Monday 5 October 2020

On Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming - BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (Budd Boetticher, USA, 1958) - Fourth instalment of Tom Ryan's series devoted to the legendary cycle of Westerns starring Randolph Scott and (mostly) produced by Harry Joe Brown


The Ranown Cycle, Part 4


“Grace. Fred Astaire in a Western.” 

(Budd Boetticher on Randolph Scott) (1)


The opening of the fourth film in the Ranown cycle (2) suggests a conventional Western. The credits scroll over a small township: a dusty main street, adobe buildings, men wearing sombreros going about their business. As we subsequently learn, this is Agry Town, situated on the border between the US and Mexico and named after the family that effectively runs it. More or less cut from the same cloth as Sundown in Decision at Sundown(1957).


As the credits end, a man riding tall in the saddle comes into medium close-up: Tom Buchanan (Scott). As he later reveals, he’s a rancher who’d needed money, had found some as a gun-for-hire in the Mexican-American war that erupted in the 1840s and is now simply passing through town on his way home to Tucson. That is, until trouble finds him. 


"...simply passing through town on his way home to Tucson"
Scott, Buchanan Rides Alone

Buchanan Rides Alone was director Budd Boetticher’s 26th feature (with ten of them made under the name of Oscar Boetticher, or Oscar Boetticher Jr., his birth name). He’d begun work in television by then, including an extended stint on the Public Defenderseries several years earlier as well as three episodes of Maverickwhile he was working on the Ranown films with Randolph Scott. 


The source for this very different addition to the cycle – different inasmuch as it’s a laconic black comedy – is The Name’s Buchanan, written by Jonas Ward (a nom-de-plume for hard-boiled crime novelist William Ard; he used other names too). (3) Originally published in 1956, when Ard was 34, it was the first in a series of five books he wrote featuring the character of Tom Buchanan. After his death in 1960, three further additions to the series were contributed by other writers. 


A hard-boiled but undistinguished Western potboiler, the novel introduces its titular hero as a familiar male stereotype, a man who goes his own way on his own terms. It also offers a 19th-century word for him with which I'd been unfamiliar, labelling him “a ramstam”. For the record, that’s the book’s way of telling us that he’s a “reckless and wilful” hombre. His demeanour lacks the self-contained uprightness that the Scott persona might customarily bring to mind, but he belongs to the same family, more like the hot-headed kid brother.


The adaptation for the film generally follows the book’s plot outline. Officially, it was written by Charles Lang, who was also responsible for the Decision at Sundown screenplay, although relatively reliable sources (4)suggest that Lang’s final draft was extensively rethought and rewritten by Boetticher and Burt Kennedy. 


In particular, aside from the ways in which the casting of Scott gave Buchanan a more laidback air, it appears that they expanded the character of Abe Carbo, played by Craig Stevens, making him a key figure. In the novel, he’s an important supporting player, but more like a cold-blooded pragmatist than his character in the film where he’s not only spared the bloody death he gets in the book, but even turns out to be kind of likeable. 


" hat, chaps and vest, with an aqua shirt..."
Craig Stevens,  Buchanan Rides Alone

Imagine Cary Grant in a Western and you’ll catch something of the character’s distinctive cool, dressed in black hat, chaps and vest, with an aqua shirt. He’s also given the film’s deliciously black punch-line – a laugh-out-loud moment – which Boetticher claims he added on the day of shooting. (5)


On Buchanan’s arrival in Agry, he’s rudely greeted by the sheriff, Lew Agry (Barry Kelley), and his deputies, suspicious of outsiders wearing guns. Soon afterwards, as he signs in for an overnight stay at the hotel, the eyes of the clerk at the desk, Amos Agry (Peter Whitney), the sheriff’s brother, widen greedily when he sees Buchanan’s money belt. Then the stranger in town heads over to the saloon for a steak, only to be accosted by Roy Agry (William Leslie), who’s ridden up in a hurry with scratches on his face and a melee on his mind.


Buchanan handles it all with good humour. Oozing self-assurance, he’s a man of few words and is reluctant to waste too many of them on these cretins. He just wants to gather himself together and be on his way. But then Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas) rides into town to avenge his sister, who has – it becomes clear between the lines – been raped by Roy. Some words could still not be spoken in Hollywood in the late ’50s.


After he takes his lethal revenge, he’s arrested and, as he’s being beaten up by the sheriff and his men, Buchanan steps in on his behalf. As a result, both the accused and his would-be rescuer are thrown into jail, the Agrys and the townspeople preparing for a double-hanging. What ensues is a series of negotiations in which base motives are camouflaged, generally clumsily, by a civilized veneer. 

Peter Whitney (Amos Agry), Tol Avery (Simon Agry), Craig Stevens
Buchanan Rides Alone

The novel hints at this theme but it’s more systematically expanded in Boetticher’s film. First, the town’s judge, Simon Agry (Tol Avery), steps in to prevent the hanging, not out of any principle but because it wouldn’t look good on his political resume. A trial is required beforehand. He presides, Buchanan pleads and is found innocent, but Juan – whom Buchanan is now calling “Johnny” – is sentenced to hang.


At which point the deal-making really begins. An emissary from Juan’s wealthy father (Joe De Santis) offers Judge Simon fifty of his employer’s finest horses in exchange for Juan’s freedom. The judge discusses this with Carbo, his bodyguard/personal assistant (6), and they conjure up an alternative deal that will be less open to scrutiny: $50,000.


As in the other Ranown films, a bounty becomes central to the action, a MacGuffin that matters to everybody but turns out to be meaningless in itself. Andrew Sarris has described the Scott/Boetticher films as “partly floating poker games” (7), and that characterisation’s appropriateness was never as pertinent as it is here. Just as Sergio Leone’s man-with-no-name Westerns pivot on the ways in which men and the American way are corrupted by money, so does, in particular, Buchanan Rides Alone


One doesn’t have to look too hard to see the potent influence that Boetticher’s work has had on Leone. (8)And, like the American West evoked in films such as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), Boetticher’s bordertown setting provides the stage for a meditation on the parlous state of the human condition (women are notably absent).


As the wheeling and dealing accumulates and accelerates, the absurdist black humour driving Buchanan Rides Alone takes charge. Hostages are taken and freed; the cash in the emissary’s saddlebags changes hands; a dizzying number of men with guns negotiate with each other; the $2000 in Buchanan’s money belt becomes a further commodity to be traded; individuals offer each other payment in return for a wide range of services. 


L Q Jones, Randolph Scott, Buchanan Rides Alone

It’s a chain of exchange that embroils every character. Including the film’s two essentially honourable men, Buchanan and Juan: Buchanan offers Pecos (L.Q. Jones), one of Sheriff Agry’s deputies, partnership “on that spread o’ mine” after Pecos saves him from being executed; Juan insists at the end that Buchanan accept his horse as payment for saving his life.

"This is my town now"
"You can have it."


Eventually and inevitably, the negotiations lead to a shoot-out on the bridge that leads from Mexico to the US, from one state of being to another. When the gunfire stops, bodies are strewn everywhere and Buchanan indicates that the time has come for him to go home. “This is my town now,” Carbo tells him, testing the ground. However, Buchanan isn’t interested in this challenge any more than he’s been interested in any others during the course of the film. “You can have it,” he replies. 


As he rides off, Carbo, a very urbane addition to the genre, turns to the grovelling hotel clerk who’s somehow managed to survive the shoot-out: “Don’t just stand there, Amos,” he tells him. “Get a shovel.” Amos, who’s executed by Carbo in the novel, does as he’s told.


(1)       from Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That (2005), produced and directed by Bruce Ricker, written by Dave Kehr, narrated by Ed Harris

(2)       For commentary on the previous three films of the Ranown cycle, click on the titles  Seven Men from Now The Tall T Decision at Sundown 

(3)       Jonas Ward, The Name’s Buchanan, G.K. Hall & Co., Maine, 1995 edition

(4)       The Films of Randolph Scott, McFarland & Company, Inc., North Carolina, 2004, pp. 203 – 206 

(5)       Ibid, p. 206

(6)       In a recent email correspondence, Geoff Gardner provocatively and eloquently described Carbo as “an early apparition of the political minder, the dark force pulling the strings behind the local politician”.

(7)       Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929 – 1968, Dutton, USA, 1968, p. 124

(8)       According to Boetticher, he first encountered Leone at a film festival in Italy. The pair met in front of the hotel where Boetticher and his wife were staying. Leone recognized him and introduced himself.  “Buddy, darling, I stole everything from you!” he announced, before offering to produce Boetticher’s next film. “If I produce it and you direct it, everybody in the world will see it,” he promised. “Great, but just one thing,” Boetticher told him. “Stay off the set.”

As recounted in David Schwartz, “A Pinewood Dialogue with Budd Boetticher”,


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