If Budd Boetticher had not made his transcendent series of Western morality plays starring Randolph Scott it’s likely he would be only remembered as just another talented Hollywood director who turned out his share of testosterone-fueled genre flicks. Nobody could have predicted a simple business arrangement between Boetticher, Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown would go far in securing a place in the critical pantheon for this journeyman filmmaker.
Using the granite-faced Scott as his genteel protagonist and Burt Kennedy’s pristine scripts as his template, Boetticher presented the American frontier as a dangerous place where men sought redemption and revenge—a direct contrast to the utopian visions of the west as interpreted by Ford and Hawks. Budd’s adult Westerns featured thinking heroines who stood a solid ground, forming partnerships and loving bonds with Scott. These floating poker games (to quote Andrew Sarris) are also noteworthy for their charismatic villains who typically stole the show from the stoic protagonist.
Boetticher’s sublime period would be all too brief as a life-long obsession drove him south of the border to pursue a quixotic quest that led to his professional doom.
During his long life Boetticher threw caution to the wind. Adopted into a prominent Chicago family Oscar Boetticher Jr. matriculated at Ohio State where he played football for the Buckeyes and excelled as a pugilist. A near-catastrophic injury nipped his gridiron career in the bud so following his heart instead of his head, Boetticher left for Mexico where he talked his way into becoming a matador.
His expertise in the art of bullfighting led to an offer from 20th Century Fox in 1941 to serve as an adviser for Rouben Mamoullian’s Technicolor remake of Blood and Sand. Boetticher chose to remain in Hollywood to work in pictures and after spending several years learning the ropes as an assistant director he finally got his chance to direct B-films at Columbia in 1944.
The spirited Boetticher found it difficult to work for the notorious Harry Cohn but he continued to accept programmers, all the while honing his craft. Boetticher’s amiable touch helped make these formulaic potboilers and Boston Blackie quickies watchable but the most interesting film of his poverty row period has to be the independently produced, darkly humorous noir Behind Locked Doors.
This precursor to Sam Fuller’s explosive Shock Corridor opens with reporter Kathy Lawrence (Lucille Bremer) hiring private dick Ross Stewart (Richard Carlson) to investigate the disappearance of a crooked judge on the lam from the law. She suspects the judge (Herbert Hayes) is holed up in a psychiatric clinic, so Stewart masquerades as a depressed patient in the hopes of finding out who occupies the private room at the top of the stairs.
After shooting a couple Roddy McDowell vehicles at Monogram, Boetticher’s early promise seemed to be petering out when the opportunity to make a film close to his heart finally presented itself.
The Bullfighter and the Lady, Boetticher’s first film for John Wayne’s Batjac production company, was a highly autobiographical take on his career as a matador. While vacationing in Mexico, American Chuck Regan (Robert Stack) strikes up a friendship with the brilliant matador Manolo Estrada (the ever-cool Gilbert Roland). Regan, an avid sportsman, offers to teach Estrada how to shoot skeet in exchange for lessons in the art of bullfighting. Anxious to impress Estrada’s good friend, the proud and ethereal Anita (Joy Page), Regan works diligently to become a matador in the hopes of getting his moment of glory in the ring.
Manolo arranges for Chuck’s debut, but on the big day the cocky gringo makes a rookie mistake that causes his friend’s gruesome death. The locals are ready to tar and feather Chuck out of town, but instead of running he chooses to stay on and redeem himself in the eyes of his beloved Anita.
The elegantly macho The Bullfighter and the Lady takes pains to flesh out the ritual of bullfighting while providing plenty of spine-tingling thrills and scenes of grace and beauty inside the ring. Boetticher applied the art of matador-ing to his craft as a filmmaker, especially in the Scott films where the confrontations and showdowns are choreographed with a succinct minimalism.
Boetticher was disheartened to see his pet project re-edited (by Wayne and John Ford, no less) almost beyond recognition, but the finished product still did his reputation wonders and he finally began to get steady work in Hollywood.
Following the lead of Douglas Sirk and Anthony Mann, two other talented, under the radar filmmakers, Boetticher matriculated to Universal Studios in the early 1950s where he made a series of entertaining adventure films.
One of the finest Audie Murphy vehicles The Cimarron Kid is a fanciful but exciting take on the misadventures of the Doolin-Dalton gang. Here, Audie plays gunslinger Bill Doolin who is trying to make good while out on parole. He is falsely accused of participating in a train hold-up perpetuated by his old friends the Daltons but after narrowly avoiding capture Bill ends up joining their gang.
Their next raid goes awry and the leaders of the gang are killed leaving Bill and young Bitter Creek Dalton (James Best) to plot their future hold-ups. With the unlikely help of his doting fiancee Carrie (Beverly Roberts) and Bitter Creek’s wily Mexican girlfriend Cimarron Rose (Yvette Duguay), Bill and the boys pull off several daring heists while steering clear of the law but they are finally tripped up when their inside man on a train robbery decides to take their gold booty for himself.
The story of the outlaw Doolin was polished-up and romanticized to fit the squeaky clean persona of Murphy, but The Cimarron Kid turned out to be one of Boetticher’s most amiable westerns and provided plenty of opportunity to show Hollywood what he could bring to the table when given a decent-sized budget.
Red Ball Express follows the trail of a fully integrated army transportation unit that supplied Patton’s tanks at the allied front during 1944. Lieutenant Chick Campbell (Jeff Chandler) has the thankless task of molding a group of misfits into a selfless unit of soldiers, willing to forego glory in the service of Uncle Sam.
This likeable, character-driven war story is also refreshingly free of condescension in its approach to race relations. Excluding the distrusting, city-bred journalist (Sidney Poitier) the black soldiers in the unit appreciate Lt. Campbell’s refusal to cater to them, or their bigoted constituents, in an effort to maximize his unit’s potential. Campbell’s biggest obstacle turns out to be his sergeant (Alex Nichol), a former friend who doubts the Lieutenant has the courage to follow through on the demanding mission.
Boetticher’s next project Horizon’s West, a sprawling saga of post-Civil War Texas, would be his most ambitious project to date. After spending four grueling years on the front as rebel soldiers, Dan Hammond (Robert Ryan) and younger brother Neal (Rock Hudson) return home to Austin to find the cow town has grown into a sophisticated big city in their absence. Neal is content to take after his father and become a rancher but Dan has bigger ideas that don’t include a life on the farm.
After being humiliated in public by a rich Yankee (Raymond Burr), Dan rounds up the local riff-raff to rustle livestock to Mexico. Dan makes a big score, impressing his oblivious family and the Yankee’s unhappy wife (Julie Adams). But Dan’s ruthless ambition and unwise partnership with the town’s low element prove to be his downfall in a breathless western that runs out of steam before the curtain falls.
Ryan re-teamed with Boetticher to make City Beneath the Sea, an uneven but colorful romp about two sailor friends who clash while plundering a sunken ship for gold in the Caribbean. A minor effort, CBTS is notable for the friendly rivalry gone sour between straight-shooter Brad Carlton (Ryan) and his greedy pal Tony Bartlett (Anthony Quinn), a precursor for the sort of uneasy relationships Randolph Scott would have with his morally-challenged antagonists in the upcoming Ranown Cycle.
As an avid horseman and connoisseur of the great outdoors it was no surprise Boetticher took to making westerns and when given a script worthy of his talents Budd delivered the goods.
Set in 1830s Florida Seminole is the story of a West Point educated Calvary officer forced to betray his half-Indian friend to placate the ego of his commanding officer. After being away at military school for several years, Lieutenant Lance Caldwell (Rock Hudson) returns home to find his old girlfriend Revere (Barbara Hale) has fallen in love with his childhood chum Osceola (Anthony Quinn), the leader of the local band of Seminoles. Assigned to scout the tribe by the cavalry Caldwell reports to Major Degan (Richard Carlson), a Custer-like martinet who dreams of military glory.
Hoping to push the Seminoles out of Florida, Degan makes a surprise attack on the Indians. Ignoring Caldwell’s advice he foolishly leads a band of men through an endless labyrinth of swamps until they fall into a trap and are massacred by the Seminoles. Degan learns Caldwell has been saved by Osceola, so he accuses the Lieutenant leaking plans of the attack to his old friend. Fooled into believing Degan’s peace offering, Osceola follows Caldwell back to the cavalry fort where he is imprisoned and killed by a Seminole. Caldwell is court-martialed, convicted of his friend’s murder, and sentenced to death by firing squad but his fate takes an unlikely turn when the tribe surrounds the fort and Osceola’s murderer confesses.
The vindictive villains of Boetticher’s Universal films are painted in broader strokes than the antagonists of the Scott westerns but they still remain more interesting than the leading men. They are good men-gone bad; fueled by envy or corrupted by greed. Ambivalence plays no part in their moral make-up. They live in a black and white world in which indecision and discretion are weaknesses to be exposed and exploited.
Taut and anguished, The Man from the Alamo anticipates the unforgiving Scott-Boetticher Westerns. With General Santa Ana’s army surrounding their fortress, the men of a small Texas community secretly nominate John Stroud (Glenn Ford) to return home and escort their families to safety. Stroud’s request to evacuate is witnessed by the earnest Lt. Lamar (Hugh O’Brian), a conduit between Sam Houston and the Alamo.
Stroud returns home to learn his family and friends have been massacred by Americans sympathetic to the Mexican army. On his way back to the front Stroud is confronted by Lamar who accuses him of cowardice. Stroud is tossed into a city jail by an angry mob and while awaiting his lynching he makes an unsavory deal with Dawes (Neville Brand), one of the thugs who murdered his family.
The Man From the Alamo provides the first evidence of Boetticher’s fatalistic streak but throughout Stroud’s bleak ordeal, he gets unqualified support and love from a Mexican boy (Marc Cavell) and a conscientious beauty (Julie Adams), whose faith in Stroud turns the tide of local opinion his way.
Boetticher’s final film for Universal Wings of the Hawk was an explosive 3-D epic set in the early days of the Mexican revolution. Irish Gallager (Van Heflin) is finally about to turn a profit on his gold mine when he is raided by a troop of Federales led by the Colonel Paco Ruiz (George Dolenz).
Stripped of his land and fortune, Gallager is saved by a band of revolutionaries led by Raquel Noriega (Julie Adams) whose sister is engaged to Ruiz. Gallager plans to petition the government in Mexico City to get his mine back, but Raquel convinces the fence-sitting American to abandon his dream of riches and help the overthrow the powerful Colonel.
A non-traditional hero, Heflin’s Gallager comes closer in resembling the opportunistic adversaries of the Ranown Cycle and Boetticher gives him plenty of opportunity to ruffle the feathers of the police and politicos, alike.
Having burned his bridges at Universal Boetticher toiled in television for a year and directed several of the more interesting episodes of The Public Defender, a morally upright franchise which stuck up for the little guy. Boetticher returned to the bullring and the big screen a year later with The Magnificent Matador, a flat romance co-starring his old friend Anthony Quinn as a tormented matador fancied by a wealthy American (Maureen O’Hara).
During the late 1950s and early ‘60s Boetticher continued to get plum jobs directing for network television, including the first three episodes of the hit series Maverick. One of the best western-themed TV shows to ever come out of Hollywood, the show starred the young James Garner as the poker-playing sharpie—just the sort of shady sort of anti-hero Budd found appealing.
Boetticher’s second pure noir The Killer Is Loose was his freshest and best film in years. When it is learned mild-mannered bank clerk Leon Poole (Wendell Corey) was the inside man on a hold-up, police bust into his apartment and accidentally shoot his wife to death. Caught and convicted, the haunted WWII Vet vows to get even with the arresting officer Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) by killing his wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming) once he gets out of prison.
Years later, Poole escapes from a work camp and kills two men on his way to Los Angeles. Threading his way through the police roadblocks, Poole confronts and kills the sergeant who tormented him in the army before setting out to the Wagner house where he meets his date with destiny.
Capitalizing on the popular hit TV series Dragnet, The Killer Is Loose gets a little tangled with the police procedural narrative at the expense of Corey who gives a harrowing performance as the mentally-disturbed Poole. Filmed on location in and around Los Angeles, Boetticher’s grim revenge noir is an unjustly overlooked entry in the genre.
It’s safe to say nobody in Hollywood at the time could have guessed the Boetticher-Scott partnership would turn out to be one of the most esthetically pleasing collaborations in the American cinema. Taking a page from the storytelling minimalism of Howard Hawks, the seven Boetticher-Scott films keep to a tight but flexible formula (thanks in a large part to the screenwriting talents of Burt Kennedy).
Clocking in at eighty minutes or less, these taut, fatalistic fables live by an unbending moral code, yet they also exhibit a deeply ironic take on the world. A typical opening finds the weary and widowed Scott riding into town, or out on the range, where he is immediately confronted with danger in the persons of a charming bandit or a bloodless bureaucrat.
Scott forms an uneasy bond with the outlaw who admires the hero’s steadfast qualities even as he pursues his own sundry goals. The gentlemanly Scott also strikes up a bond with a handsome heroine whose husband usually proves to be spineless or fatally flawed. The format never strayed much, yet Boetticher kept finding new ways to spin the story.
The first film in these Ranown westerns, Seven Men from Now follows former lawman Ben Stride (Scott) as he pursues the men who robbed a Wells Fargo station and killed his wife. Along the way Stride befriends a pair of lost homesteaders, Annie (Gail Russell) and John Greer (Walter Reed) and lets them ride with him south. When John proves to be foolhardy, Annie gravitates towards Stride who finds she shares many of the refined qualities of his murdered wife.
Ben keeps Annie out of harm’s way when he finally locks horns with the leader of the gang, Bill Master (the larger than life Lee Marvin). Master senses the sexual vibe between Stride and Annie and taunts them unmercifully, but his cruelty only hastens an inevitable showdown with death.
In The Tall T carefree drifter Pat Brennan (Scott) has the misfortune of hitching a ride on a stagecoach soon to be held up by three desperados. The bandits quickly detain Brennan and Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan) the painfully plain daughter of a local tycoon. Doretta’s cowardly husband Willard (John Hubbard) strikes a deal with the kidnappers by volunteering to arrange a rich ransom to hasten her release.
While waiting for Mims to return with the ransom, the gang leader Frank Usher (Richard Boone) takes an interest in the upright Brennan. The charismatic Usher assures his hostage that like him, he only wants to own a nice piece of land and find peace of mind. But with the prospect of a huge payday slipping away, Usher makes a mad and fatal dash for the gold.
As with Marvin in Seven Men, Boone steals the show as the bad man whose good intentions belie what fate has in store for him. The dignified Scott shines too, especially in the tender and awkward scene where he finally gets to consummate his own romantic feelings for the lady in distress.
The most nihilistic Boetticher film Decision At Sundown is a tale of vengeance that pits Scott as an angry cuckold, careening out of control. Bart Allison (Scott) and his sidekick Sam (Noah Beery) ride into town on the wedding day of Bart’s nemesis, the local big shot Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll). The rakish Kimbrough had an affair with Allison’s wife then after dumping her, the disconsolate woman committed suicide. At the wedding Allison vows to kill Kimbrough then takes refuge in a stable until the groom comes out to settle the score.
Fearing for his friend’s life, Sam tells Allison the truth about his promiscuous wife. When Allison turns a deaf ear Sam tries to play peacemaker only to be gunned down by Kimbrough’s henchmen. With his fiancée and the town turning against him Kimbrough walks out to meet his fate only to be shot by the woman who really loves him.
The almost farcical Buchanan Rides Alone finds the adventurer Buchanan (Scott) stopping over in a corrupt border town for a steak and some shut eye. At the local saloon, Buchanan’s flip attitude irritates Roy Agry (William Leslie), the ne’er do well son of the town’s mayor, who vows to kill him. When a young Mexican aristocrat kills Roy for taking advantage of his sister, Buchanan tries to keep the assassin from being lynched on the spot, but only gets thrown in jail as an accomplice.
Buchanan and the Mexican soon become pawns in a political chess match between the ambitious mayor (Tol Avery) and his greedy sheriff brother (Barry Kelley), who both think nothing of running their nitwit brother Amos (Peter Whitney) ragged as a hapless go-between. The apocalyptic final shoot-out turns out to be an indictment on the shameless Agry family who, not too surprisingly, get their just desserts.
The somber Ride Lonesome takes a dark turn as Randolph Scott returned to the frontier in search of vengeance. Bounty Hunter Ben Brigade (Scott) captures wanted outlaw Billy John (James Best) who faces a date with the noose upon his return to town. Brigade tries to buy some time bringing Billy to justice, in the hope of getting the attention of the outlaw’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef), the man who brutally hung Ben’s wife seven years before.
On the trail the men come upon a pretty widow (Karen Steele) and a charismatic bandit (Pernell Roberts) and his earnest sidekick (James Coburn), both of whom would get amnesty if they can deliver Billy Jack to the law. Undaunted by these distractions, Brigade plods onwards until he finally confronts an angry Frank and calls him out at the gruesome site of his wife’s hanging tree. Brigade is disgusted when Frank can hardly even remember the event that changed his life forever, but he kills him anyway.
In the haunting finale Brigade turns Billy Jack over to the bandits then frees himself from the bonds of his dark past.
Comanche Station is an existential tale of a man on a hopeless quest for a long lost wife. In the middle of a bleak desert, lone rider Cody (Scott) finds himself surrounded by hostile Comanches. In a brilliantly executed silent sequence Cody offers the head of the tribe a blanket of goods for trade, but only when he throws in his Winchester rifle do the Indians give him the white woman he has come for. Mrs. Lowe (Nancy Gates) asks Cody if her husband has hired him to bring her back home. Cody says he knows nothing of a bounty, he was only looking for his wife kidnapped by the Indians several years before.
They are soon intercepted by a trio of ruffians, led by the blustery Ben Lane (Claude Akins). Ben tells Mrs. Lowe her husband put up a $5000 bounty for her delivery from the Indians. Disgusted by Cody’s lies, Mrs. Lowe rides with Lane’s gang unaware the sweet-talking bandit intends on killing his prize before delivering her to the bereaved husband. When Cody learns of Lane’s treachery he kidnaps Mrs. Lowe leading to a bloody showdown between the friends-turned adversaries. The survivor returns the handsome woman to her home but is chastened when he learns the truth about the man who put up the bounty.
Based on a screenplay by Bernie Giler and Albert Shelby LaVino, the Warner Brothers production of Westbound comes in at a mere sixty-nine minutes and indeed it feels more busy and cluttered than the Kennedy films.
Here, John Hayes (Scott) is hired to run a coach line through a frontier town but meets stubborn resistance from a band of gun-slinging thugs hired by the local tycoon, Hayes’ old friend Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan). The gunmen terrorize the coach drivers and succeed in driving Hayes and company to a desolate outpost. Slowly losing his own self-respect and the love of his wife (Virginia Mayo) the boozing Putnam tries to put an end to the lawlessness in town but only ends up putting himself in the line of fire.
Boetticher took on the production of Westbound as a favor to the studio, so he could have the opportunity to direct a film about another hard-bitten individualist who walked to the beat of his own drummer.
The stylish 1920s gangster saga, The Rise And Fall Of Legs Diamond gave Boetticher the chance to make a film with one of his beloved villains as the protagonist.
Tired of living in fleabag hotels with his sickly brother (Warren Oates), slick con man Jack Diamond (Ray Danton) decides to use every trick in the book to catch the attention of mobster boss Arnold Rothstein (Robert Lowery). The wary Rothstein hires Jack as his bodyguard, unaware the ambitious thug is keeping close tabs on the everyday workings of the gangster’s empire.
In the meantime, to assure his invincibility, Jack ruthlessly discards the two people who truly loved him; his brother and his hapless wife (Karen Steele). When Rothstein becomes victim of a gangland rub-out, Legs Diamond assumes the underworld throne.
Filmed in striking black and white by Lucien Ballard, Legs is taut and brutally funny. But as Danton had little of the magnetism of Boetticher’s gallery of rogues (Marvin, Boone, Roberts, etc.) or the great Warner Brothers gangsters (Cagney, Bogart, Robinson and Garfield), the joy he takes in performing his dirty deeds can’t be shared by the audience.
Boetticher’s seven year Mexican odyssey saw him lose his savings, wife, freedom, and nearly his sanity, all in an effort to make a feature about his friend the legendary bullfighter Carlos Arruza. After Arruza died in 1966 car crash Boetticher pulled out of Mexico a defeated man. He ultimately pieced-together Arruza, a documentary narrated by Anthony Quinn featuring some splendid bullring footage highlighting the majesty of Arruza’s art but the film did nothing to re-establish Boetticher as a player in Hollywood.
Back in the States and frustrated by an inability to get a studio to green light his scenario about a whore who disguises herself as a nun and enlists a mercenary to help topple a corrupt regime in Mexico, Boetticher ended up selling the story to Warner Brothers. He was none too pleased with the liberties director Don Siegel took in making Two Mules for Sister Sara, an entertaining jambalaya combining American and Spaghetti western styles starring Shirley MacLaine and Clint Eastwood.
In 1969 Boetticher teamed with actor-producer Audie Murphy to make a low-key return to the western, A Time for Dying, which turned out to be a fitting swan song for the director.
A young gunslinger Cass Bunning (Richard Lapp) arrives in the untamed Silver City looking to make a name for himself. After saving the young, pretty Nellie (Anne Randall) from a life of prostitution the young couple quickly runs afoul of the notorious hanging judge, Roy Bean (Victor Jory in a performance that has to be seen to be believed). The judge surprises everybody by proclaiming the two strangers must be married.
Eager to support his new wife, Cass takes to the trail to hunt the outlaw Billy Pimple (Bob Random) who has a large ransom on his head. But when he accidentally meets up with Jesse James (Murphy) Cass finds his sure-fire technique has a fatal flaw.
The sweet-tempered A Time for Dying was ignored by audiences and critics who preferred the operatic violence of old west reinterpreted by young lions like Leone and Peckinpah. But, like Peckinpah’s character-driven The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Boetticher’s disarming little gem holds up very well.
Boetticher seemed ready to make the leap into the stripped-down realities of 1970s filmmaking. Unfortunately, during his Mexican purgatory many of the producers and studio moguls he had worked with had either died or retired, leaving the film industry in the hands of a new breed of money men who had little use for a director who hadn’t made a profitable film since 1960.
Boetticher would never make another film. Unlike the lonely fates endured by Randolph Scott’s lawmen, Boetticher’s final act had a silver lining. Budd remarried to a beautiful woman who shared his interest in horses and lived long enough to bask in the glow of some long overdue critical recognition.
Books on Boetticher:
Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood – Jim Kitses **** In lieu of any full length studies of Boetticher we’ll have to settle for this outstanding study of Western iconoclasts (Boetticher, Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah). The passage on Budd deconstructs and eloquently analyzes director’s struggle to survive as an independent filmmaker in Hollywood and Mexico. An updated edition of the book includes essays on Ford and Hawks.
Films by Boetticher:
1944 One Mysterious Night ***
1944 The Missing Juror ***
1945 Escape in the Fog ***
1948 Behind Locked Doors ***1/2
1951 The Bullfighter and the Lady ****
1952 The Cimarron Kid ***1/2
1952 Red Ball Express ***1/2
1952 Horizon’s West ***1/2
1953 City Beneath the Sea ***
1953 Seminole ****
1953 The Man From the Alamo ***1/2
1953 Wings of the Hawk ***1/2
1953 East of Sumatra ***
1954 The Prize Fighter Story *** (episode The Public Defender TV Series)
1954 A Call in the Night ***1/2 (episode The Public Defender TV Series)
1955 The Magnificent Matador ***
1956 The Killer Is Loose ****
1956 Seven Men From Now ****1/2
1956 The Affair of the Three Napoleons ***1/2 (episode The Count of Monte Cristo TV Series)
1957 The Tall T ****
1957 The War of the Silver Kings ***1/2 (episode Maverick TV Series)
1957 Point Blank ***1/2 (episode Maverick TV Series)
1957 According to Hoyle ***1/2 (episode Maverick TV Series)
1957 Decision at Sundown ****
1958 Buchanan Rides Alone ****
1959 Ride Lonesome *****
1959 Westbound ***1/2
1960 Comanche Station ****1/2
1960 The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond ****
1969 A Time For Dying ***1/2
1972 Arruza ***