Elegant and economical — with plot, action and character precisely balanced and pared down to iconic essentials — the legendary westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott are as good as their reputation. Which is saying a lot.
If you love westerns, or wonder why others do, these five films speak loud and clear. Known collectively as the Ranown cycle (a mash-up of Randolph and Brown's names), these films are the heart, and the soul, of the splendid UCLA Film & Television Archive series "Ride Lonesome: The Films of Budd Boetticher," which opens Friday at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood.
In a career spanning nearly 40 years, the director did a lot more than those five films, and UCLA takes pleasure in filling in the gaps for the Boetticher completists in the audience.
The series includes a pair of 1940s crime dramas, "Escape in the Fog" and "Behind Locked Doors," a film noir ("The Killer Is Loose") that has interesting parallels to the Ranown films, and even the director's wild and crazy 1960 gangster film, "The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond."
And this wouldn't be a Boetticher series without "Bullfighter and the Lady" and "My Kingdom For …," nods to the director's enduring interest in the bullring. Also provided is a cowboy warm-up, a western the director did without Scott: "The Man From the Alamo" starring Glenn Ford as an individual who had good reason for leaving that embattled fortress but struggled with the stigma of having done so.
But what really shouldn't be missed are those five Ranown films, made between 1957 and 1960, as well as 1956's "Seven Men From Now," which is not technically a Ranown film (someone else produced it) but usually included in the group. ("Westbound," a seventh Scott-Boetticher collaboration, is not in the series).
UCLA starts things off Friday night with two of the best, "Seven Men From Now," the template from which the Ranown films were struck, and the brooding "Decision at Sundown."
These are unsentimental films streaked with unexpected humanity. They weren't conceived of as a cycle, but looked at when finished, they have a lot in common. Brief and focused, they pack in an extraordinary amount of action and feature incidents and themes that recur throughout the entire series. And they feature Scott at the top of his game.
With a face as chiseled as any stone idol and a harsh but resonant voice, Scott certainly looks like the classic Westerner. His ability to define implacable, to bring tension into every frame because he's compelled to do what he thinks is right, no matter what the situation or the consequences, is the heart of the Ranown films.
In "Decision at Sundown," Scott plays Bart Allison, who shows up in the town of Sundown on the wedding day of his nemesis, Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), the nefarious man he has been hunting for three years. But Allison's zeal for revenge ends up having unexpected repercussions, both for the town and Allison himself.
In "Seven Men," Scott plays Ben Stride, a man who wastes few if any words and never says anything he doesn't mean, someone whose idea of an extended speech is "I'd be obliged for that cup of coffee." In short order we discover that he's come from Silver Springs, where seven men recently robbed the express office and took a Wells Fargo strongbox with $20,000 in gold. And one more thing. In the course of the robbery a woman was murdered. For reasons of his own, Stride is determined to find and kill each of those seven men.
One of the strengths of Scott's performances in these films is that his normally stoic face is also one on which pain, regret and humanity show themselves. His nominally unemotional characters turn out to be not people without feelings as much as individuals who feel too much, who are in so much personal pain they can't really talk about it.
One of the things that makes Boetticher's westerns special is that the evildoers are every bit as interesting as the heroes Scott plays, sometimes even more so. As Boetticher wrote in his memoir, "When in Disgrace," "we set out to make our villains extremely attractive.... We wanted our audiences to really love 'em while they were still kickin'."
The bad guy in "Seven Men" is the oily, insinuating Masters, flamboyant down to his brightly colored bandanna and played with perfect cock-of-the-walk insolence by Lee Marvin. Masters and Stride share mutual respect, fearlessness and the determination to live by a code. When Stride tells him, "I'd hate to have to kill you," Masters' unflappable response is "I'd hate to have you try."
Good as Marvin is — and he is very good — the best of the Ranown villains is generally conceded to be Richard Boone's self-possessed and cerebral Usher in "The Tall T," playing Saturday night.
Scott's character, Pat Brennan, begins this film as more of an ordinary guy, a solitary rancher who stumbles into extraordinary circumstances. Brennan happens to be around when the local copper king's daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan) and her weak-willed husband cross paths with Usher's cool sociopath. Not one to seek out trouble, Brennan doesn't flee from it either, as Burt Kennedy's taut screenplay (based on a short story by Elmore Leonard) neatly illustrates.
On the same Saturday night double bill is "Buchanan Rides Alone," which features Scott's character in an almost genial mood as a mercenary who rides into a border town so rife with corruption he can't help but get involved.
The final two Ranown films, screening July 21, are perhaps the most potent and complex. "Ride Lonesome" has Scott as a determined bounty hunter playing a devilish game with two sets of outlaws, including James Coburn in his film debut. Even more poignant is "Comanche Station," with Scott's character once again wrestling with demons of the most personal kind. When he rides off into the sunset at the close, we really hate to see him go.