Lonely As The Night: Randolph Scott in COMANCHE STATION (Columbia 1960)

COMANCHE STATION was the final entry in the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher/Burt Kennedy series of Westerns, and in many ways a fitting ending. The loneliness of the Westerner is again a key theme as the film begins with the solitary figure of Scott as Jefferson Cody, riding across that rocky, barren, now mighty familiar Lone Pine terrain. He bargains with hostile Comanches for a captive white woman named Nancy Lowe, wife of a wealthy rancher. Stopping at Comanche Station, Cody and Mrs. Lowe encounter three men being chased by the tribe.

We learn one of these men is Ben Lane, a bounty hunter who shares a dark past with Cody. The two were formerly in the Army together, where then-Major Cody busted Lane out of the service for the slaughter of a village of friendly Indians. We also learn Mrs. Lowe’s husband is offering a five thousand dollar reward for her return – dead or alive. The station manager returns, an arrow in his chest, telling Cody and company the stagecoach was turned back by renegade scalphunters before he dies, and now the four men and Mrs. Lowe must ride to Lordsburg on their own, with those scalphunters close behind. There’s plenty of action, danger, and drama along the way, as the renegades aren’t the only threat, and a surprise twist at the end.

Scott is stoic as Cody, a man whose wife was captured by Comanches ten years earlier, and has been searching for her ever since. His singlemindedness of purpose has led him to a life of bartering for the release of captive white women in hopes of finding her. He’s the eternal Wandering Cowboy, cursed by fate to search for his love, a search that has so far been in vain. Claude Akins as Lane is a smiling menace with an evil laugh who has ideas of his own about what to do with Mrs. Lane. Nancy Gates (SUDDENLY ) does good work here as Mrs. Lane, and the small cast also features Skip Homeier and Richard Rust as Lane’s accomplices.

There is some truly majestic camerawork here by Boetticher and his DP Charles Lawton Jr., the outdoor scenery becoming a character itself, filled with both beauty and terror. Boetticher went from here to direct the gangster drama THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND and some TV work (ZANE GREY THEATER, DEATH VALLEY DAYS, THE RIFLEMAN), but spent much of the decade working on a documentary about Mexican bullfighting legend Carlos Arruza , an obsession which consumed him and created much hardship for the director. It was finally released in 1972 to no great acclaim. Boetticher directed one other film, 1969’s A TIME FOR DYING (Audie Murphy’s swan song), wrote the story for TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, and made an appearance in the 1988 film TEQUILA SUNRISE before his death in 2008.

As for Randolph Scott, after a thirty-plus year career in films, the actor had one more film in him before settling into a comfortable retirement at the age of 64. It was another Western, by a new young director, delineating the contrast between the Old West and the New. The film was 1962’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. The director? Sam Peckinpah.

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Lonesome Cowboy: Randolph Scott in RIDE LONESOME (Columbia 1959)

Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher  teamed again for RIDE LONESOME, their sixth of seven Westerns and fourth with writer Burt Kennedy. Scott’s a hard case bounty hunter bringing in a killer, joined in his trek by an old “acquaintance” with an agenda of his own. Everyone’s playing things close to the vest here, and the stark naked desert of Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills, with its vast emptiness, plays as big a part as the fine acting ensemble.

Ben Brigade (Scott) has captured the murderous Billy John and intends to bring him to justice in Santa Cruz. Coming to a waystation, he finds Sam Boone and his lanky young companion Whit, known outlaws who’ve heard the territorial governor is granting amnesty to whoever brings in Billy. Also at the station is Mrs. Crane, whose husband has been murdered by marauding Mescaleros. Sam’s interested in forming a partnership and taking Billy to the nearest town, but Brigade is determined to head to Santa Cruz “no matter what”, for reasons of his own. The five of them ride out, and get ambushed along the way by the Mescaleros. They manage to come out victorious, but more peril awaits, as Billy’s brother Frank and his crew are following their trail…

I won’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t seen this – and it’s must-see for Western buffs! Boetticher, a John Ford acolyte, frames his shots almost as well as The Master himself, and Lone Pine is his Monument Valley. Charles Lang’s camera captures the sense of isolation not only of the location, but of the players. The small cast all get to shine here, though most never went on to huge success in film. Pernell Roberts (Sam) became a star on television, first as eldest son Adam Cartwright in the first six seasons of BONANZA, then for seven years as TRAPPER JOHN, MD (1979-86). Karen Steele (Mrs. Crane) did four films for Boetticher (DECISION AT SUNDOWN, WESTBOUND, THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND, this one), but did better as a guest performer on episodic TV. James Best (Billy) supported many a Western, but didn’t achieve real stardom until playing goofy Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979-85).

The two actors that did obtain screen superstardom have very small parts in RIDE LONESOME. James Coburn made his movie debut as Whit, and though he’s a minor character, there are signs he’s an actor with a future. Coburn would make another Western that year (FACE OF A FUGITIVE), then score big in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN , go on to hits like THE GREAT ESCAPE and  OUR MAN FLINT, and eventually an Oscar for AFFLICTION. Lee Van Cleef (Frank) could be called “Lee Van Brief” for all the screen time he gets here. It wasn’t until he teamed with Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE that he became an overnight success after 13 years in films, and a Spaghetti Western icon in his own right.

RIDE LONESOME’s sparse cast and setting, along with Boetticher’s keen eye and the intense script by Kennedy, make this a most enjoyable Western, and  Randolph Scott’s portrayal of a man hell-bent on vengeance is the glue that holds it all together. Sometimes, smaller is better!

Well of Loneliness: Randolph Scott in THE TALL T (Columbia 1957)

I’ve told you Dear Readers before that Randolph Scott stands behind only John Wayne in my personal pantheon of great Western stars. Scott cut his cowboy teeth in a series of Zane Grey oaters at Paramount during the 1930’s, and rode tall in the saddle throughout the 40’s. By the mid-50’s, Scott and his  producing partner Harry Joe Brown teamed with director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy for seven outdoor sagas that were a notch above the average Westerns, beginning with SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. The second of these, THE TALL T, remains the best, featuring an outstanding supporting cast and breathtaking location cinematography by Charles Lang, Jr.

Scott plays Pat Brennen, a friendly sort trying to make a go of his own ranch. Pat, who comically lost his horse to his old boss in a wager over riding a bucking bull, hitches a ride with his pal Rintoon’s oncoming stagecoach. Rintoon’s passengers are newlywed spinster Doretta Mims, whose father owns the richest copper mine in the territory, and her spouse Willard, a worm who obviously married Doretta for her money. The coach pulls into the switching station run by Pat’s friend and his young boy. But neither are to be found… instead three bad hombres greet them, thinking the stage is carrying a payroll they intend to rob. Rintoon is gunned down, and Pat, Doretta, and Willard are doomed to be next, until the spineless Willard strikes a deal with the outlaws to have Doretta’s father pay a ransom….

There’s an undeniable theme of loneliness threaded throughout the film, beginning with Scott’s Pat Brennen. Though outwardly an affable man, Pat has a hard edge to him that begins to boil to the surface after he and Doretta are held hostage. He’s always been an independent loner, though more than once people tell him, “Ain’t right for a man to be alone”. Doretta too, not the most attractive woman, suffers from being alone, which is the reason she married the cowardly Willard Mims. Even outlaw leader Frank Usher feels isolated, and finds more of a bond with Pat than his younger, uneducated companeros. Boetticher’s direction emphasizes this loneliness under a vast blanket of blue Western sky and the beautiful but empty scenic location of California’s Pine Valley mountains and desert.

The supporting cast is small, again underscoring that feeling of isolation. Maureen O’Sullivan , best known as Jane to Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan, was semi-retired when she took the role of Doretta Mims. Miss O’Sullivan, a striking beauty, was glammed down for the part of the homely spinster, later blossoming toward film’s end. Richard Boone shows subtle depth of character as gang leader Usher while still conveying a menacing presence as a man not to be trifled with. His underlings are a pair of movie “bad hombres” indeed – Henry Silva and Skip Homeier . Arthur Hunnicut’s Rintoon seems a comic sidekick, which makes his death early on all the more shocking. John Hubbard as the craven Mims, who throws his own wife under the bus to save his miserable hide, elicits no sympathy when he gets what’s coming to him.

The Scott/Boetticher Westerns don’t have the flamboyance of, say, the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone trilogy , or the historical importance of the John Wayne/John Ford collaborations . Instead, they’re all compact, well-made productions that have plenty to say about the human condition under the guise of the Western genre. THE TALL T stands tallest among them, and makes a good introduction to those who haven’t seen any of these classic Westerns before. Once you watch, you’ll be hungry for more.

 

 

How The West Was Fun: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (United Artists 1969)

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SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! is played strictly for laughs. It’s broad performances and slapstick situations won’t strain your brain, but will give you an hour and a half’s worth of escapist fun. Easy going James Garner has the lead, with solid comic support from Joan Hackett, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, and Jack Elam. Director Burt Kennedy made quite a few of these, and this is probably the best of the bunch.

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While burying an itinerant drifter, the townsfolk of Calendar, Colorado discover a mother lode of gold. The subsequent boom turns Calendar into a lawless, rowdy town that can’t keep a sheriff alive long enough to tame it. The town elders also can’t get their gold through without paying a 20% tribute to the mean Danby clan. Enter our hero Jason McCullough (Garner), who applies for the sheriff’s position “on a temporary basis…I’m on my way to Australia”.  Jason is a crack shot and fast on the draw, but prefers to use his brains over his gun. He locks up Danby brother Joe, much to the consternation of Old Man Danby.

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Mayor Perkins gives Jason free room and board to stay in town and clean it up. He’s got a klutzy daughter named Prudy, who first discovered the gold, and keeps getting into embarrassing predicaments whenever Jason’s around. Jason hires “town character” Jake as his deputy after Jake backs him up in a saloon showdown. After several attempts at killing Jason fail, the Danbys gather all their relatives to descend on Calendar. Mayor Perkins and the townsfolk cower in fear, and Jason has only Jake and Prudy to rely on in the frenetic final confrontation with the Danby clan.

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Credit director Burt Kennedy for his homages to the films of John Ford in this. Of course there’s triple Oscar winner Walter Brennan, lampooning his role of Old Man Clanton in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. There’s another nod to CLEMENTINE with Garner sitting on the porch, leaning his chair back and trying to put his feet up a’la Henry Fonda. Ford regular Danny Borzage has a bit as the accordionist at the drifter’s gravesite. And that climactic gunfight has echoes of the OK Corral, only with a much more humorous outcome.

Burt Kennedy got his start writing for John Wayne and Randolph Scott before penning and directing the 1965 hit THE ROUNDERS, starring Fonda and Glenn Ford. Some of Kennedy’s other sagebrush spoofs were THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS (1969, with Robert Mitchum), DIRTY DINGUS MAGEE (1970, featuring Frank Sinatra), and the TV movies ONCE UPON A TRAIN and WHERE THE HELL’S THAT GOLD? (both 1988) starring singer Willie Nelson. There was also a sequel of sorts, 1971’s SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER, reuniting Garner and Elam. He also made some serious Westerns, like WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967), HANNIE CALDER (with Raquel Welch, 1971), and Wayne’s THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973). Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990), and directed his last film SUBURBAN COMMANDO (with Hulk Hogan) in 1991.

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Besides Garner doing his laid-back thing, the rest of the cast also gets into the silly spirit. Joan Hackett was an underrated actress who never really got her due, adept at both comedy and drama. Some of her films were THE GROUP (1966), WILL PENNY (1968), and her Oscar nominated role in Neil Simon’s ONLY WHEN I LAUGH (1981). Harry Morgan brings his comic expertise as Mayor Perkins, while vets Henry Jones, Walter Burke, and Willis Bouchey are the other town fathers. Brennan is fine as always, and a young Bruce Dern shines as his deadly but dumb son Joe.

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The standout here is Jack Elam. After many years of  playing gunfighters, gangsters, and goons, Burt Kennedy gave Elam a chance to show his comic side, and the old rascal nails it. His Jake is a simple-minded, reluctant deputy, and the perfect comic foil for sharp sheriff Garner. Elam even gets to break the Fourth Wall at film’s end to deliver the movie’s punchline. Elam went on to be a go-to comic sidekick for the rest of his career, passing away in 2003.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! doesn’t blaze any new Western trails and probably won’t make anyone’s Must See lists. It will make you laugh, though, and it’s fun to watch genre vets like Garner, Brennan, Morgan, and especially Jack Elam go through their comic paces. Recommended for one of those days when you need a good chuckle to chase the blues way.