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Ride Lonesome

Santos Zunzunegui

Tabakalera | Cinema - Screen 1

04/07/2020 - 19:00

  • Conference
  • Screening

Participants:

Santos Zunzunegui

Languages:

Spanish

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3,5 €

July 4th, saturday

19:00 Recorded conference: Santos Zunzunegui

20:00 Ride Lonesome [1] (Budd Boetticher, EE.UU., 1959, 73 min.)

There is no surer way to understand the great westerns of Budd Boetticher and their place in one of the genres considered native to the USA [2] by scholars of American cinema than by following the general lines drawn out by André Bazin in his work on the western. Three admirable texts written in the period of just four years set the pattern of approach: first applying a historical view to the genre's evolution (in two of the texts), only to later scan the horizon with an eagle eye and swoop down to precise considerations about a specific film by Oscar Boetticher Jr., better known in the film industry by his war name, Budd Boetticher [3].

Let us, then, follow the breadcrumbs that Bazin left for us as clues: The western is the only genre whose origins blur with those of the cinema and which has never lost its vitality (Bazin wrote this in the middle of the twentieth century... are things different today?), and it is a genre which has resisted all more or less fleeting pollution (Bazin did not live to see the turbulent sixties and seventies and their deconstructive nature) that may have come its way, and a genre which, similarly, has not aged. Perhaps, the maestro says, because its secret (if it can really be considered a secret) identifies itself in some way with the very essence of the cinema. An essence that is none other than movement, and whose formal attributes are signs of a profound reality that is none other than that of the myth. A myth which, like all its variants, is built on the epic idealisation of the story, with which it maintains and underscores relationships that are not immediate and direct but instead dialectical [4]. That's why it wouldn't be right, argues the critic, to take lightly what is known as the "Cornelian simplicity" of the scripts of westerns -- a simplicity of which the scripts taken to the screen by Budd Boetticher will offer us aa series of excellent examples.

Delving deeper afterwards in the historical arena, Bazin argues that the western had reached, at the end of the 1930s, a maturity that was well exemplified in that singular film known as Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), combining a perfect balance of “social myths, historical evolution, psychological truth, and the traditional themes of the genre ” [5]. That classic formula was to be modified, after the Second World War, by what Bazin was to call superwesterns: westerns that would be ashamed to be just themselves and look for some additional interest to justify their existence (this interest can be aesthetic, sociological, erotic, political, etc.). One of the examples proposed by Bazin allows one to see clearly where this new type of western was going: it is the film directed by George Stevens entitled Shane (1953) in which “implicit myths are exchanged for well explained theses,” giving what he terms as “the annoying signification of the symbol” the opportunity to reign.

The following thesis by Bazin deserves thought: these superwesterns have hardly scratched the outer surface of the genre productions, of A films, and super productions. Down further in the system's layers (See B films), the western continues to cast deep roots. A quick review of the productions by Raoul Walsh, John Ford, King Vidor, or even Howard Hawks, would allow one at that time to hold out hope for the future of a genre in which the arrival of new names like Anthony Mann (or Boetticher; but we'll hold off yet on his entry into the arena) allow it to be seen how it is possible to be aware that a western is being made without that implying a fall into preciousness or paternalistic cynicism (and here Bazin will use nothing less than the positive example of Johnny Guitar directed by Nicholas Ray), while a new Western gets off the ground that he calls "novelistic" and that does not depart from the "frankness of attitude towards the genre" or "effortless sincerity," or, of course, from "appealing characters and captivating situations.”

The journey over the pages written by Bazin finishes with our guide's encounter with one of Boetticher's masterpieces, which acts as a good transition to the group of films that I will discuss shortly: the film entitled Seven Men from Now and made in 1956 for the John Wayne Batjac Production Company, distributed by Warner Bros. Two presences are important to remember here, along with that of Boetticher: that of the male protagonist, Randolph Scott, and that of the screenwriter, Burt Kennedy. Bazin is categorical: “the best western that I've seen after the war (…), an exemplary achievement for the contemporary western (…), the most intelligent western that I know of, but also the least intellectual, the most refined, and the lest aesthetic – the simplest and the most beautiful at the same time.”

But, who is Budd Boetticher (1916-2001)? Born in Chicago to a wealthy family, he studied at Culver Academy and Ohio State University, where he participated in different sports. From the point of view that interests us, the first important date in his biography was in 1939, the year of his first decisive encounter with Mexico and with the art of bullfighting – an art which was to become, from that time onwards, one of his life passions. The young American attended a bullfight featuring Lorenzo Garza —a great Mexican bullfighter from whom he is said to have taken lessons without real bulls, intending to one day pass to the bull ring— before he ended up returning to his country after the end of the bullfighting season to work at Hal Roach Studios, his first contact with the film world. In his interviews, he boasts of having been the adviser for the bullfighting scenes of Blood and Sand (1941), the version that Rouben Mamoulian did for Fox of the Blasco Ibañez novel, in addition to having personally staged the dance sequence between Rita Hayworth and Anthony Quinn. After going to work for Columbia Pictures in 1944, he shot his first films as a director, as well as some pieces for small independent production companies like Eagle Lion, P.R.C., and Monogram (the company to which Godard would dedicate his À bout de souffle). The next turning point in his life was 1951, when he made his first film with the name that would, from them on, become his battle name: Budd Boetticher. The Bullfighter and the Lady, produced by John Wayne for Republic Pictures and featuring Robert Stack as protagonist and James Edward Grant as screenwriter, was a fictional reconstruction of his early bullfighting adventures in Mexico. The film would receive a much needed boost from John Ford, who stated that it was a piece that “was not good, it was great” and subsequently took on the editing thereof after a call for help from the young Boetticher to get Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic Pictures, to unblock the piece.

In the early 1950s, Boetticher was to sign a contract with Universal Pictures to shoot nine films in two years, including his first westerns. Also during that decade, he shot another film set in the bullfighting world (The Magnificent Matador, 1955, starring Anthony Quinn and Maureen O’Hara). Then, in 1957, his encounter with the producer Harry Joe Brown [6] and the veteran actor Randolph Scott (with whom he had shot, just a year earlier, the western that put him in Bazin's sights) would give rise to the so-called “Ranown cycle” (1957-1959), which is at the core of Boetticher's art and represents his undeniable contribution to the western as a genre. From 1960 to 1968, Boetticher embarked upon a fascinating film (Arruza) that revolved –in multiple, complex ways– around the figure of the great Mexican bullfighter Carlos Arruza. The result is a complex, modern film, very much in the vein of many of the most interesting pieces of those years – a film not shown much and studied even less, and which was the swansong of its author.

The heart of Boetticher's cinema, as we have just seen, is composed of a series of westerns that are part of the so-called “Ranown cycle,” [7] making reference to the names of Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown, mentioned above. But, let's take this piece by piece and note, first, the films that make up this group and the reasons behind why they can be treated together as a whole. It is worth noting that Scott and Brown produced, with direction by Boetticher, five westerns that would be considered in Hollywood as B films, doing so between 1957 and 1960 [8]. This means that we are talking about works of a single “genre” (in this case, the “western” genre), of a duration of never more than eighty minutes [9], each filmed in less than three weeks (Ride Lonesome, without getting too far into the details, was filmed in twelve days) and with a very tight budget –never greater than 500,000 dollars (remember we are talking about this amount during 1950s); films barely having a set, practising what one scholar called “aesthetics of understanding." Likewise, as they had to get the most out of the production conditions, they typically adopted a succinct and direct way of narrating that did not only forget about narrative transitions but also, in many cases, lacked justifications and explanations into the psychology of the characters. As is well known, these “little B productions” came to be not really in search of their own profitability but instead to provide reinforcement to A films by the Majors during the “double sessions,” aiming to make the films being offered more attractive at a time when a notable decline in audience size at cinemas was beginning to become evident – something which had been unstoppable since the end of the Second World War due to changes in the lifestyle and consumption habits of the average American (growth of conurbations and a general deterioration of the centre of large cities, as well as the emergence of television, among other factors) [10].

Not all authors include the same films in the Ranown cycle. If we want to be strict, we should start by excluding one of the films that are normally included, in many cases, in the cycle: I am referring to the film entitled Westbound [11] and shot in 1959. It was a prior commitment at the beginning of the cycle that Randolph Scott had with Warner Bros. Neither Harry Joe Brown nor Scott are listed as producers, it was not distributed by Columbia, its length reached 96’, and --most importantly-- it was set during the American Civil War, and it broke one of the golden rules of the cycle: the obscurity of a group of main characters not present in the rest of the pieces of the series in any geographic, social, or family context.

Even more complex is the case of the piece that acts as an introduction to the series: the aforementioned Seven Men from Now, produced by John Wayne's company (Batjac) for Warner with a script by Burt Kennedy (who was to write, immediately afterwards, the three best films of the cycle). In this piece, Boetticher and Scott begin to perfect many of the creative strategies that they will come to develop in the full-fledged Ranown productions. If we take this film as a type of introduction to a universe being established, the cycle would be, therefore, restricted to five pieces in which, in reality, only the credits of the two last ones (Ride Lonesome, 1959 and Comanche Station [12], 1960) include the anagram that made them famous (Ranown for Columbia), while the other three (The Tall T [13], 1957; Decision at Sundown [14], 1957; Buchanan Rides Alone [15], 1958) directly list the producers’ names (Scott-Brown for Columbia).

In order to situate the Ranown cycle in its cinematographic context, it would be a good idea to remember prior westerns that can also be grouped into a series. To go directly to the most famous, we'll make quick reference to the so-called “Cavalry Trilogy” by John Ford, made up of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950) [16]. It was unexpectedly converted to a tetralogy years later with the addition of The Horse Soldiers (1959). And, of course, we must remember the pieces directed by Anthony Mann in an exemplary partnership with screenwriter Borden Chase, producer Aaron Rosenberg, and actor James Stewart for Universal: Winchester 73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Far Country (1954) -- to which the following could be added: The Naked Spur (1953, MGM) and The Man from Laramie (1955, Columbia). These latter films did not include Borden Chase as the screenwriter [17].

How might we characterise the Ranown cycle films? If we take the literal statements made by Boetticher in 1969, we could set a type of decalogue that summarises the spirit of the films: “In a western, you have to 1) see things head-on (…) And then you have to gradually 2) introduce the characters into the action, 3) undoubtedly, improvise depending upon the set or change the script, 4) love the landscape and understand it [18], 5) dispose of a cinematographer who doesn't fear risks [19], 6) know how to introduce a character or action with few words and some images, 7) not be afraid of silence, 8) not abuse violence [20], 9) not waiver when referring to myths and conventions, 10) have a serious sense of humour”. 

Let's dedicate some time to some of these recommendations. If we take a careful look at the set of films in the cycle (and especially the three written by Burt Kennedy), we will immediately realise that they feature a series of elements that are typical of the western -- but they give those elements a new twist. It's only necessary to think that (again, I'm going to use the words of Boetticher) “all films with Randy Scott have pretty much the same story -- with its variants. A man whose wife has been killed is searching out her murderer. In this way, I can show quite subtle relations between a hero, wrongly bent on vengeance, and outlaws who, in contrast, want to break with their past. These are the simplest relationships of the western, but also the most essential.”

But, as is logical, these “simple” and “essential” relationships are subject to a severe process of stylisation. Let us take two simple examples that are quite evident in Ride Lonesome. First, the idea of travel, inherent to the western in terms of its exploratory and geographical dimension (westward exploration), which in these films is less prominent in that movement has nothing to do with a trip towards the frontier but instead it is reduced to a pure, simple movement, a continuous drift (Boetticher: “it is the journey that produces pleasure, not arriving somewhere”), which is reinforced by a desert landscape (which repeats from film to film), made up of desolate, arid spaces, endless rocky planes and banks of sand, trodden by obsessive revenge seekers and ambiguous bandits, traversed by stagecoaches full of the dead (as also happens in Ride Lonesome), in which only a “hanging tree” grows, with the form of a burning cross. Additionally, consider the fact that the stories, as we have already mentioned, do not have any family, social, or even geographical reference. The hero is only motivated by his desire for vengeance (present in four of the films), with any type of moral dimension being absent. But, as Ride Lonesome will show, vengeance lacks sense (nothing will bring the hero's dead wife back to life). In the end, Randolph Scott's character will assent to that fundamental piece of knowledge that maintains that any action is both essential and free.

In the end, this is a type of cinema, if I may be allowed the expression, with a “clear line” that is stripped of any accessory element to show the skeleton that holds the power of any story, using a display of narrative muscle and eliminating any discursive blubber. That is how men's and women's roles must be understood, reduced (to put it with the terminology of structural semiotics) to the merely actantial role of a subject (male in this case) who seeks his union with an object of value (a woman, or merely her image, as many times the woman has disappeared or has been raped or killed) and which acts as a pure element of attraction that triggers the action of the “hero” by pulling on him duly disguised in the interchangeable roles of woman, lover, governess, prostitute, and farmer [21]. Nobody has said it better than Louis Seguin when he stated that Boetticher does not conceive the western if it is not “dried, embalmed, reduced to the state of an anatomical piece (…) Coldly disregarding the human possibilities of the genre, to uphold only the norms.”

Bazin, when speaking of Seven Men from Now, gives a perfect lesson on the Ranown cycle: “The emotion is born of the most abstract relations and the most concrete beauty (…) Boetticher has been able to make prodigious use of the landscape, of the various materials of the Earth, of the structure and form of the rocks. I also think that the photogenic nature of the horse has not been this well exploited for a long time” [22].

But these films would not be what they are without the presence of Randolph Scott. I don't think it would be unreasonable to say that, in them, the actor acts as a symbol of the direction in which the creative work of the filmmaker is going. Once again, Boetticher clearly explains, as he usually does, what he expected of an actor like Scott: “I wanted to go against those western heroes that do thousands of things. Scott doesn't do anything. They always want to provoke him… He remains calm, moving as little as possible, economising his actions.” As if he were just another rock that inhabits the landscape through which he moves – rocks with which he tends to be confused.

Nevertheless, the final word on the subject must be left to André Bazin: “Randolph Scott, whose face irresistibly reminds you of that of William Hart [23], even in the sublime inexpressiveness of his blue eyes. He never changes his face; he never has the shadow of a thought or a feeling –without that detachment, needless to say, having anything to do with the modern inwardness of the Marlon Brando style. This face shows nothing, because there is nothing to show” [24].

In this way (bareness in terms of the narrative, visual simplicity, ascetical interpretations, material density), these master films end up giving visibility to the the idea that the cinematographer is, in his best pieces, there to lift up, in the words of a poet, a material memory of the world while clearly establishing that the poorest (simplest) forms are the only ones that are truly rich (the most complex). Although perhaps it might be wise to return to the territory we have explored since the beginning lines of this text to remember, with André Bazin, that Boetticher's films prove conclusively that great cinema is matter once it has achieved an aesthetic state.

Santos Zunzunegui

[1] Spanish title when shown on television: Cabalgando en solitario.

[2] That is the idea presented by Martin Scorsese in his most juicy documentary entitled A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies (1995). The filmmaker from New York reminds us that in American film there are three genres that are genuinely considered as native to the country: gangster films, the musical, and --of course-- the western.

[3] See, in this order, the prologue written for the book by J.-L. Rieupeyrout, Le Western ou le cinéma americain par excellence (1953), the article published in December of 1955 in issue 54 of Cahiers du cinéma in the context of a general assessment undertaken by the magazine about the Situation du cinéma americain and entitled, plainly, “Evolution du Western”, and --finally-- the text dedicated to a film by Budd Boetticher that also appeared in Cahiers du cinéma (No. 74, 1957), “Un western exemplaire: Sept hommes à abattre” (there is a version in Spanish of the three texts in André Bazin, ¿Qué es el cine?, Madrid, Rialp, 1966, pages 395-421).

[4] In an in-depth analysis of the “myth” of the woman in the western, Bazin states that, in this world, women are good and men are bad; the fall of the former is because of the concupiscence of the latter. A juicy turn of roles that has no other reason than that of the needs raised by historical contingencies for Anglo-Saxon puritanism.

[5] I cannot resist citing the comparison that Bazin makes to qualify the Fordian achievement: “Stagecoach is like a wheel, so perfectly made that it remains in equilibrium on its axis in any position”.

[6] The great contribution of Harry Joe Brown (1908-1972) to the art of filmmaking is –after having worked as a producer for Warner, Universal, and Fox– the collaboration that he undertook as an independent producer with Randolph Scott beginning in 1947, something which gave rise to innumerable B westerns. More specifically, the five pieces that brought Scott and Brown together with Budd Boetticher during the 1950s.

[7] To the aforementioned, we would have to add three bullfighting films and two film noirs, shot immediately before and after the Ranown cycle (The Killer is Loose, 1955 and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, 1960).

[8] This is an idea that Boetticher rejects head-on: “I never made B westerns. Perhaps they cost what a B western would cost, but they weren't B films because I worked with people like Lucien Ballard and Russell Mitty, top-notch professionals. They were cheap because we knew what we were doing. Plus, we didn't build sets. We used what God gave us. And then there was Randolph Scott.”

[9] In the cases that are of interest to us, the longest films (The Tall T and Buchanan Rides Alone) came to 78’ in length. The shortest do not surpass 73’ (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station).

[10] The Ranown Films were all distributed by Columbia Pictures, an American Mini-Major.

[11] Spanish title when shown on television: El correo del oro.

[12] Spanish title when shown on television: Estación Comanche.

[13] Spanish title when shown on television: Los cautivos.

[14] Spanish title when shown on television: Decisión al atardecer.

[15] Spanish title: Buchanan cabalga de nuevo/Buchanan, el solitario.

[16] The three were based on narratives by James Warner Bellah, they all featured John Wayne, and they included songs by Stan Jones. The first two were written by Frank Nugent.

[17] Likewise, we could find a connection between the work of Boetticher and the two westerns that Monte Hellmann made in 1965 (The Shooting) and 1966 (Ride in the Whirlwind), both starring Millie Perkins and Jack Nicholson who, additionally, is responsible for the script of the latter; with cinematography by Gregory Sandor. In the words of Charles Tatum Jr., these pieces depart from the work of their predecessor on the archetypes of westerns to push the films even more in the direction of a growing abstraction, very much in keeping with a certain cinema of the moment.

[18] “I like simple landscapes; the desert, the rocks If I find a place that is stripped of everything where I can film in black and white, that's where I'll be.”

[19] The three best films of the cycle feature cinematography by Charles Lawton; two of them (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station) use a superb Cinemascope.

[20] In 1964, Boetticher commented to Bertrand Tavernier that, in Seven Men from Now, “[Randolph] Scott was never seen shooting. It was my idea: he had to seem like the fastest in his duel with Lee Marvin. (…) The only thing we could do was show Marvin taking his gun out of the holster through the eyes of Scott. Then we showed Scott; a shot was heard, but there wasn't smoke. Scott never drew his gun from the holster; he had the revolver in his hand already. (…) People said that they had seen Scott take the gun out.”

[21] Boetticher: “What's important is what the heroine has brought about, or what she represents. She is, perhaps, the love or the fear that inspires the hero; or even the perception that he has; what makes him act in a certain way. The woman as such does not have the slightest importance.”

[22] I don't think it would be an overstatement to say that the natural places in Lone Pine (California) where these films were shot could be referred to as the “Monument Valley of Budd Boetticher.”

[23] William S. Hart (1864-1946) was the first shining star of the western in its silent years, during which time he participated in countless films working not only as an actor but also as a producer, screenwriter, and director.

[24] One cannot forget the words of the actor who, ironically, explained “I am not an actor. I've made more than one hundred films to prove it.”

 

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