Tag Archives: Western

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART FOUR: COMANCHE STATION (1960)

This is Part Four in a four part series exploring Budd Boetticher’s 1950s Westerns starring Randolph Scott (known as the “Ranown cycle”).  The films previously discussed in the series were Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), and Ride Lonesome (1959).

If The Tall T is bleakest, and Ride Lonesome a fan favorite, then Comanche Station (1960) is the most poetic and artistically accomplished of Boetticher’s Ranown cycle of westerns.

Comanche_StationThis was the valedictory film for Ranown and was intended to be actor Randolph Scott’s as well (two years later he was talked out of retirement to make the sublime, yet slightly overrated Ride the High Country with director Sam Peckinpah and co-star Joel McCrea).

Scott emerges from a cubist landscape, first as a majestic silhouette, then as a haunted, chiseled ghost, continuing his vain, decade-long search for his (most likely dead) wife, abducted by Indians.

The native Americans here are portrayed as little more than savages, and Nancy Gates, the heroine he winds up rescuing, is a delicate object of prized beauty, rather than fully human.  These quibbles aside, once again Boetticher’s stark, stripped down sense of composition is replete with complex characters and ambiguous mores.

Randolph Scott embodies a beautiful purity here, more so even than in the other entries. His endless years of wandering through the vast, arid western desert, searching for his lost wife, echoes Orpheus searching for Eurydice in hell, or in a seemingly pointless purgatory.

Comanche Station is a brooding post-modernist work which stems from allegories found in the most potent, forceful biblical tales and mythology.  Claude Akins is the primary, King Saul-like villain; he has committed mass murder, intends to kill both Scott and Gates, does not hesitate killing his own man, and yet admires Scott and even saves him from a terrible fate.

Skip Homeier and Richard Rust are Akins’ latently homosexual henchmen (in a poignant scene, Akins complains to Scott of Homeier’s “softness”).  The scene in which Homeier carefully lifts Rust’s dead, arrow-ridden body from the creek permeates a tender fragrance like that found in the story of David and Jonathan from the biblical Book of Kings.  Homeier is touchingly simplistic, not truly wanting a life of crime, but clueless as to any other way of life.

Scott’s hero looks like a figure culled from a Cezanne canvas.  He is at first misjudged by Gates, but will eventually be her savior, reuniting her with her family, the stains and scars of her past laid to rest. There is no such redemption for Scott.  Station ends where it begins, and the tree from the finale of Ride Lonesome reappears here, symbolically haunting, in the middle of a river.

Pessimistic repetition is the Kafkaesque curse of Scott’s ghost, who will never find his wife, nor even a destination.  The final scene in Comanche Station, like the Ranown cycle itself, sears itself into memory.  These westerns are hopelessly undervalued by the bulk of mainstream audiences and critics, but for the initiated—as blasphemous as this may sound—this brief collaboration by a group of artists, lead by obsessive, inimitable auteur Budd Boetticher, rivals the best in American cinema (and, yes, that includes the films of John Ford).

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.

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART TWO: THE TALL T (1957)

Shot in a mere twelve days, The Tall T is one of the most remarkable westerns in a decade that unquestionably belonged to the western genre.  Burt Kennedy scripted a pure, taut, and crisp script from an Elmore Leonard short story.Still from The Tall T (1957)The Tall T is an actor’s film. The first surprise lies in Maureen O’Sullivan’s performance as homely, whimpering Doretta Mims; a performance that can almost be seen as a bookend to her far different, equally superb performance as the independent, strong-willed, sensual Jane of Tarzan and his Mate (1934). Here, she is the newly married, timid wife of unsympathetic louse John Hubbard. By film’s end she emerges from self-pity’s well, dress coming off shoulder, hair loosed down and radiating a fire akin to Prometheus unbound as she is pressed up against the pure, granite-hard, phallic form of .


Scott’s character is one of his most interesting and fully developed in the Boetticher cannon. The film opens with Scott visiting  friends at the Way Station.  Upon Scott’s departure, the young , amiable, grandson of the station manager gives the laconic cowboy a penny for some rock hard candy from the town store. Naturally, the good-natured Scott promises to do so.  However, on the way back to the station, Scott, more animated than normal, loses his horse in a bet in a scene evoking archetypal good old boy western humor.  The calm before the proverbial storm.

Taking a stagecoach on the way back to the station, Scott has a bit of camaraderie with old buddy and stagecoach driver Arthur Hunnicutt (a character favorite in dozens of westerns, he typified the grizzled sidekick) who is transporting newlyweds O’ Sullivan  and her louse husband;,John Hubbard (surprisingly, a standard stock coward, nowhere near as developed as Walter Continue reading THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART TWO: THE TALL T (1957)

REFLECTIONS ON THE 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL & THE “9” DIARY.

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is a column published on Thursdays covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.   The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

48_hour_film_festival_4July 31st -Aug 2nd, the 48 hr Film Festival came to Indianapolis, sponsored by the Big Car Art Gallery.  Jim Walker of Big Car curated the event.  30 Indiana film making teams signed up to participate, including the Liberty or Death Team of James Mannan and Robin Panet.

Jim and Robin approached me about six weeks ago, inviting me to participate in this year’s 48 Hour Film Festival.  Since I assisted in last year’s event with them to do Hallow’s Dance, I was a tad reluctant to do all this again.  However, they shrewdly threw out a couple of temptations when they told me they wanted to do something surreal, which is my forte, along with inviting me to write and direct with Robin.  Jim would be producing.  If I recall correctly, my response was something akin to “Oh, alright, goddammit.”

For those who don’t know the set up of the festival, it goes like this: the teams go in on Friday night at 7:30 pm and draw a genre out of the hat.  Jim drew Horror, which was apt as this is Jim and Robin’s forte. Then, everyone is given the same character name, his profession, a line of dialogue, and a prop.

The character name was Professor Sherman Kane, the prop was a ball and the line of dialogue was “I’m not talking to you”.  Now the teams leave, write their script, shoot it, edit and turn it in by 7:30 pm on Sunday night.  Showing of films: Wednesday and Thursday evening at the IMA.

48_hour_film_festival_1I would imagine the whole idea for said festival came from Roger Corman.  The story is well known among film aficionados.  Corman had finished The Raven 48 hours ahead of schedule, with the actors, including Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, still on contract for the remainder of the shooting schedule.  That night Corman went home, wrote a script called The Terror, came back the next day and shot it within the 48 period.  The problem with this story is that The Terror is indeed a terror to Continue reading REFLECTIONS ON THE 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL & THE “9” DIARY.

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART ONE: SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956)

In a brief span of four years, from 1956 to 1960, Director Budd Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy and actor Randolph Scott collaborated on a series of seven “chamber westerns” which rank as one of the most rewarding achievements in the art of American Cinema.

Seven Men from NowWhile a number of prominent film critics, historians and luminaries have rightly praised the “Ranown” series (named after Boetticher’s production company), attention is often paid to the fact that Boetticher produced the series on a shoestring budget.  Thus, despite praise, the series and Boetticher himself are relegated to a second tier, “B” level, as if the monies poured into these films somehow affect and dictate their intrinsic value.

To the contrary, the Boetticher/Kennedy/Scott westerns are in every way equal to the larger budgeted collaborations of Ford and Wayne, Daves and Ford, Leone and Eastwood.

With these sparse, psychologically complex works, Boetticher did as much for the American western as Val Lewton did for the American Horror film in the 40’s.

The breakthrough Seven Men From Now (1956) was a long way from Ken Maynard’s white hat and bottle of milk atop a horse named Tarzan. It’s also far more aesthetically modernist, more taut, more complexly developed in character than the later, ultra-stylish westerns of Peckinpah and Leone (the exception being Peckinpah’s slightly overrated Ride the High Country, also starring Randolph Scott with Joel McCrea). Very few films in the genre can boast as richly developed characterizations. The Delmer Daves/Glenn Ford films along with the Anthony Mann/James Stewart cannon can arguably be mentioned in the same breath.

Seven Men From Now establishes Boetticher’s Ranown canvas. Randolph Scott was an actor of beautiful limitations and the director utilized Scott’s mere presence to compositional advantage.  The actor’s weathered face parallels the expressionistic, Cezanne-like rocky terrains.  Boetticher takes equal advantage of his hero’s range to etch a morally ambiguous personification.

Scott, out for revenge, seems, at first, to personify the mythological old west code of right and wrong.  He is ancient, laconic, sips coffee, and projects a virtuous nobility with a mere shifting of the eyes.  That is until his foil, Lee Marvin (superb here) astutely recalls how Scott had no qualms about stealing a friend’s wife.  Even Walter Reed, as Gail Russell’s weak, cowardly husband, surprises in an act of redemption. The power in the Boetticher films lies in the riveting conversations and in a shrewd slicing of viewer expectations.  There is a disconcerting, hushed quality throughout the film, even in those conversations, which project a tense, quiescent air of revelation.

Next week: perhaps the bleakest film of the cycle, The Tall T (1957).

7. EL TOPO (1970)

AKA The Mole (literal translation)

“Q: You’re creating this story right now.

A: Yes, this very moment. It may not be true, but it’s beautiful.”–Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Conversations with Jodorowsky”

Must SeeWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: El Topo, a figure dressed in black and carrying his nude son on horseback behind him, uses his supernatural shooting ability to free a town from the rule of a sadistic Colonel.  He then abandons his son for the Colonel’s Woman, who convinces him to ride deep into the desert to face off against four mystical gunfighters.  All of the gunfighters die, but El Topo is betrayed, shot, and dragged into a cave by a society of deformed people, who ask the outlaw turned pacifist to help them build a tunnel so they can escape to a dusty western town run by degenerate religious fascists.

el-topo

BACKGROUND:

  • El Topo is considered to be the first “midnight movie,” the first movie to be screened in theaters almost exclusively after 12 AM.  Although the heyday of the midnight movie has past, it was a clever marketing gimmick that stressed the unusual nature of the film and positioned El Topo as an event rather than just another flick.
  • El Topo was famously championed and promoted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
  • Due to an acrimonious dispute over ownership rights between Jodorowsky and Allen Klein, the film was withdrawn from circulation for 30 years, during which time it could only be seen on bootlegged VHS copies.  The scarcity of screenings vaulted El Topo‘s already powerful reputation into a legendary one.  Jodorowsky and Klein reconciled in 2004 and the film had a legal DVD release in 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: El Topo is a continuous stream of unforgettable images; any frame chosen at random inflames the imagination.  My personal favorite is the lonsghot after El Topo kills third master gunfighter, where his body lies bleeding in his own watering hole while the rest of the landscape is littered with rabbit corpses.   The iconic image, however, is  El Topo riding off on horseback with a naked child sitting behind him, holding a black umbrella over his head.  This image is particularly representative because it shows not only Jodorowsky’s gift for composition, but his penchant for shamelessly borrowing from other sources of inspiration: the concept is pinched from the most surreal moment of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In the first scene, a man clad in black carrying an umbrella rides through an endless desert waste. Behind him in the saddle is a male child, naked except for a cowboy hat. The man stops his horse by a lonely hitching post in the sand, ties the umbrella to the post, and hands the boy a teddy bear and a locket and a photograph. The man says, “Today you are seven years old. You are a man. Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.” He pulls out a flute and plays while the naked child follows his instructions. What makes El Topo weird is that this is the most normal and comprehensible thing that happens the film.

Trailer for El Topo

COMMENTS: In Judges 14, Samson (the Hebrew version of Hercules) is attacked by a Continue reading 7. EL TOPO (1970)