14 November 2010 | Spikeopath
You just don't seem like the kind that would hunt a man for money.
Ride Lonesome is directed by Budd Boetticher, written by Burt Kennedy and stars Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, James Best & Lee Van Cleef. Charles Lawton Jr is the cinematographer (in CinemaScope for the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California location) and Heinz Roemheld provides the musical score. Film is part of the Ranown Western cycle involving Boetticher, Scott, Kennedy and producer Harry Joe Brown.
Bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Scott) captures wanted outlaw Billy John (Best) and tells him he's taking him to Santa Cruz to be hanged. Best boasts that his brother Frank (Cleef) will soon be arriving to ensure that doesn't happen. Brigade isn't the least bit bothered by this statement. The two men stop at a Wells Junction, a remote swing station, where they encounter Boone (Roberts) & Whit (Coburn), two drifters, and Mrs Lane (Steele), the station attendant's wife. With Mr Lane missing and the Mescalero Apache's on the warpath, the group decide to collectively travel to Santa Cruz, but hot on their trail are the Indians and Frank's gang. There's also the small matter of motives within the group, seems Boone & Whit, too, have a special interest in Billy, while Brigade may have something far more ulterior driving him on.
As the decades have rolled by, the Boetticher/Scott Westerns have come to be rightly regarded as genre high points. Between 1956 to 1960 they produced 7 pieces of work. The weakest of which were the more jovial Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), and the Kennedy absent WB contract filler, Westbound (1959). The remaining five each follow a familiar theme that sees Scott as a man driven by emotional pain, movies with simmering undertones and pulsing with psychological smarts. Poll a hundred Western fans for their favourite Boetticher/Scott movie and you will find any of the five being mentioned as a favourite: such is the tightness and intelligence of each respective picture.
So we are out in the desolated Old West, it's harsh and weather beaten. Our five characters are either troubled by death-prior and pending-or searching for a life that may be a touch too far from their grasp. As their journey unfolds, loyalties will be tested and shifted, uneasy bonds formed, psychological and sexual needs bubble away under the surface. All viewed by the enveloping Alabama Hills: with Mount Whitney the chief patriarch overseeing his charges. Ride Lonseome, is a stunning movie, an elegiac piece, one that's bleak yet not without hope, a collage of tones seamlessly blended together to create one almost magnificent whole. The first Boetticher movie in CinemaScope, the film is directed with great economic skill, the whole width of the screen is creatively used by the director, placing the characters in the landscape like Anthony Mann used to do with Jimmy Stewart. His action construction is smart and it should be noted that there is not one interior shot in the film. Lawton Jr sumptuously shoots in Eastman Color, actually a perfect choice for the rugged terrain and the wide, lonesome inducing open spaces provided by the Scope format. While Kennedy's script is sparing, perfectly so, the dialogue is clipped but very telling. And crucially there's no manipulation in the narrative.
Then of course there's the cast. Scott leads off with one of his brave, ageing man of few words portrayals, a character with inner sadness gnawing away at him. With just one glance and a couple of words, Scott actually provides more depth than most other actors in the genre were able to do with more meatier parts. With the lead protagonist established, Boetticher surrounds him with fine support. Coburn was making his film debut and with his tall frame and distinctive voice he leaves a good impression, mostly because he works so well off of Roberts' more outwardly tough turn. Their partnership gives the film a believable friendship at its centre, lovable rogues perhaps? And they also provide some of the lighter moments that Boetticher and Kennedy use to tonally keep us guessing. Steele is just sultry, a blonde fire cracker in the middle of a potential hornets nest. While Best does a nice line in snivelling weasel, his characters trait being that he shoots his victims in the back. As for Cleef? He's barely in it, but after his characters introduction into the story, his presence hangs over proceedings like a dark heavy cloud. He will be back, tho, and rest assured it's worth the wait.
Does Ride Lonesome have flaws? Yes. One thing is that at 73 minutes it's too damn short. But moving away from that particular greedy itch of mine, the film does carry some Western clichés. Most notably with the Indian participation in the story. Be it chases, portentous smoke signals or an adobe corral attack-where our group are of course outnumbered-it's stock Cowboy & Indian fare. Not helped by Roemheld's music, which only reinforces the clichés. Thankfully in Boetticher's hands the clichés are overcome by the scenes raising the pulse, and in one particular sequence, providing the basis for a terrific tracking shot. Roemheld does deliver the goods for the finale, tho, and what a finale it is too. Featuring a tree shaped like a cross, the ending has sparked many an interpretation. Some way too deep (French critics) & some just bizarre (internet sleuths), when actually the interpretation is simple; hell they even got Martin Scorsese to explain it on the DVD. The memorable shot involving the tree, as the music pounds away, can induce pounds of goose-flesh on the skin, powerful it is. As endings go in the Boettticher canon? It gives Comanche Station's riderless horse finale a run for the title of being his, and Scott's, best. A near masterpiece from a true auteur. 9/10