Wednesday, November 20, 2013

FI: Buchanan Rides Alone

Buchanan Rides Alone
US, 1958
Directed by Budd Boetticher

Growing up, I was never much of a Western fan, though I have come to appreciate them more as I've gotten older. So, not being as well-versed in the genre, I really have to thank my friend Kerry for getting me into Budd Boetticher and the seven films he made with Randolph Scott in the '50s. Commonly called the Ranown Cycle (after Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown's production company, though the name doesn't technically apply to all of the pictures), the films are trim and economical, depicting a version of the West where morality is more complicated than White Hats and Black Hats. While Randolph Scott is usually at least a mostly good guy, the characters he plays often have some darkness, and there is also usually a morally-grey, somewhat sympathetic figure opposing him. While the films' cheapness, similar plots, and short production time make them B-movies, they helped "modernize" the Western via their philosophical complexity as well as Boetticher's knack for imbuing action scenes with emotion and real character stakes.

In Buchanan Rides Alone, Scott's character (the titular Buchanan) is a hired gun and mercenary, attempting to return from war in Mexico with enough money to buy a ranch in his West Texas home country. Though he "rides alone," he's a mostly genial fellow who just wants to be left to his business. But when he stops in Agry Town, a crooked California border village run by the three Agry brothers, he finds himself caught up in the family's petty squabbles, with his life and future livelihood at risk. All of the Agrys are villains, to some extent: Sheriff Lew Agry (Barry Kelley) and his posse of thugs are quick to abuse the law, searching travelers for money they can steal. Judge Simon Agry (Tol Avery), the town's de facto ruler, turns a blind eye to his brother's corruption so he can pay lip service to "justice"—though he is just as swayed by money as Lew—in the hopes of winning a senate seat. And Innkeeper Amos Agry (Peter Whitney) is a witless, out-of-shape buffoon, always spreading gossip and trying to curry favor with whichever brother he thinks will offer him the best deal. Buchanan isn't a hero and doesn't set out to clean up the town, but he is a fair-minded person. This leads to his conflict with the Agrys, but puts him on a pretty similar wavelength to the Judge's main hired gun, Carbo (Craig Stevens), whose instinct seems to be to find a way to split the difference between justice and profit.

Though the script—credited to Charles Lang, but, according to Wikipedia, written by Ranown regular Burt Kennedy—is a little more complicated and repetitive than the film's running time can accommodate, the story still surprises in how it all plays out. It also has plenty of humor—giving Scott a number of funny, "tough guy" moments without making him some invulnerable badass—and solid characterization for all the villains. Boetticher's framing and composition are as well-handled as ever, his camera charting the spatial geography of Agry Town such that it becomes a real, lived-in place. The only drawback to this film, as opposed to other Ranown pictures like The Tall T or Seven Men From Now, is that Buchanan is an unconcerned outsider rather than some wronged, vengeance-seeking man. That means the emotional stakes are lower than in the best Boetticher/Scott collaborations. Still, Buchanan's desire to make a new home (and new start) is strong enough to carry some of that weight, and Buchanan Rides Alone is fun enough to make up the difference.

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