Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?

A new set of Budd Boetticher's 1950s Westerns showcase Scott against a stark backdrop of psychological complexity

It's one of the most pervasive clichés in movie history: A character watches an unseen TV screen while the sound of Indian war whoops, gunshots, and the over-the-top score of an old B-movie Western signals that it doesn't matter what he or she is watching. Not all old B Westerns are so easily dismissed, however. Filmmakers such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann have long been acknowledged as major artists by even casual film fans, but hardcore film and Western nerds have had the name Budd Boetticher (pronounced "BET-ick-er") on their lips for decades; Quentin Tarantino even went so far as to give Michael Madsen's character in the Kill Bill films Boetticher's first name in tribute. Tarantino joins Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and Taylor Hackford among those auteurs paying homage to the director in the extras to a new five-DVD box set of Boetticher's films.

As recounted in the well-done biodoc included in the set, Boetticher blazed a remarkable trail, breaking out of a privileged Midwestern upbringing to wind up as a young gringo bullfighter in Mexico and eventually landing in Hollywood, where he began grinding out B pictures and learning what he was doing. By the time he hooked up with aging cowboy actor Randolph Scott in the mid-'50s, he pretty well had it down. Taking over a project once intended for John Wayne, Boetticher and Scott made 1956's Seven Men From Now, a B Western with A-level flintiness and psychological complexity. (It was released on DVD separately earlier this year.) The film was such a success that Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown formed a production company called Ranown and more or less went into the Boetticher business.

Their first film, 1957's The Tall T, solidifies the template for the best Ranown Westerns. Scott plays Pat Brennan, a character whose particulars matter less than the fact that he is, as always, upright, laconic, and a loner. He becomes entangled in a ransom plot led by outlaw Frank Usher (Richard Boone, dripping sinister charisma), a thief and a murderer, but even he is swayed by Brennan's honesty, courage, and unshakable code. A friendship of a sort develops amid the cat-and-mouse maneuvering, even though Usher still plans to shoot Brennan and his prisoner (Maureen O'Sullivan) as soon as the ransom is in hand. The dialogue, by Ranown regular Burt Kennedy, is terse but rich. Every bit as important, the stark Sierra Nevada backdrop, a Boetticher staple, and the director's canny use of widescreen cinematography isolate the characters, intensifying their aloneness, as well as the drama.

Those wide-open spaces are sorely missed in the next two Ranown films, 1957's Decision at Sundown and 1958's Buchanan Rides Alone. In the former, Scott is literally pinned down, besieged in a livery stable for much of the film, and the claustrophobic town setting reveals all the creaky bits in an unsatisfying revenge story. The latter is an improvement, as Scott's drifter stumbles into a border town and finds himself caught up in plotting between the three fat and greedy brothers who run the place, but even with all the double- and triple-crosses, Buchanan feels hemmed in by the storefronts and sidewalks. If you're renting the films individually, these you can skip.

Boetticher and Scott got back to the Sierra Nevada and wound up the Ranowns with two elegant, entrancing variations on a theme in 1959's Ride Lonesome and 1960's Comanche Station. In both films, Scott plays a manhunter with a haunted past bringing his charge on a long trek back to civilization. In both films, he's joined on the trail by men who want what he has and thus they must wrestle with killing not only a formidable man, but an honest one, too. In fact, in both films, the characters who are plotting to kill Scott's character—Pernell Roberts in Ride and Claude Akins in Comanche—actually save their adversary's life somewhere along the way.

Ride Lonesome is perhaps the best Ranown film. Roberts and his sidekick (James Coburn) brood over the grim irony of murdering Scott's character so that they can go straight; meanwhile Scott's character harbors his own secret agenda, and the poetic final scene finds him destroying everything his life has been about for years, for good or for ill. Comanche Station, on the other hand, is perhaps the most beautifully formed Ranown, a neat geometry of desire, shame, respect, treachery, bleak rocks, and big sky.

Scott retired from the screen rich and happy soon after, but Boetticher struggled for years to get a dream-project bullfighting film off the ground and doomed his career in the process. He might have had more great films left in him, but few filmmakers make movies as great as the best of these, and maybe now more people will know it.