When one thinks of the Boetticher/Scott films the image that generally springs to mind is that of a tough loner haunted by a past hurt and struggling to make his peace with the present. The drama is typically played out against a sparse backdrop with a small cast, among whom there is a woman who has a significant role. Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) dispenses with all these elements, and stands out as a unique entry in the series. It has a lighter, almost comedic tone, women barely figure, and Randolph Scott’s character has no back-story to speak of. For all these reasons I deliberately left it to the end of this short series of pieces on the recently released Ranown titles. I think that, for anyone planning to watch these movies as a group, it is probably better to save Buchanan Rides Alone for last. After the sombre, and sometimes tragic, mood of the other pictures it rounds things off in an upbeat fashion.
The movie derives from a story entitled The Name’s Buchanan, and the line is used by the hero (Randolph Scott) when he rides into a small border town on his way back to west Texas, having made his money fighting in the Mexican revolution. The town in question has effectively been sewn up by the three Agry brothers, who hold the positions of sheriff, hotel proprietor and judge respectively. The most powerful is the judge, Simon Agry (Tol Avery), although they’re all equally corrupt, grasping and manipulative. The killing of the judge’s son by a young and wealthy Mexican sees Buchanan wrongly accused of complicity, and he finds himself drawn into the machinations of the brothers who pragmatically view the family tragedy as a means of extorting a hefty ransom. What follows is a series of crosses and double-crosses as the members of the Agry clan jockey for position and try to gull each other out of said ransom. It is this greed and sibling rivalry, rather than any especially adept maneuvering on Buchanan’s part, that finally brings about their downfall during a botched prisoner exchange. Unlike Boetticher’s other westerns, the motivation for Scott’s character is not based on any grudge but merely on his efforts to secure the release of the Mexican and recover his own money.
Buchanan Rides Alone afforded Scott the opportunity to put in his most amiable performance of any of the Ranown series. There’s an element of self parody in the way he acknowledges his own ineptitude at being unable to formulate a coherent plan of action, and he even quips about his lack of progress when he ends up behind bars for a second time. The film is full of dry humour, courtesy of Charles Lang’s pithy script; some of the best coming when L Q Jones delivers a memorable eulogy over a body he’s just laid to rest atop a tree. The three Agry brothers are almost caricatures although Barry Kelley brings a more malevolent streak to his role as the profiteering sheriff. No Ranown western would be complete without a charming villain, and Craig Stevens supplies that ingredient as the black-clad enforcer with a stronger sense of honour than his reptilian employer. Boetticher uses a good combination of exteriors and interiors for this film and it works pretty well. The town has a more authentic feel and you don’t get that cheap, artificial look that weakens Decision at Sundown. Taylor Hackford points out on the accompanying featurette that the idea of a lone stranger riding into a corrupt town and presiding over the destruction of its rival factions could be seen as a kind of forerunner for A Fistful of Dollars. However, even granting that Leone was admittedly influenced by the style of Boetticher, I’m not sure I’d want to go too far down that road.
Well, that brings me to the end of this brief series, and I have to say that getting the chance to watch these films one on top of the other has been an enormous pleasure. I had seen them all at various points over the years, but watching them as a group allows one to better appreciate them as a body of work. The themes running through them seem to blend together, as Scott’s character evolved and Boetticher’s style became more apparent. They may have been B films in terms of budget, but they’re A films in terms of style and execution. Furthermore, they’re important films for those interested in the development of the western. In his book Horizons West (named after a Budd Boetticher movie, incidentally), Jim Kitses makes the point that the evolution of the western can be traced in a direct line from Ford and Mann, through Boetticher and Peckinpah, right up to Leone and Eastwood. That in itself should tell you that these films form an essential link. If anyone has been following these pieces and toying with the idea of picking up this set, then I can only say that you should do so; your western collection is incomplete without them.