Tag Archives: 1959

283. THE TINGLER (1959)

“Now please don’t fool with that stuff alone, Warren, it can produce some pretty weird effects.”—Lab assistant warning Vincent Price against taking LSD in The Tingler

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: William Castle

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts

PLOT: Scruple-challenged scientist Dr. Warren Chapin discovers that a creature called “the Tingler” lives within the human spine. This creature grows when the host experiences fear, and shrinks when they scream. When an extracted Tingler escapes, Chapin and his assistant must race to re-capture the beast before it unleashes its terror—maybe right here inside this very movie theater!

Still from The Tingler (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director/producer Castle, master of publicity-grabbing gimmicks, applied several such techniques to The Tingler, including hiring actresses to play nurses to stand outside the theater, and planting audience members to scream and faint at key moments in the picture. The most notorious gimmick in his oeuvre, however, was undoubtedly “Percepto.” For the theatrical release, Castle arranged for a handful of auditorium seats to be wired with war-surplus electric airplane de-icing engines. At a key moment during the film’s climax, the projectionist would activate the zappers, buzzing unsuspecting (or eagerly-hoping) viewers with a jolt of electricity, thereby breaking the fourth wall in a way 3-D never could.
  • Although best known for his B-movies, Castle’s resume is not exclusively low-budget shockers. He was an as assistant director on The Lady from Shanghai, and produced ‘s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. (He has a cameo as a man wanting to use Mia Farrow’s phone booth.)
  • Price’s self-administered LSD experience was reportedly the first ever cinematic acid trip. Castle was so eager to clue in the audience to what was going on that he printed the name of the scientific monograph Price is reading on the back of the volume.
  • Directors and John Waters included The Tingler in their Top Ten lists for the Sight and Sound 2002 poll of the greatest films of all time.
  • Shane Wilson’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A blank projection screen, onto which ambles the shadow of a large rubber insect puppet, followed immediately by blackness, the sound of audience members shrieking their heads off, and the unmistakable command of Vincent Price: “Scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even without the electrified seats, The Tingler is an odd little enterprise. Between the confident pseudoscientific explanations, the wildly shifting tone, and the utter commitment to the absurd and goofily executed premise, it’s a strange and silly cinematic experience. But “Percepto” ups the ante considerably. Whereas previous auditorium gimmicks were content to merely startle theater patrons and to play upon their emotions, The Tingler was now actively threatening the audience with physical harm. By bringing the actual audience inside the film, Castle’s gimmick becomes a means to shatter the fourth wall completely, paving the way for the interactive experiences viewers treasure so much now.


Original trailer for The Tingler

COMMENTS: Let’s not kid ourselves. The Tingler is very silly. Consider that the entire premise of the film is based on literalizing the Continue reading 283. THE TINGLER (1959)

DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959)

The films of Andre De Toth are slowly being paid their due recognition in the DVD market. As prolific and versatile as De Toth was there are, of course, hits and misses. While some of De Toth’s weaker films, such as The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953) and The Indian Fighter (1955), are readily available, other, far more notable works such as Ramrod (1947) and The Bounty Hunter (1954) still languish in obscurity. De Toth is best known for being the one-eyed director of the 3D House of Wax (1953), the noir classic Crime Wave (1954), and as one of the great Western revisionists of the 1950s (he wrote the story for 1950’s The Gunfighter).

Snow sets the extraordinarily bleak tone in Day of the Outlaw, even more than it did in De Toth’s previous Springfield Rifle (1952). Here, as is often the case in a De Toth film, an older hero is at the center of the story. Blaise (noir fan favorite Robert Ryan) and Dan (Nehemiah Persoff) are traveling to the aptly named town of Bitters. They are frostbitten and struggling to move through the thick snow drifts. Blaise whips his horse with determined intensity. The horse stumbles lethargically. Blaise, a rancher and gunfighter, is furious over the barbed wire fence that has been put up by farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal) and vows to kill Crane. A very tired Dan tells Blaise (in a hoarse voice), “A wire fence is a poor excuse to kill a man.” Blaise’s motive runs deeper. He has been having an affair with Crane’s wife Helen (Tina Louise).

The scene shifts from the seemingly endless snowy abyss to a claustrophobic saloon where, it seems, confrontation looms. First, Helen confronts Blaise. She tells him the affair is over and warns him not to harm her husband. Blaise promises nothing. Blaise then confronts Hal, provoking an inevitable showdown. Blaise represents the seasoned renegade spirit (a frequent De Toth theme) at odds with the arrival of civilization in the form of younger, weaker men (Hal and the farmers).

Still from Day of the Outlaw (1959)Despite Helen’s pleas, Blaise fully intends to kill Hal. She reprimands Blaise for his lack of mercy. “You won’t find mercy anywhere in Wyoming” he retorts. Bitter indeed. Blaise is about to leave Helen a widow and rid himself of an annoying farmer, but he is suddenly interrupted by a true threat in the form of outlaw Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his gang. At this point, De Toth’s narrative takes a dramatic and refreshingly unexpected shift.

Bruhn, like Blaise, is a dying breed—literally dying, from a gunshot wound received in a recent bank robbery. Stark tension permeates Day of the Outlaw as Bruhn faces certain death while struggling to maintain control of his gang and the situation. The claustrophobia is a prison for both Bruhn and Blaise. They engage in a battle of wills while finding an uncomfortable identifying ground. Both men discover their own fallibility in the process and willingly take a contrarian, fatalistic course of action, which shifts the narrative to its bleak and cynical finale.

The final quarter of the film is replete with desolate symbolism. Insatiable greed is juxtaposed against Russel Harden’s sumptuous camera capturing the merciless, ominous landscape. Underneath the shifting terrain lies a steely goal of self-obliteration.

Day of the Outlaw stays with you long after the credits have faded, imprinting an indelible image of coarse whites. It may indeed be De Toth’s finest work, and that is saying quite a bit.

PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)

It was inevitable that we would have to find an individual space for Edward D. Wood, Jr.‘s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Everyone knows the story of how the 1959 sci-fi flop was rediscovered: two smarmy fundamentalist brothers, who managed to become full time film critics and fancied themselves patron saints of the bourgeoisie, crowned Eddie’s opus as “the worst film of all time.” Only it backfired on the Medveds, and their “Golden Turkey” award gifted the recently departed director with something he could not achieve in this mortal coil: infamy. The Medveds will be rightfully forgotten, cast into their suburban purgatory of banality—and if there is justice amongst the lesser gods, then little Mikey and Harry will be personally tended to by Mr. Heat Miser and Mr. Snow Miser in a tailor-made torture pit. In the moral cosmos, Yukon “even among misfits you’re a misfit” Cornelius has knighted the societal outcasts to dole out celestial justice. Rounding out the bacchanal of a Medved hell, little Eddie Wood, Jr., reunites with Bela, Vampira, Criswell, Tor, and Valda Hansen, administering an eternal enema to such constipated dolts.

The Medveds evolved into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Rather than giving Hollywood, with its plethora of big budget, generic excrement, what it deserved, the MST3K production team, erroneously imagining themselves hip, picked easy targets in low budget indie films. Naturally, Ed Wood was a frequent focus. The do-nothing couch potato geeks made the show a hit. It was their sole shot at superiority.

Wood stands out, even among his peers, because he imbued his films with his own personality. Even in his later films, when his energy had been zapped by one personal defeat after another, there is still no mistaking Wood’s hand in the recipe. Near the end of his life, Wood waxed nostalgic about his failed career and admitted that Glen or Glenda (1953) was his self-portrait, but that Plan 9 From Outer Space was his pride and joy. Both films stand out, even amongst likeminded 50s indie genre films. Intensely and inherently weird, they are defiantly individualistic and, in that sense, they stand apart as authentic art, of far more intrinsic value than most of the drek manufactured by big studios.

Attesting to its originality, Plan 9 From Outer Space has as many classic lines as films like Dracula (1931) and Casablanca (1942), but do not take our word for it. Just read them:

Still from Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)Narrator [Criswell]: “Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown… the mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you, the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony, of the miserable souls, who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places. My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?”

—-

Narrator: “All of us on this earth know that there is a time to live, and that there is a time to die.”

—- Continue reading PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)

ROGER CORMAN’S A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)

The cult favorite Bucket of Blood (1959) was ahead of its time, literally pioneering the phrase “supplemental feature.” Having finished A Bucket of Blood ahead of schedule, Corman fashioned his supplemental material in a second cult favorite feature, Little Shop of Horrors (1960), shot on an old  set.  As a producer, Corman’s oeuvre is, naturally, outrageously varied, from Z-grade potboilers to arthouse films. Corman’s output as a director was almost as varied, but the quality of his work took an improved turn with this film (with no small assistance from writer Charles B. Griffith, who also penned Shop). Corman’s directing career essentially ended with 1971’s Von Richthofen and Brown, although he returned nineteen years later  for Frankenstein Unbound (1990), which was mostly panned. Like the director himself, Frankenstein Unbound may be underrated; as underrated as some of Corman’s Poe films are overrated.

Still from A Bucket of Blood (1959)Producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson challenged Corman to break his own record of a six day shoot, quality be damned. Despite the five-day shoot, Bucket of Blood remains one of Corman’s best efforts. It is essentially a reworking of House Of Wax (1953) transplanted to a beatnik coffee shop.  (in his only starring role) plays the geek busboy Walter who wants to become as hip as the beatniks, poets, jazz musicians, and artists at the Yellow Door Cafe. Walter not only want to impress his customers, but also his unrequited love: hostess Carla (Barboura Morris). He gets his opportunity when he accidentally kills a cat, panics, and covers up the evidence in clay. He becomes an artistic sensation. Before you can say “Sweeney Todd,” Walter’s next masterpiece is of the two-legged mammalian variety. An irksome detective joins the list of victims turned masterpieces; and, naturally, Walter’s posthumous fame will supersede his homicidal proclivities.

Although Griffith’s humor is obvious and caters to two-dimensional stereotypes of artists and beatniks as insufferably pretentious, the movie wins due to admirable cynicism in the writing, combined with Corman’s staid directorial style and a cast with personality. Although Little Shop of Horrors is probably the better film, Bucket of Blood has earned its status as an authentically quirky cult film.  What may be Corman’s most ambitious “B” film was three years away: The Intruder (1962), a different type of horror altogether, which will appear in this space next week.

BUNUEL’S NAZARIN (1959)

Luis Buñuel‘s self-imposed exile in Mexico from 1946-1964 yielded a fruitful harvest, and his films from this period are, arguably, his most organic and economically composed.  The director listed Nazarin, based off the Benito Perez Galdos novel, as a film he felt much affection for, and that affection extended to the character Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal).  Buñuel’s paternal attachment to this child/film was sincere enough that when the film failed to win the Prix de l’Office Catholique (Catholic Film Prize), he could express a sense of relief.

The saturnine Fr. Nazario lives in a phantasmagoric haze, imagining that he is following the commandment of Christ to “take up one’s cross,” but only disaster lies in the stations Nazrio visits.  Nazario does not build his house on rock, but on mud.  He keeps company with a menagerie of freaks: beggars, thieves, whores, and a dwarf.  Nazario refrains from bolting his door, despite the fact that his mob plunders his abode daily.  He is relieved of all possessions, save his Sunday best and crucifix.  Thank God for that.  He befriends the suicidal Beatriz (Marga Lopez), whose self destructiveness is birthed from her incessant need for the abusive man who regularly deserts her.

Still from Nazarin (1959)Nazario provides shelter to Beatriz’ homely prostitute sister, Andara (Rita Macedo) after she is wounded in a knife fight.  Andara has killed her rival and is hiding from local authorities.  The local Church learns of the living arrangement and accuses Nazario of improprieties.  Beatriz and Andara become Nazario’s Mary and Martha, but the paradox of the priest’s hypocrisy is that he pragmatically shuns Andara’s imaginative qualities, labeling it a “sickness.”  Yet, Bunuel invests this setup with an inviting sense of irony.  Nazario is Continue reading BUNUEL’S NAZARIN (1959)

CAPSULE: THE MANSTER (1959)

DIRECTED BY: George P. Breakston, Kenneth G. Crane

FEATURING: Peter Dyneley, Tetsu Nakamura, Jane Hylton, Terri Zimmern

PLOT:  A Japanese scientist corrupts an American foreign correspondent in Tokyo, eventually

Still from The Manster (1959)

turning him into a two-headed monster…. um, man-ster.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When you’re titling your movie The Manster, you’re probably not expecting to make any exclusive lists, other than the List of the Most Shamelessly Cheesy Movie Titles Ever.  Thanks to its historical provenance and overwrought, tastefully depraved atmosphere, this psychotronic oddity is worthy of a mention; it will take its place as a footnote to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made, and like it.

COMMENTSThe Manster may not be a very good movie, but it does have transformations, geishas, chaste drunken orgies, theremins, hyperactive overacting, and an erupting volcano, with a plot cribbed from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” swaddled in Pysch 101 theories about the duality of man.  That counts for something.  Need more?  It’s also got a mad scientist with a cave laboratory complete with giant mushrooms, a cell for his mutated wife, and a furnace for disposing of unwanted monsters.  The cheesy sci-fi accoutrements are shuttled into the background for much of the running time, as the main action becomes watching Peter Dyneley act like a jerk, drinking saki with loose women and slapping his long-suffering wife after being shot up with Japanese chemicals.  (Dyneley takes to the lifestyle of a gin-soaked heel like a 1950s mad scientist takes to collecting Tesla coils).  His chemically-induced devotion to the dark side results in his killing Shinto monks during blackouts and growing an eye on his shoulder, which eventually develops into a full-grown noggin.  Through the magic of b-movie moral alchemy he’s able to kill his creator and redeem himself, literally splitting apart from his hairy id (an extraordinary moment).  The final words of a journalist documenting the mad tale give us all a paradox to mull over: “I’m a reporter, not a mystic, Linda.  But there are things beyond us, things perhaps we’re not meant to understand.  If what’s happened here had made this all clear, well then, perhaps it made sense after all.”  Gotcha: the story makes sense because it makes it clear we weren’t meant to understand it.

Probably The Manster‘s greatest claim to fame is being originally released as the bottom half of a sublime/ridiculous double bill with Eyes Without a Face (which was dubbed and retitled Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus to make it appear like just another B-horror movie!)  As the world’s first two-headed man/monster movie, it’s also the great-grandfather of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and Sam Raimi even paid The Manster tribute in the weirdest sequence of Army of Darkness.  That’s pretty good company for a movie that began its life as an unsophisticated, exploitative b-quickie!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…its gorgeous shadow-strewn cinematography, bizarrely mismatched performances, and loopy juxtapositions of Asian and American nightmare iconography make it unforgettable trash that, in its more insane moments, even attains a sort of accidental bargain-bin poetry.”–Ian Grey, Baltimore City Paper (DVD)

READER RECOMMENDATION: THE TINGLER (1959)

Submission for the reader review writing contest #4 by Shane Wilson

“In the final count, I think we must have buzzed 20,000,000 behinds.” – William Castle

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman (the older brother of “Dobie Gillis” star Dwyane Hickman)

PLOT: There are two plots running simultaneously in The Tingler. In the first, Dr. Warren Chapin (Price) frees the parasite that lives in the human spine and grows when the host experiences fear, and must save the unsuspecting public from the menace he’s unleashed by stressing the importance of screaming.  In the other plot, film director William Castle raises his penchant for outrageous gimmicks to new heights by running shocks of electricity through auditorium seats.

Still from The Tingler (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • As was his wont, director/producer Castle supported the release of The Tingler with several gimmicks, including hiring actresses to play nurses to stand outside the theater and planting audience members to scream and faint at key moments in the picture.  His piece de resistance was called “Percepto.”  For the theatrical release, Castle arranged for a handful of auditorium seats to be wired with war-surplus electric vibrators.  At a key moment during the film’s climax, the projectionist would activate the zappers, buzzing unsuspecting viewers (or eagerly-hoping viewers) with a jolt of electricity, thereby breaking the fourth wall in a way 3-D never could.
  • William Castle earned his reputation for his attention-getting publicity stunts. Beneath his huckster’s heart, however, lays a surprising credibility. Castle served as assistant director on Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, and produced the horror classic Rosemary’s Baby.
  • Directors Stuart Gordon and John Waters both included The Tingler in their Top Ten lists for “Sight and Sound”‘s 2002 Top 10 poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A blank projection screen, onto which ambles the shadow of a large rubber insect puppet, followed immediately by blackness, the sound of faux audience members shrieking their heads off, and the unmistakable command of Vincent Price: “Scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: William Castle always dabbles in oddness. The Tingler’s means of engaging the audience certainly ups the ante in this regard. Whereas previous auditorium gimmicks were content to merely startle theater patrons, The Tingler was now actively complicit in harming the audience, by attempting to electrocute select viewers.  On another level, though, The Tingler represents a fascinating metatextual experience. On the one hand, Percepto pushes the film beyond the boundaries of the screen by affecting the audience physically, rather than through the usual avenues of picture and soundtrack.  The movie not only breaks the fourth wall, but actually rebuilds it behind the audience. Consider Price’s admonition: “The Tingler is loose in this theater!”  He means the very theater we are sitting in.  We have suddenly assumed the role of the audience in the film-inside-the-film, and for a moment, we are actually part of the action, not merely in front of it.  Castle’s prank destroys the proscenium.  Many films play games with the insurmountable distance between the screen and the seats.  Castle is happy to throw it away entirely.

COMMENTS: Vincent Price’s legend is built on a reputation for portraying elegant, velvet- Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: THE TINGLER (1959)

THE MUMMY (1959)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

The mummy, as a character, quickly became bland. In 1932, director Karl Freund, writer John L. Balderstein, and stars Boris Karloff and Zita Johnann made a poetic film for the Universal horror cannon, re-working the story of Dracula in Egyptian guise.  The Mummy’s Hand (1940) starring cowboy actor (and later Captain Marvel) Tom Tyron, was the first and only real decent of the Universal mummy sequels.  Increasingly feeble films followed Hand, all starring a rotund mummy in the form of a disinterested Lon Chaney, Jr.  Dating back to the original, the plot rarely varied throughout the series.  An Egyptian princess reincarnates in the form of a twentieth century woman, only to have her ancient lover come back, a tad lethargic, gauze and all, to reclaim her.

Oddly, Francis Ford Coppola lazily utilized the mummy’s  reincarnated dead lover plot for his version of Dracula (1992), which, otherwise, was a (mostly) well done, imaginative version of that story.  In 1999 the mummy was revived again in a dumbed down, lame, testosterone-laden joke of a movie starring Brendan Frazier.  That film also spawned numerous sequels.  True to form,the succeeding mummy entries were even worse, which, in this case, isn’t saying anything.

Still from The Mummy (1959)In between the 1932 and 1999 films, Hammer Studios predictably took a stab at the character.  They spared no expense in soliciting the talents of Terence Fisher, along with top stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Where they did spare expense was in an original story. The Mummy (1959) liberally borrowed elements from the formulaic Universal series, and reincarnated the reincarnated princess plot.  Briskly paced direction from Fisher, along with sumptuous color from Hammer cinematographer Jack Asher, almost overcomes the paint-by-number plot, which screenwriter Jimmy Sangster tried valiantly to inject with his own sensibilities.  Of course, the medium of film is more than mere storytelling and The Mummy is a film that tries to go a long way to prove that; because, basic rehashed story aside, the film itself is no lumbering undead.  It may be Fisher’s most energetic work.

Peter Cushing, as Dr. Banning, is in enthusiastic form.  No one can get strangled like Cushing, and his near-death experience and confrontation with co-star Lee in Banning’s study  is pure red-blooded Fisher, ranking with the acting duo’s battle in Horror of Dracula.   Equally interesting is  when Cushing’s Banning antagonizes the antagonist in the most proven way imaginable; he insults the other guy’s religion.  Ironically, it is Banning, rather than the mummy, who limps here, the result of an untended accident in Egypt.  Christopher Lee is the darling among genre fans.  He is far more discussed than  his co-star.  As iconic an actor as Lee is, his favored status is something of a slight to Cushing, since the latter is, normally, the  superior actor.  However, in this film, the acting honors are a draw, with Lee giving an admirably nuanced, minimalist performance as the title character.  Lee’s Kharis cannot compete with Karloff’s masterful Imhotep, but Lee invests genuine pathos, dread, and menace into the role. Yvonne Furneaux is striking as the Kharis/Banning love interest, but not much is required of her other than letting her hair down and shouting “No!”

Kharis’  resurrection from the swamp is beautifully photographed and effectively conveys robust dread.  Another well-shot sequence is the mummy’s entrance into an asylum to exact revenge on Banning’s father.  Franz Reizenstein’s score expertly accentuates the film, matching Fisher’s bloodied full moon milieu.  The Mummy reminds me a bit of The  Guns of Navarone (1961).  You know what’s around the corner, but that hardly stops the enjoyment of getting there.

CUBAN STORY (1959) AND CUBAN REBEL GIRLS (1959)

In the late 1950s movie star Errol Flynn owned a movie theater in Havana. Not the beautifully chiseled Flynn from The Adventures of Robin Hood, but a fat 50 year old has-been, yellowed with cirrhosis, eaten up with syphilis and dodging numerous creditors, including the IRS, with his latest teen age girlfriend: fourteen year old Beverly Aadland. Flynn, probably feeling his self-fulfilled hour (which predictably came shortly after) wanted to sow his macho oats one last time in the thick of the Cuban revolution (clearly, he wasn’t up to it).

Flynn, with Producer Victor Pahlen, made this pseudo-documentary about Flynn’s meeting Castro, although this meeting is only seen in photographs.

The film proclaims Flynn a sympathizer with Castro’s Batista Regime (paradoxically, he was also posthumously charged with being a fascist sympathizer during WWII). Most likely, this was a feeble effort, on the part of Pahlen and Flynn, to cash in on being in the right place at the right time.

Cuban Story [AKA The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution] was only screened once, in Moscow, and disappeared until Pahlen’s daughter released it the early 2000s. This utterly bizarre film begins with Flynn drunkenly narrating (more like a strained slur), from a cheap office, something about “freedom fighters.” Flynn, with long cigarette hanging from his mouth, picks up a globe to show viewers “‘where Cuba is” and then throws the globe off camera. It can be heard bouncing off the wall. The remaining film narration (credited to Flynn, although it clearly is not) is frequently incoherent, pro-Castro, and pro-terrorist.

According to Pahlen’s film, Flynn made his way through the heart of the revolution to meet Castro, but the only footage of the extremely soused, dissipated Flynn is of his escorting women into one of George Raft’s casinos, to gamble with them and Beverly. The rest of the film is a collage of seemingly unrelated, and often shocking, but historically valuable footage. Silent images of slain “comrades” and the savage killing of young men in the streets as Batista police casually observe are unsettling.

Cuban Story is redeeming in its historical value and its unintentional strangeness, both in Continue reading CUBAN STORY (1959) AND CUBAN REBEL GIRLS (1959)

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART THREE: RIDE LONESOME (1959)

Ride Lonesome (1959) was the first of Boetticher’s “Ranown” cycle to utilize the new CinemaScope process, and it does so impressively. The rich color and expressionist framing of desert canyon rock would only be topped in the series’ final entry, Comanche Station. Most fans of the cycle consider Ride Lonesome the best entry. While that remains debatable, it is certainly, in terms of composition and pacing, the most perfectly structured. It is also the most elegiac and, surprisingly, optimistic.

Still from Ride Lonesome (1959)Amongst a memorable cast, Lee Van Cleef etches out an unforgettable, albeit brief, performance as the murderous brother of  James Best (later known as the bumbling deputy in the TV series Dukes of Hazard) , who is prisoner to Randolph Scott’s bounty hunter. Naturally, things are more complex than they seem. Scott wants Cleef to catch up with them and for a very personal, startling reason: Cleef hanged Scott’s wife years before. Along the journey Scott meets up with the beautiful Karen Steele, and a pair of pseudo-outlaws in Pernell Roberts (Trapper John M.D) and a shockingly young (his first film). Roberts and Coburn want Best for themselves, since turning him in, dead or alive, will gain them amnesty from their crimes. Naturally, there is sexual tension between Steele and Scott, yet the potential for relationship is doomed by Scott’s obsessive thirst for revenge.

Ride Lonesome is, easily, Boetticher’s most optimistic film (as optimistic as Boetticher can be and still be Boetticher). Scott’s eventual handing over of Best to the two repentant outlaws is a pleasant surprise. The villains are hardly two-dimensional. Cleef, having committed a heinous crime, earnestly begs for his brother’s life, only to fall on Scott’s deaf ears.

The four males desire and vie for the widowed Steele (her husband having been murdered by the Apaches). At first she is mere ornamentation, as the women in the Boetticher films sometimes tend to be. Later, Steele’s character somewhat evolves into mother, latent lover, comforter, but short of fully developed person. Full development of female characters and weak scoring are the two biggest flaws in the otherwise outstanding Ranown cycle.

Boetticher still finds time for adroit comic touches amidst the overwhelming ironies and the final, haunting, lyrical image of the burning tree that Scott’s wife died on. Steele leaves her protector there, in the desert, alone. He will never be happy, nor find contentment. Indeed, one is left with the ominous feeling that the ravaged Scott himself will die there, never leaving this spot. This final shot sears in the memory.

To summarize: Ride Lonesome is as optimistic as Boetticher can be and still be Boetticher.

Next week: the final and poetic Comanche Station.