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The Straight Shooter

The no-bullshit Budd Boetticher took an unsentimental approach with his Ranown Cycle westerns

Filmed on small budgets (usually around $750,000) and tight shooting schedules (three weeks or less) between 1956 and 1960, the Ranown films -- each lasting a terse 78 minutes or less -- are celebrated by film buffs and filmmakers alike as unsentimental, sharply observed character studies of taciturn loners who display grace, courage and, from time to time, darkly sardonic humor under pressure. (Many key moments in the films are surprisingly, even shockingly, funny, and Buchanan Rides Alone skirts close to outright absurdity.)

Burt Kennedy wrote many of the scripts, and did uncredited rewriting on others, which partially explains the recurrence of themes, conflicts and defining dialogue -- "There are some things a man can't ride around!" -- that give the Ranown films an air of the ritualistic. The hero, invariably played by Scott with grave self-assurance and (quoting film scholar Andre Bazan) sublimely inexpressive blue eyes, usually is a man indelibly scarred by tragic loss but relentlessly driven by a private code of honor. More often than not, there is a missing or murdered wife to avenge, and a sense that life exists solely as a solitary quest for meaning (and, maybe, redemption). Always, there is an antagonist who glimpses in Scott's character a kindred spirit, who genuinely regrets what he sees as a necessity to defeat, or even kill, such a worthy opponent. "In every one of the Scott pictures," Boetticher admits, "I felt I could have traded Randy's part with the villain's.

"See, in the old days, villains were dark: black horse, black suit and hat. You couldn't wait for them to get killed. Which I felt was wrong. See, I learned something from watching Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Now, Riefenstahl was a great director, but she obviously loved Hitler. And she wanted you to love Hitler. I never forgot that.

Shadow catcher: Budd Boetticher (left, seated) always thought his hero (Randolph Scott, center) could trade places with the villain, even when saving beauties like Maureen O'Sullivan (right).
Museum of Fine Arts
Shadow catcher: Budd Boetticher (left, seated) always thought his hero (Randolph Scott, center) could trade places with the villain, even when saving beauties like Maureen O'Sullivan (right).

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June 8 through June 29; 713-639-7531
Museum of Fine Arts' Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet

"So when I came around to making these westerns with Randy, I wanted to show these colorful villains -- Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Claude Akins and the others -- who made a job of killing people. But they always admired Randy. In fact, they damn near fell in love with Randy. But they had to be killed at the end. Which always makes you really care about the situation.

"You know, nobody realizes this, but in six of the seven movies Randy made with me, we started out Lee Marvin, who was nobody at the time; Richard Boone, who was nobody; Pernell Roberts and James Coburn, who were nobodies; and Craig Stevens and Claude Akins. And Randy always had such great rapport with these guys. He'd come up to me and say, 'Budd, who was that guy I had that scene with today, that young fellow in the red underwear?' And I'd say, 'That was Jim Coburn.' And he'd say, 'I like that boy. Let's write him some more lyrics.' "

When it came to casting unknowns, Boetticher always trusted his instincts and ignored anyone else's second-guessing. While preparing The Tall T, for example, he set his sights on Boone -- then best known as the grim-faced surgeon of Medic, a deadly serious TV series -- for the ingratiating villain of the piece. "I loved the pock marks on his face," he explained, "and I loved his voice. So I went to the studio, and they told me, 'You don't want him. Your pictures are funny. You put a lot of humor in them, and this guy doesn't have a sense of humor.' I said, 'How do you know that?' And they said, 'Well, just look at him.' "

Undeterred, Boetticher phoned Boone and offered him the part -- with the proviso that the actor meet with the Columbia brass as soon as possible. Like, maybe tomorrow.

"I figured if he met with them, they'd see what I saw in him, and there wouldn't be any more discussion about it. But he told me, 'Budd, I think my wife has cancer.' Which turned out not to be true, fortunately. But at the time, he and his wife were going off to a clinic for tests, for a whole week. And so he asked me, 'What seems to be the problem?' And I told him, 'The head of the studio doesn't think you have a sense of humor.' And he said, 'Well, you have to admit, those heart operations [on Medic] are pretty fuckin' funny.'

"You know what I said after that? I said, 'When you get back from the clinic, go into wardrobe and call me. You got the part.' "

Seven Men from Now (1956), the first of the Ranown films, featuring Marvin as a scene-stealing baddie, isn't included in the MFA lineup. (Neither is Westbound, a 1958 Scott-Boetticher collaboration that the director dismisses as a minor effort, unworthy of inclusion in the canon.) But the retrospective does feature the following:

The Tall T (7:30 p.m. Friday, June 8) -- Ramrod-turned-rancher Pat Brennan (Scott) and copper mine heiress Doretta Mims (Maureen O'Sullivan) are held captive by a sly stagecoach bandit (Richard Boone) and his thick-witted cohorts, while Doretta's cowardly husband seeks a ransom from his wife's wealthy father. A nice touch: The bandit refrains from killing Brennan primarily because he's desperate for intelligent conversation. But their budding friendship is soured by the bandit's determination to start a new, more respectable life with the ransom money. (1957)

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