The Hardcore Western Fan is an increasingly rare breed. And you shall know them by their high regard for Zane Gray. And their patronage of the Lone Pine Film Festival, held at the fantastically scenic California locale where scads of Westerns, classic and not, were shot. Hardcore Western Fans don't dig the so-called "anti-Westerns" much beloved of more catholic cinephiles. The only Sam Peckinpah films they approve of are Ride the High Country—largely due to its teaming of Hardcore Western heroes Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea—and The Dangerous Companions, largely due to the teaming of man's man Brian Keith with feisty Maureen O'Hara. The admiration the Hardcore Western Fan feels towards The Searchers is a begrudging one—when push comes to shove, it's too highfalutin. Hardcore Western Fans are real meat-and-potatoes types: they like their vistas wide, their action furious, their leading men laconic, their morality not relative. Give them that, and low budgets and their attendant rickety sets and undistinguished actors—the sort of thing that plagues PRC Westerns, the poverty-row studio product that many Hardcore Western Fans practically obsess over—don't bother them much.
One director the Hardcore Western Fan and the cinephile can agree on 100% is Budd Boetticher, who in the late '50s/early '60s made a string of Westerns starring the aforementioned and above-pictured Scott, five of which are collected in an exemplary set from Sony, "The Collector's Choice: The Films of Budd Boetticher." The set also contains all manner of extras, including an excellent documentary on Boetticher, A Man Can Do That, written and co-produced by critic Dave Kehr. The five films—The Tall T, Decision At Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Cheyenne Station—are all B pictures, not one breaking the 80 minute mark. Scripted by either Burt Kennedy (who wrote the better dialogue) or Charles Lang, the pictures are marvels of narrative leanness. Never is a shot wasted. And yet—shooting largely in Lone Pine and working with cinematographer such as Lucien Ballard and Charles Lawton Jr.—Boetticher packs enough visual beauty for five films into each feature.
Working outside the studio system, Boetticher was able to imbue the stories with more sexual frankness and hard-hitting action than was customary at the time. These are very much adult Westerns. Which concept, notionally, some Hardcore Western Fans would sneer at. But the maturity itself is...unobtrusive. Avoiding ostentation is key to winning any Hardcore Western Fan's approval.
Several of the luminaries discussing Boetticher's films on the set's extras (including Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood) talk about moral ambiguity in the pictures. It's there up to a point. The bad guys—particularly those scripted by Kennedy—are far more interesting and engaging than standard ones, and in each of the films Scott's hero finds himself in complex relationships with them. As I said before, the Hardcore Western Fan doesn't like moral relativism, and for all the multi-dimensionality of the Boetticher villain, Boetticher doesn't really go for it either. In all the films except Decision at Sundown, in which Scott's hero is misguided and flawed (but gets over it!), Scott's character is unambiguously The Good Guy. And The Bad Guys all get what's coming to them. That is, they get the justice they deserve. Nope, Scott's hero won't shoot an unarmed villain in the back as he rides away. But when that villain turns around and comes at Scott, once-hidden rifle blazing, well, then Scott will let him have it. Some putative baddies earn the right to walk away, by genuinely redeeming themslves. For all the shades of gray in the characterizations, the resolutions of the films invariably satisfy the Hardcore Western Fan's sense of a proper ending.
Two of the niftiest not-so-good-fellas in Boetticher's body of work are Sam and Whit, played by Pernell Roberts and James Coburn in 1959's Ride Lonesome. They're robbers turned bounty hunters, of a sort—seeing that the reward for one Billy Boy is something called "amnesty"—a word they had to have explained to them—they intend to bring said outlaw to justice, and start new lives. Except former sheriff turned bounty hunter (or so it seems) Ben Brigade scooped up Billy first; for much of Ride Lonesome, Sam and Whit tag along with Ben, the puling Billy (James Best; who else?) and a pneumatic widow (Karen Steele). Sam and Whit are amiable guys, and Ben is fond of them; Sam's got quite a lot of respect for Ben. But they both want the same thing, and are hell-bent on keeping it.
There's a delightful bit in A Man Can Do That in which Boetticher recalls the shooting of Ride Lonesome, and how Scott enjoyed the goofy characterization of the fellow playing Whit. This was Coburn, in his first feature film. That evening, Boetticher, Kennedy and Scott set down to write more "lyrics" for the character; the result is a wonderful, funny and moving exchange between the two outlaw brothers. You really have to see it. Coburn is terrific—but truth to tell, what he's doing is a character bit, staking a claim in L.Q. Jones territory. On the other hand, Roberts' manly, droll confidence here is such that, if you were watching the picture back in '59, you might have pegged him to become the bigger star. But it was on the strength of Ride Lonesome that Coburn got the gig—playing a much more quintessentially Coburnesque character—in The Magnificent Seven