According to film historian Jeanine Basinger, director Budd Boetticher often described the plots to the seven Westerns he made with actor/producer Randolph Scott as, "Here comes Randy. He's alone. What's his problem?" Between 1956 and 1960, Boetticher and Scott pared down the Western genre, making sublimely formulaic, just-under-80-minute movies that told morally nuanced stories. Typically, Scott played a taciturn loner who inspired a mixture of caution and pity, and typically, his character held powerful men accountable for the troubles in his own past, including the women he lost. Sometimes Scott's characters were good-humored, but there were always dark clouds rolling behind his squinty eyes. To again quote Boetticher-via-Basinger, in any given Boetticher/Scott film, "You could've traded the villain's part and Randy's part."
The long-awaited The Films Of Budd Boetticher contains five Boetticher/Scott collaborations in a compact, reasonably priced package that should be considered essential for movie buffs. (The duo's first effort, the marvelous 7 Men From Now, was released on DVD in a nice edition two years ago; their lesser film Westbound remains on the shelf at Warner Brothers.) When Boetticher fans try to explain his movies' appeal, they often use words like "simple" and "entertaining," but those virtues are hardly negligible. Boetticher didn't go in for a lot of setup, and didn't care for denouement. In his films, Scott rides into the frame during the opening credits. He meets some people, reveals his intentions, then gets mired in a situation partly created by his own stubbornness. The movies hook their audiences early, move through their plots quickly, and end with some acceptable version of justice done.
Consider 1957's Decision At Sundown, which has Scott arriving in town to disrupt the wedding of local fat-cat John Carroll. Scott mistakenly believes he's defending the honor of his late wife, but even though Carroll isn't guilty in quite the way Scott thinks he is, he isn't exactly a good guy either, and as Scott holes up in a makeshift fortress on Main Street, the townsfolk gradually realize he's fighting a battle they wish they'd had the courage to fight themselves. No one's intentions are wholly pure, and yet the end result is, to some extent, "fair." In fact, the moral ambiguity of Decision At Sundown is borderline comic, which is why Boetticher and Scott were able to parody it so well a year later with Buchanan Rides Alone, in which Scott is thrust into the affairs of a wealthy family and subtly turns one against the other. Like Decision At Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone is a little too blunt—probably because both were written by Charles Lang instead of Boetticher/Scott's favorite screenwriter, Burt Kennedy—but both use their short running times to flesh out a whole community of patrons, wage-slaves, and wild cards.
Kennedy worked on the remaining three films in this set, showing his skill at what he called "playing a small story against a big background." This is especially true in two movies that send Scott out into barren landscapes on manhunts. In 1959's excellent Ride Lonesome, Scott intends to arrest affable outlaw James Best, but has to contend with Best's brother and two other vigilantes (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn) who have intentions of their own. In 1960's Comanche Station, Scott makes a deal with the Indians to buy back a woman he believes is his long-missing wife, but when the woman turns out to be someone else entirely, Scott has to compete with other mercenaries to reap the reward for her return. Both films are about rivals locked in symbiotic relationships far from civilization, and both use the Cinemascope frame to diminish the significance of the hero's quest.
But the best film in The Films Of Budd Boetticher is 1957's The Tall T—based on an Elmore Leonard story—which has Scott embroiled in a kidnapping plot when the stagecoach he's riding on gets hijacked by dandyish villain Richard Boone. Boone's crew holds Scott and his fellow passengers hostage, setting off a game of psychological give-and-take in which even the "good guys" reveal themselves as less than noble. It's telling that Boone sees in Scott a kindred spirit, and at one point all but asks if they can quit trying to kill each other and just ride off together. And it's true to the nature of the Boetticher/Scott films that even when the wicked have a change of heart, they're still damned by the choices they made long ago.
Key features: The fine feature-length documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, plus scholar commentaries on The Tall T and Ride Lonesome, and short appreciations by filmmakers Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and Taylor Hackford.