I’m supposed to be cutting back on the number of reviews I write as it gets overwhelming running a website and providing regular content at the rate I’ve developed over the years. However, the distributors who provide releases for us to review don’t make it easy for me to pass on titles. This, Indicator’s release of the box set, Five Tall Tales: Budd Boetticher & Randolph Scott At Columbia, 1957-1960, is the perfect case in point. How can a western fan like myself turn down the chance to see and review 5 of the most well loved examples of the genre, most of which have been hard to find in the UK for a long time? They can’t of course, so here I am, providing my brief thoughts on the collection of films included in the set.

It’s a shame all seven Boetticher and Scott collaborations aren’t included here, but the rights to 7 Men From Now and Westbound are kept elsewhere so it was never going to happen. The films form what is known as the ‘Ranown’ cycle (i.e. films produced by Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown - hence the name) and are thought to be the finest films directed by Boetticher. Unfortunately, after these and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond just after, his career stalled due to troubles attempting to make a film about the famous bullfighter Carlos Arruza, including severe illness and stints in prison and an asylum. He ended up releasing the documentary (entitled Arruza) in 1972, but other than that he made little of note in the final 40 years of his life (he died in 2001), which is a shame, because all 5 of the titles included in this set are superb. Below is a rundown of each one.

The Tall T

Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Burt Kennedy
Based on a Story by: Elmore Leonard
Starring: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, Henry Silva, John Hubbard
Country: USA
Running Time: 78 min
Year: 1957

The earliest film in the set, though not the first Ranown western (7 Men From Now was released before this), The Tall T sees Randolph Scott play Pat Brennan, a former ranch ‘ramrod’ who heads back to his old hometown on some errands. He instead ends up losing his horse in a foolish bet and his fortunes worsen when he hitches a ride on a privately hired stagecoach which ends up being taken hostage by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his gang (Henry Silva and Skip Homeier). This group of miscreants meant only to hold up the regular stage and kill those who got in their way, but the pair that hired the stage they do hold up are Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan), who is the daughter of a wealthy mine-owner, and her new husband Willard (John Hubbard). The latter is a weaselly character who obviously only married Doretta for her family fortune, and uses this to save his skin by talking Frank into demanding a ransom from his father-in-law. Brennan is kept prisoner with Doretta whilst Willard heads out with the demands and they can only and sit and wait to see what happens. They’ll likely be killed, no matter what the outcome, particularly Brennan who is only initially spared by Frank because of some sort of respect for him.

God, I love films like this. Not only is it a western, which is always a bonus in my books, but it keeps its story lean and mean, sticking largely to a single location and minimal characters, wringing every ounce of tension out of the situation. In focusing largely on the interactions between the group, it’s a great example of a ‘psychological western’, i.e. one that works by getting into the minds of its characters rather than relying on mere action and spectacle. In this sense the film is deeper than most run of the mill oaters, even if it seems simple on the surface. It has a realism to it that many earlier westerns lack too. Boetticher was a tough man, turning his hand to bull fighting for a time, and, if the interviews provided in the set are anything to go by, realism was something he always strived for. Films featuring untouchable heroes that rock up into town and blast everyone away without flinching angered the director. Scott, although usually playing a good man who lives by a strong code of honour, never comes across as an invincible sharp shooter. His character occasionally loses fights, gets hurt or gets taken prisoner.

I could talk in greater depth about the many merits of The Tall T, but the films included in the set share many qualities, so rather than repeat myself I’m going to spread my thoughts out across all five reviews. In summation on this title though, it’s tight as a drum, tough, thrilling and expertly crafted. It’s near perfect filmmaking, as with most of the films listed, and an absolute pleasure to watch.

Decision at Sundown

Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Charles Lang
Based on a Story by: Vernon L. Fluharty
Starring: Randolph Scott, John Carroll, Karen Steele, Valerie French, Noah Beery Jr, John Archer, Andrew Duggan
Country: USA
Running Time: 77 min
Year: 1957

Decision at Sundown sees Scott play Bart Allison, who enters Sundown with only one thing on his mind - killing Tate Kimbrough. This well-to-do man is about to marry Lucy (Karen Steele) and seems to own everything in town. It takes a while for us to learn exactly why Allison is so hell bent on revenge (so this following sentence could be classed as a spoiler), but it turns out Tate was cheating on his wife, who later killed herself. Allison approaches Tate about this during his wedding ceremony, putting a halt to proceedings and forcing Allison and his partner Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) into the livery stables where they are cornered for most of the film.

Although it bears numerous similarities to the other films in this set, Decision at Sundown does feel unique amongst them. The biggest difference is Scott’s character. Allison doesn’t feel like what you might call a ‘good guy’. Even when you learn what happened to his wife, you get the feeling (and characters soon spell it out) that maybe Tate wasn’t to blame. Allison is just trying to find a way out from his grief and as much as Tate is a flawed man, he doesn’t deserve to die for what he did.

This means the film is possibly the darkest in the collection (although none of them are what you’d call light). It’s probably the weakest though, if only by a touch. It’s hard to put my finger on what sets it slightly back from the other titles, perhaps I was just tired when I watched it, but it didn’t feel quite as taut. There are perhaps one too many characters, leading to a slightly more cluttered story.

That said, Decision at Sundown is still a great film. If it isn’t quite as satisfying as entertainment as the others, it’s more morally complex and still quite gripping. The ending displays this in particular, offering a thoughtful resolution you wouldn’t have expected earlier on in proceedings.

Buchanan Rides Alone

Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Charles Lang
Based on a Story by: Jonas Ward
Starring: Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens, Barry Kelley, Tol Avery, Peter Whitney, Manuel Rojas
Country: USA
Running Time: 78 min
Year: 1958

We begin Buchanan Rides Alone with Scott once again riding into town, this time Agry, which lies on the border between the US and Mexico. Scott is playing Tom Buchanan, a fairly cheerful sort to begin with, who is just passing through and wants a room for the night and a belly full of grub. He doesn’t get much of a welcome though as he’s treated rudely and charged a fortune by most he comes across. He also notices that all of the authority figures and bar/hotel owners seem to be named Agry. Indeed, the family have a stranglehold on the town and Buchanan finds himself in the centre of some family politics when young Roy Agry (William Leslie) is shot dead by Juan de le Vega (Manuel Rojas). Roy had been threatening to kill Buchanan just moments earlier and he intervenes when the townsfolk begin to beat the living daylights out of Juan moments later. So Buchanan finds himself facing the hangman’s noose along with the Mexican. The angry locals almost string them both up straight away, but judge Simon Agry (Tol Avery) intervenes and orders a fair trial. You see he’s up for a Senator post and needs to look like an honourable citizen. This trial sees Buchanan go free, but the rest of the Agry family still have it in for him and he isn’t happy about the treatment Juan is receiving, so Buchanan hangs around. Further complicating matters is the fact that Juan is the son of an influential Mexican leader, Don Pedro de la Vega, who is willing to pay a handsome fee for the safe return of his son.

All of the films in this set have a flavour of the spaghetti western to them, a sub-genre which would appear a few years later, but I feel Buchanan Rides Alone most reminded me of Sergio Leone’s films and those of his contemporaries. All the films here have the rough, dirty, realistic feel of the Italian westerns, but this has a more twist-filled plot than the other Ranown westerns with factions double crossing each other and an independent figure caught in the middle, much like in A Fistful of Dollars. Indeed, Leone is known to have once spotted Boetticher at a film festival and called out “Budd! I stole everything from you!”

Without Scott’s character having a shadow from his past affecting his actions as it does in most of the other films, and with him playing kind of a secondary character in the main narrative, Buchanan Rides Alone feels a little lighter than the other films here. As such, it’s less of a ‘psychological western’ and instead relies more on its plot than the inner turmoil of its characters. This is probably why it’s generally not considered one of the best films in the Ranown cycle. I really enjoyed it though, possibly because it broke a little from tradition, which was refreshing when chain-watching the films like I did over a few days (this was the 4th title I watched - I didn’t view them in chronological order). The slightly more complex plot is very engaging and fun to see unfold.

There’s a little more black humour here too, such as the amusingly simple eulogy one character gives after he strings a friend’s body up in a tree where the animals can’t get it (the ground is too wet to bury him). There are dashes of subtle and dark comedy throughout all the films, but I think this showed more of it, possibly due to the slightly lighter tone.

So it’s a little different to the other films in the cycle, but is still a lean, mean and wonderfully constructed western that’s a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Ride Lonesome

Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Burt Kennedy
Starring: Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Pernell Roberts, James Best, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn
Country: USA
Running Time: 73 min
Year: 1959

Ride Lonesome sees Scott once again play a lone wolf, this time a bounty hunter named Ben Brigade, who captures a wanted murderer named Billy John (James Best) in the opening scene. Brigade heads off to Santa Cruz where he can claim his reward, but bumps into a pair of fellow bounty hunters (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn) and a feisty woman (Karen Steele), who he’s forced to team with as the local Mescalero ‘Indians’ are on the warpath nearby. Also on Brigade’s trail is Frank (Lee Van Cleef), Billy John’s brother. His most dangerous enemy might come from his own team though as Sam Boone (Roberts) wants to take Billy John into Santa Cruz, not just for the money, but for the offer of amnesty being made for anyone with a criminal record who brings the murderer in. You see, Boone wants to go straight but his unlawful past won’t allow it. Things don’t look great for Brigade then, but he’s determined to go ahead with his mission, not because he so badly wants the money, but because he wants to draw out Frank to get revenge for something in his past.

If Buchanan Rides Alone fit the psychological western mould the least, Ride Lonesome perhaps fits it the closest. My description of the plot might sound a little complicated, but this is actually another stripped back story which is more concerned with its deeply flawed and rich characters than anything else. And the characters are particularly interesting here. Boone for instance is villainous in his plan to murder Buchanan, but you can vaguely sympathise with his reasons and he’s very charismatic, aided by a wonderful performance by Roberts. Scott’s character is darker than usual too as he’s driven by revenge, a trait only otherwise seen in Decision at Sundown. Even the female lead, Steele, is stronger than usual, although she does play second fiddle to the men as with all the women in these films.

One aspect of the films I haven’t touched on yet are the visuals. The films are all handsomely shot, despite their low budgets, but this was the first to be done in Cinemascope and Boetticher and his cinematographer, the great Charles Lawton Jr, make the most of the wide frame, carefully and cleverly placing the elements within it. There are some superb, fairly long master shots here too which are brilliantly blocked out with smooth camera movements. The film ends on the cycle’s most memorable shot too, a powerful image that perfectly symbolises the change undergone by Brigade during the film.

All in all, it’s a superb yarn, filled with tension, excitement and thoroughly well rounded characters. It’s possibly the best of the bunch in my opinion, although they’re all excellent.

Comanche Station

Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Burt Kennedy
Based on a Story by: Elmore Leonard
Starring: Randolph Scott, Nancy Gates, Claude Akins, Skip Homeier, Richard Rust
Country: USA
Running Time: 74 min
Year: 1960

Comanche Station has Scott play Cody, a bounty hunter who trades with the Comanches to rescue a woman, Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates), they’d held captive. He heads to town to take Nancy back to her husband, but bumps into another group of bounty hunters along the way, as well as a horde of angry Comanches on their tail. Cody knows Lane (Claude Akins), one of the mercenaries, from his time in the military and the two share a rocky past, but they’re forced to ride together to escape the Comanches. Lane has his eyes on the reward for Nancy too of course, so plots with his two goons, Frank (Skip Homeier) and Dobie (Richard Rust), to kill Cody and the woman (the reward will be awarded dead or alive) once they’re home free.

Comanche Station was the only film in the set I’d seen previously and was the main reason I was so excited about reviewing it. I was blown away by it on first watch a year or so ago. I loved the stripped back, tough, gripping and economic storytelling. Nothing has changed about that on this second viewing, although the fact that all films in the set achieve a similar feat meant a little of the shine was taken from my memory of Comanche Station and I ever so slightly preferred The Tall T and Ride Lonesome after working through the whole collection.

So it’s business as usual, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re working at the level of the Ranown cycle. Once again you’ve got rich characters with dark motivations. In particular here you’ve got Nancy’s worries about what her husband will make of her after she’s been a sex slave to a Comanche chief. This is never openly said due to the era of production, but clearly implied. There’s a ‘bad guy’ who questions his decisions too, a dilemma faced by a few of the minor characters throughout this set.

There are some exciting action sequences too, particularly in the couple of scenes when the Comanche attack. Boetticher was good with a horse and made sure his actors were too, although stunt riders stepped in for a couple of the more difficult tricks. Scott in particular did a lot of his own stunts and he proves his worth here.

Regular writer Burt Kennedy (who reportedly rewrote Buchanan Rides Alone on top of the other credits given elsewhere in the set) deserves mention too before I wrap everything up, as he provides another sharp, flab free script full of roughly poetic dialogue.

Comanche Station then is another stripped back, taut and gripping psychological western from the Boetticher, Scott and Brown team. It caps off an incredible run of films which are every bit as good as their reputation suggests.

Five Tall Tales: Budd Boetticher & Randolph Scott At Columbia, 1957-1960 is being released on 28th May by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. The restoration work is largely very good, with a very detailed and naturally textured look. There is quite a lot of haloing on display though in most of the films, particularly Ride Lonesome. The audio occasionally sounds a little rough, but this is due to the source rather than the restoration, which is great.

There are tonnes of special features included in the set:

- 2K restoration of Ride Lonesome 
- HD restorations of The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone and Comanche Station 
- Original mono audio 
- The John Player Lecture with Budd Boetticher (1969): archival audio interview conducted by Horizons West author Jim Kitses at the National Film Theatre, London 
- The Guardian Interview with Budd Boetticher (1994): an extensive filmed interview conducted by film historian David Meeker at the National Film Theatre, London 
- Budd Boetticher on the Ranown Cycle (1999): excerpts from Eckhart Schmidt’s unpublished documentary Visiting... Budd Boetticher 
- The Guardian Interview with Elmore Leonard (1997): the celebrated author, and writer of the short story upon which The Tall T is based, in conversation at London's National Film Theatre 
- The Tall T audio commentary with Jeanine Basinger (2008) 
- Ride Lonesome audio commentary with Jeremy Arnold (2008) 
- Comanche Station audio commentary with Taylor Hackford (2008) 
- Martin Scorsese on 'The Tall T' and 'Ride Lonesome' (2008) 
- Taylor Hackford on 'Decision at Sundown' and 'Buchanan Rides Alone' (2008) 
- Clint Eastwood on 'Comanche Station' (2008) 
- Playing in the Open (2018): an analysis of Ride Lonesome by Cristina Álvarez López 
- Christopher Frayling on Budd Boetticher (2018): the writer and cultural historian discusses the work of the great director 
- Kim Newman on the Ranown Cycle (2018): an analysis by the critic and author of Wild West Movies 
- A Man Alone (2018): a portrait of Randolph Scott by film historian Edward Buscombe 
- Super 8 version of 'Comanche Station': original cut-down home cinema presentation 
- Original theatrical trailers 
- Ride Lonesome trailer commentary (2013): a short critical appreciation by filmmaker John Sayles 
- Comanche Station trailer commentary (2014): a short critical appreciation by screenwriter Sam Hamm 
- Image galleries: publicity stills and promotional material 
- Limited Edition exclusive 80-page book containing newly commissioned essays by Pamela Hutchinson, Glenn Kenny, James Oliver, Neil Sinyard and Farran Smith Nehme, archival interviews with director Budd Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy, a critical anthology, and full film credits 
- Limited Edition Box Set of 6,000 numbered copies

Wow. No stone is left unturned here. Powerhouse seem to have unearthed every possible documentary, interview, commentary and featurette they could find. There’s a little crossover here and there, but not enough for me to put you off watching and listening to every feature in the set. It’s all worthwhile and often quite entertaining. Boetticher in particular revels in telling tall tales of his life and career in the handful of interviews included here. The contributions from critics and experts are welcome too and help to better appreciate Boetticher and his team’s strengths. Special mention must also go to the booklet, which is stocked to the gills with essays, interviews and period pieces related to the films.

Just when I thought Powerhouse couldn’t top their Harryhausen box sets, they bring this out. Other than the minor halo issue on the prints, this set is perfect and demands a purchase from anyone even remotely interested in westerns.

Features:

* Please excuse the stills used in this review - they were all I could find online and are not indicative of the picture quality of the Blu-ray.

Five Tall Tales: Budd Boetticher & Randolph Scott At Columbia, 1957-1960
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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