(Budd Boetticher, 1959)
The "Ranown" cycle of films made between 1956 and 1960 by screenwriter Burt Kennedy, Director Budd Boetticher and star Randolph Scott play like elemental, classically generic Westerns. They have beautifully simple storys, typical of the genre, which are delivered through tight plotting. And yet somehow Kennedy's scripts and Boetticher's matchless direction ensure that they feel relaxed and effortless; there is a confidence in these films which adds to their appeal.
Ride Lonesome was the first of the Ranown films shot in CinemaScope and Boetticher takes to the format instantly, as seen in the beautifully economical opening sequence. The credits play out over a rocky desert landscape, then the camera turns as we see a rider approach below, his tiny figure emphasising the implacable immensity of the land, which will prove to be as much a character in the drama as he is. He dismounts and approaches a rock slope. The camera pivots to the right where a man sits camped beside his horse. The rider is Randolph Scott's bounty hunter Ben Brigade, the man atop the slope his quarry, a young murderer. Their ensuing confrontation is the motor which drives the rest of the plot, and it is all captured in three or four shots, with the dialogue clipped and witty. Boetticher's widescreen compositions are terrific throughout the film, using the landscape with a grace and power which recalls Anthony Mann, but always retaining his own unique sense of taut visual economy. He never uses two shots where one will do, and deploys an array of astutely judged camera movements, never ostentatiously, most of which add to the easy flow of his storytelling.
The story follows Brigade as he seeks to bring his fugitive back to town to face justice and becomes entangled with various other characters along the way, all the while being hunted by Brigade's outlaw brother (Lee Van Cleef) and a tribe of hostile Indians. Kennedy writes his characters as rich, vivid types with interesting shades and the cast bring them to life with brusque, easy charm. The protagonist and antagonist in the Ranown films frequently have friendly relationships; their conflict based upon a matter of principal or entwined destinies rather than any real emnity, and that is the case here. Scott is a minimalist lead; holding back, never too emotional, and the film is similarly laid back, coolly observing its characters as they circle and size each other up.
That doesn't mean there is no action; Boetticher films the action sequences with as much style and muscularity as everything else, and they are accordingly gripping and beautiful.
The Ranown films are the foundation of Boetticher's exalted reputation among cineastes, and Ride Lonesome is a great example of why; beautifully made and full of stylish, timeless storytelling, it is pure pleasure from start to finish.