colorization passes that leaned toward teal green, even in the color of a horse’s tail.

The 4K scan and colorization job straightens most everything out. We don’t see ‘too much yellow’ in skin tones, and the grain is well under control. The previously rough transitions between optical material (shots associated with fades, dissolves and titles) are now much smoother.

We also wonder if our information is correct about the introduction of improved Eastman film stocks in the late 1950 — the two latter CinemaScope pictures have an even finer granularity, with Comanche Station the best of all. The presentation never looked better, even after seeing two of the shows in 35mm back at the American Cinematheque around 1997 . . . with Nancy Gates in attendance. She still looked terrific, too.

Most of the extras are on the final Blu-ray disc. The commentaries and some of the documentaries were also on Powerhouse Indicator’s disc set. We remember the Jeremy Arnold commentary on Ride Lonesome being especially good. Jeremy shared several long conversations with Boetticher and refrains from making generalizations about the director’s career. This is a good place to learn about Boetticher in depth, especially how he spent most of the 1960s struggling with his documentary Arruza. One interview session moderated by my old film school professor Jim Kitses    was recorded when Boetticher had finished his largely undistributed feature A Time for Dying. He had just screened the first reel with a temp track.

Best of all is a lengthy docu-featurette originally done by Eckhardt Schmidt in 1999, and given a later re-edit by Robert Fischer of Fiction Factory. We see the director at his ranch training one of his horses in a ‘toreador style’ clearly learned in Mexico. Boetticher offers candid assessments of his own career and others’ as well. He admits that he was a rich kid who ran away to Mexico and talked his way into training for the bullring. He also admits that his socialite mother wangled him a studio job to get him to stay home, and that he got the nod to direct because Harry Cohn was short of manpower and thought Budd had it in him. He also says that he no longer romanticizes Mexico. Among the other trials and travails of trying to make Arruza, a powerful Mexican film honcho decided that Budd should sign over part ownership of the project. The connected producer had Boetticher thrown into solitary confinement for more than a week to persuade him. In his cell Budd thought, ‘What would Randy Scott do in this situation?’

Boetticher also gives a complete rundown on his friend and star Randolph Scott. The actor came to Hollywood already a millionaire from a marriage settlement, and proceeded to multiply his fortune while acting for his own pleasure. Boetticher describes Scott as incredibly likable, a swell guy without boundaries, and we believe him.

As icing on the cake, Criterion’s package design artwork by F. Ron Miller is exemplary — what western hero ever looked better in stills than Randolph Scott?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Introductions by Martin Scorsese and Taylor Hackford
New program by Farran Smith Nehme on Randolph Scott
Three audio commentaries:
Introductions by Martin Scorsese and Taylor Hackford
New program by Farran Smith Nehme on Randolph Scott
Three audio commentaries:
Jeanine Basinger on The Tall T
Jeremy Arnold on Ride Lonesome
Taylor Hackford on Comanche Station
A Man Can Do That,  Visiting Budd Boetticher,  A Study in Self-Determination and Boetticher Rides Again: Archival interview documentaries with footage of director Budd Boetticher
Audio conversation between Boetticher and Jim Kitses
Super 8 home-movie version of Comanche Station
Trailers
34-page insert booklet with writing by Tom Gunning and Glenn Kenny.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: 3 4K Ultra HD discs + 3 Blu-ray discs card and plastic holder in card box
Reviewed: August 10, 2023
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Dick Dinman

Well done, Glenn! Tomorrow (8/13/23) I record my Ranown tribute show
with Jeremy Arnold as guest.

cadavra

Couple of corrections: RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY was certainly not Peckinpah’s final film. (Ironically, Budd was going to do it after completing ARRUZA, never realizing how long it would take.)

More importantly, BUCHANAN was written by Kennedy, not Lang. Budd found the latter’s work unusable, so he asked Burt to do a total rewrite. I always suspected as such–lines like “Don’t just stand there, go get a shovel!” absolutely sound like Kennedy–and both men separately confirmed this to me. The reason Lang retained screen credit is because his wife was gravely ill at the time and he really needed the money, so Kennedy generously granted him sole credit. (This was not unusual; he also gave writing credit on SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER to James Edward Grant, who’d died years earlier and left his widow with a crapload of unpaid bills.)

Jose Ortiz-Marrero

The great Michael Schlesinger!

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[…] western’ Ride the High Country brought together the screen legends of Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. In a curious bit of career serendipity, Sam Peckinpah plays a small role in this […]

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[…] Wayne is years late in getting into the revisionist vein of ’50s and ’60s picturs by Budd Boetticher,  Anthony Mann and  Robert Parrish. The latecomer The Shootist doesn’t wait 5 minutes […]

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