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Comanche Station

by Peter Bogdanovich
November 14, 2011 11:06 AM
5 Comments
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Among hip Western connoisseurs both here and abroad, there have been four really memorable, artistically consistent director-star series in the genre’s sound era: eight John Ford-John Wayne features (from Stagecoach to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance); four Howard Hawks-Wayne pictures (including Red River and Rio Bravo); five Anthony Mann-James Stewart sagas (from Winchester ‘73 to The Man from Laramie); and seven intimate ones from Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott.

The least known are the low-budget, quickly shot Scott-Boetticher films, all intriguing, at least four of them remarkably complex, powerful and unpretentious sagebrush chess games, all written by the talented Burt Kennedy, with Scott or Boetticher as producers; starting with 1956’s Seven Men from Now and concluding with 1960’s color and widescreen COMANCHE STATION. The other two are The Tall T (1957) and Ride Lonesome (1959), and these three are all available in an excellent DVD collection, The Films of Budd Boetticher, which includes a documentary about the director which was produced by Clint Eastwood.

When I first saw Comanche Station in the mid-‘60s, I wrote and filed a card that read: “Personal, effective Boetticher-Scott Western about a man searching the plains for his wife, captured years ago by the Comanche; he saves another man’s wife, then must contend with three outlaws accompanying them, who are after the $5,000 reward put up by the woman’s husband. Written with depth and character, well acted, and strikingly directed, this is an evocative, often ambiguous, fascinating work.”

Probably the major distinguishing aspect of the Boetticher-Scott movies is the complicated cat-and-mouse relationships they depict between Scott and the various heavies, all of whom are given considerable dimension and charm, with such enormously appealing character-leads as Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Pernell Roberts and, in Comanche Station, Claude Akins. Akins becomes quite a contender opposite Scott, with typically fine malevolent support from the brilliant former child actor, Skip Homier, already a Boetticher veteran from The Tall T. The well-conceived woman in the piece is played simply and convincingly by Nancy Gates.

Budd Boetticher (pronounced Bet’-a-ker) was born in Chicago in 1916 under the inappropriate name of Oscar Boetticher, Jr., and got into directing pictures through one of the most unusual and roundabout ways in movie history.  After graduating from Ohio State, having played football and been a varsity boxer (“I had to be,” he told me, “with a name like Oscar”), he went down to Mexico in the mid-1930s and became a professional matador. When Fox needed a technical advisor for the Tyrone Power bullfight picture, Blood and Sand (1941), they hired Boetticher. Within three years, he was directing low-budget programmers under his birth name, but in 1951, the billing became Budd with his first important picture, and clearly semi-autobiographical, The Bullfighter and the Lady, with Robert Stack.

Over the next four years, Boetticher directed ten action and Western quickies before making another bullfight picture, The Magnificent Matador (1955), with Anthony Quinn. The amazing series of Randolph Scott Westerns followed (the others, not as good: 1957’s Decision at Sundown, 1958’s Buchanan Rides Alone and 1959’s Westbound), bracketed by exceptionally well done crime pictures, The Killer is Loose (1956) with Joseph Cotten and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), with Ray Danton. At the peak of his career, having been offered Scott’s next (and last), Ride the High Country (directed by Sam Peckinpah, 1962), Boetticher instead went to Mexico to shoot a documentary about his friend, the world-famous matador, Carlos Arruza.

The decade-long struggle with this ill-fated work, Arruza (1971), could be a hell of a movie in itself and is a riveting memoir told unflinchingly by Boetticher in his book, When in Disgrace: imprisonment, bankruptcy, divorce, insane-asylum commitment, near-death first from starvation, then a lung infection, the accidental death of his hero, Arruza, as well as much of his film crew. Boetticher, who died in 2001, was candid, courageous, and one of our finest, most unpretentious directors.

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5 Comments

  • Barry Lane | January 31, 2012 10:41 AMReply

    Forgetting the bull shit about Scott and Grant, Harry Joe Brown died in 1972. Don't think he was active in restoration after that time. Have no idea about Randy Scott's interests, but he passed after a long illness in 1987. No HD, Blu Ray or DVD. Clarify your comment Dennis.

  • Dennis Doph | November 20, 2011 8:46 AMReply

    Great overview, Peter, thanks. Boetticher and Randy are still much unappreciated. I helped Randy and his coproducer Harry Joe Brown restore the neg elements on all six of the Columbia/Boetticher Westerns and as a result they are worth their weight in platinum, and the Scott/Boetticher box reaped millions for Scott's estate. Also always on view is the love ring on Scott's little finger, which Cary Grant gave him in '32 when they were making "Hot Saturday" and connected.

  • Adam Lichtenstein | November 17, 2011 1:05 PMReply

    I'm writing a column for the Motion Picture Editors' Guild magazine on PAPER MOON and would like to interview Mr. Bogdanovich. Please forward my request to him. Thank you. Sincerely, Adam Lichtenstein Film Editor. I can be reached at the email address provided or via my website at www.firesideeditor.com

  • Casey | November 14, 2011 5:45 PMReply

    I'm not a huge fan of Boetticher, but reading your post made me want to check out more of his work. I'm glad you mentioned Burt Kennedy, because I think his scripts for those westerns were excellent. To my mind, the bad guys in those films are by far the most interesting characters, and I feel like this is a result of the writing as much as the direction. Kennedy was successful later with his western parodies, and it seems like he's mostly identified with those, but he did some awfully good work as a screenwriter.

  • Esoth | November 14, 2011 2:22 PMReply

    Any Boetticher-Scott Western is worth watching, any Boetticher Western, for that matter (he also made films with Glenn Ford and Robert Ryan, among others). There is something in the Boetticher-Scott Westerns that stands them apart. Its the tough simplicity of Scott's code (mirrored in the taught, disciplined ways the films were shot and play) juxtaposed against moral shadings, conflicted motivations and chaos that surrounds Scott. Yet Scott never plays it "straight" as if the answer to life's complex decisions were to hew to a narrow course. He engages and questions, and you see his principles as thoughtful and more meaningful, and there's a kind of remorse and sympathy in his meting out justice.

    Richard Boone was one of my favorite character actors and was seldom better than in Boetticher's "The Tall T". The scenes where he and Scott's character talk are nuanced anbrilliantlyly understated to the point where you forget the stagy western paradigms that frame them. Boetticher was so efficient and disciplined in his work, that it must have seemed inevitable that he would drift toward that era's plentiful television westerns. But its a shame that he didn't continue to work in films. How did the wheels come off someone of such wit and sharp intelligence? His decline was not foreshadowed in his work.

    I hadn't known that "Ride the High Country" had been offered to Boetticher, although I had seen the obvious inspiration and homage. Is it fair to suggest that Peckinpah's wonderfilmingming of "Ride the High Country" illustrates the distinction between a brilliant professional and a genius? I wonder if a Boetticher version would have lost some of the sweep and anarchic violence of Peckinpah's version.

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