Friday 27 August 2021

Great Scott!

Randolph trying to ignore the hot blonde next to him.
The Criterion Channel is currently showing the "Ranown" westerns, a linked group of six westerns starring Randolph Scott that take their name from the production company (owned by Scott and his producing partner) that made all but one of them. The six were directed by Budd Boetticher, four written by Burt Kennedy. I've watched them all, and they're an intriguing look back to when horse operas ruled the roost in theatres and on TV. They also contain a foreshadowing of the more savage, anti-heroic westerns that were coming down the road, especially the Leone westerns, which hit the screens only four years after the last Ranown film.

Scott's character in these films (bar one) is always, rigorously, the same: taciturn, stoic, rugged, single-minded, solitary. His dialogue is terse and flinty, so much so that in some films, notably Ride Lonesome, he almost becomes a secondary character. Scott was never much of an actor, and in his longish career he morphed from matinee idol in the '30s to sandblasted cowboy in the '50s. Watch his performances across these films and you realize you're watching the template for Clint Eastwood's acting in the Leone films. Eastwood was famous for cutting his own lines in these films so that when he spoke it mattered more, and that's exactly what scriptwriter Burt Kennedy did for Scott. The Man with No Name is essentially a more sociopathic version of Scott's cowboys and sheriffs. 

As if to compensate for Scott's stiffness, he's usually paired with characterful villains (as was Eastwood) played by, among others, Claude Akins, Henry Silva, Richard Boone, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn, and Lee Marvin, all of whom get juicy dialogue and some interesting quirks; Boone's character in The Tall T is a match for Scott when it comes to being laconic, but whenever someone accidentally hurts themselves he dissolves into sadistic, giggling laughter. Claude Akins in Comanche Station always answers to his character's name with a cheery "Hello" no matter what the situation. It's little details like that help make these films come alive. The bad guys are often well and truly evil. Henry Silva's character is a serial killer in spurs who'd feel at home in far grittier films made in the '70s, and in most of the films the villains think nothing of killing people in cold blood. 

The gender politics (a term we greenhorn dudes from back East like to use) are...interesting. The male characters spend a lot of time talking about what they reckon a man ought or ought not to do. At many points they make decisions based on some unwritten code of behavior for cowboys, and several of the films feel like morality plays in which Scott's hyper-masculine, hermit-like rectitude is held out as the gold standard for maleness. His relationships with the female characters (usually rationed to one per film) are chaste and formal; they're always addressed as "ma'am," sexual tension is absent, and the women are there to be protected. What's striking about four of the titles (Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) is the threat of rape from the villain(s) that hangs in the air. In Comanche Station the story begins with Scott rescuing a woman who's been captured and raped by Comanches, and she's then the subject of leering comments from Claude Akins. When sex isn't on the menu, food quite literally is: the women are all asked at various points to do the cooking and then complimented on their ability with a skillet and coffee pot. It's a conservative, Eisenhower-era view of women as homemakers and passive sexual partners who have to be protected or taken. In only a couple of years this trope of chaste heroes paired with virtuous women would die a quick death thanks to Bond films and more forgiving censors.

Two things make these films (four of them, anyway) really watchable: the rich, Technicolor cinematography that captures the strange, forbidding beauty of the deserts of the Southwest, and the scripts, which are admirably tight and economical, resulting in running times well short of 90 minutes. In an age of bloated action films that brush up against 3 hours, that's a blessed relief. Two of the films, Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone, don't stand up. The latter is a slow tale of revenge that was shot on cheap-looking studio backlot filled with third-string character actors, and the former has Scott playing a surprisingly affable character, but, like the other, it's undone by a weak supporting cast.

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