(Catch my previous Western film review here: Decision at Sundown)
Unless the film I’m reviewing has a really novel plot or rare characters or an interesting subtext I’ve yet to fully reflect upon, I often opt for an essay on the placement of the film within its cinematic and historical context. In this case, Buchanan Rides Alone, the fourth of seven films in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown Cycle of Westerns is a relatively simple story. A lone gunman named Tom Buchanan (Randolph Scott) enters a small Texas-Mexico border town, and although unusually jovial and easy to get along with compared to figures like Clint Eastwood’s (Sergio Leone’s) Man With No Name, Buchanan still ends up provoking the ire of the Agry Family who own and operate the town, which is even named Agry.
Over the remainder of the film, a young man named Roy Agry comes galloping into town with a young Mexican bandit named Esteban Gomez following closely on his heels. The young man kills Roy Agry, and somehow Buchanan becomes caught up in the entire scandal, and is taken for an accomplice by the Agry Family. Buchanan narrowly avoids being killed by a duo of hired guns by the Agry Family, ostensibly to send the old gunman on his way out of town, when Pecos Hill (played by the great character actor and Sam Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones) warms to the old man and double crosses his fellow gunman to free Buchanan. The remainder of the film is something of a comedy of errors in which Pecos is killed and Buchanan is returned to jail, escapes jail and saves Juan Gomez, is returned to jail, and eventually has a final confrontation with the Agry Family Sheriff.
Like all three previous films in the Ranown Cycle, Buchanan Rides Alone displays revisionist tendencies within its subtext. First off, Juan Gomez is a criminal who killed Roy Agry while he was unarmed, and thereby, from the perspective of the townsfolk, Tom Buchanan is an anti-hero. His alliance with Juan Gomez, a convicted criminal, promises to upend the Agry Dynasty and make the territory a better place for its non-Agry inhabitants. As such, on the very face of it, the film is a Revisionist Western in which the rich and the entitled are murdered for political reasons of making the plight of the average person better. However, only Buchanan learns of Juan Gomez’ reasoning for killing Roy Agry: the young man raped and killed Gomez’ sister and was running from Juan when he entered what he thought to be the safe haven of Agry Town. This means that Buchanan is a bit more morally conventional, though the prospect of a young white man (Roy) being the villain and of a young gunman of color (Juan) being a moral hero is still revisionist as it steers clear and subverts the typical Western racial characterology.
Buchanan Rides Alone was the second film nominally scripted by Charles Lang. However, his initial edit was not up to snuff, not up to the standard at which Randolph Scott or Budd Boetticher were accustomed, and as such, they hired on Burt Kennedy to shape the script into a workable form. When the film was released, Land retained billing as the screenwriter, despite the bulk of the work being actually completed by Kennedy, and purportedly because Lang was falling on hard times and really needed the money. All in all, Kennedy would be the go-to screenwriter for the Ranown Cycle, eventually penning five out of seven of the film’s in the series (the other two being Lang’s sole true script, as well as a script by Boetticher himself). The film also continued the Boetticher-Scott partnership with producer Harry Joe Brown who produced the majority of the films in the cycle.
Another notable figure involved in the production of Buchanan Rides Alone is the cinematographer Lucien Ballard who was then just beginning the most prestigious period of his career. In 1956, two years prior to Buchanan, Ballard scripted the classic Stanley Kubrick film noir The Killing. A year prior to that, he began his long career alongside Budd Boetticher as cinematographer on The Magnificent Matador. Ballard would later collaborate with Boetticher on The Killer is Loose in 1956, episodes of the TV show Maverick in 1957, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond in 1960, and Boetticher’s final films in the late sixties, early seventies, and mid-eighties: A Time for Dying (’69), Arruzi (’72), and My Kingdom For… (’85).
Two years after the completion of the Ranown Cycle, in 1962, Lucien Ballard would provide cinematography for Randolph Scott’s final film: Ride the High Country. A fitting end to a great, esteemed career, the movie was also the first real critical triumph of Sam Peckinpah’s directorial career. Together, he and Ballard would continue to work together on a number of important films including The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway, and Junior Bonner.
Martin Scorsese once spoke of the Ranown Cycle as a series of Westerns in which a lone gunman encounters trouble and meets an outlaw who shares a moral code and a sense of honor with himself. The outlaw in these films is supposed to be something like a shadow, like the dark eternal opposite, of the the protagonist (always Randolph Scott) who has merely been unlucky in life and has fallen into ruin, into disrepute, and into a life on the run. Scott and Richard Boone, or Scott and Lee Marvin, are the examples par excellence in the four films I’ve reviewed thus far. These men are charismatic and seemingly good, and thereby their proclivity toward evil serves as a reminder of the evil dwelling within all men, just waiting for the opportune moment to escape.
They are foils for Scott that reveal that he is only noble, his is only morally upright because of his social predicament, and that if something were to change in that society, he could easily become like The Misfit of John Ford’s The Searchers or in the fictions of Flannery O’Conner. That at a moments notice, the animal side of his nature might make itself apparent, and through it the absurdity of life with all of its banality and lack of ontological grounding for morals, for the belief in higher powers, or for even common human feeling toward one another. And the weakest element of Buchanan Rides Alone is that this foil for our protagonist is not present, and thereby the whole exercise seems for naught. Beyond the basic commercial qualification of providing audiences with an easily understood piece of media to consume, this particular saga in the Ranown Cycle is of little merit. Especially when measured up to the power of The Tall T or Seven Men From Now.
[Next Up: Ride Lonesome]
In 1972, famed Western and action film director Sam Peckinpah helmed a neo-noir heist film adapted from a novel by the hardboiled pulp author Jim Thompson. Peter Bogdanovich was originally slated to direct the film and Thompson to adapt his own novel into screenplay format. However, the two butted heads early on in the production as Bogdanovich approached the property as an opportunity to direct a Hitchcockian thriller, despite that approach being fundamentally antithetical to Thompson’s source novel rife with surreal motifs and procedural, hardboiled narrative.
The Studio, sensing problems ahead given the current state of things, fired both men and thankfully replaced Bogdanovich with Peckinpah, and Thompson with Walter Hill. Thankfully in the case of Peckinpah as his approach to filming has always been appropriate to action films than Bogdanovich (despite the latter being a great director in his own right). And thankfully in the case of Walter Hill as the writer of a novel is typically overprotective of their property when adapting a screenplay and often has difficulty cutting the fat from their own work, which means an outside voice was necessary to shape the text into a workable script. In this case, they chose one of the best screenwriters one could imagine as Walter Hill would later go on to write and direct a number of classic films including The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Streets of Fire, and Crossroads, demonstrating his ability (at least in his early career) to really spin a yarn.
Along with Walter Hill, Peckinpah employed his then-favorite cinematographer Lucien Ballard who had previously worked with him on five projects including the television series The Westerner, and the films Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Junior Bonner (which was released after The Getaway in later 1972 despite being shot prior to it). Ballard was something of an old hand by the time he began working with Peckinpah in 1960 and was close to retirement by 1972 on The Getaway. But prior to this period, he had worked with some of the greatest directors of Westerns during the classical Hollywood period including Budd Boetticher (on the Ranown Cycle film Buchanan Rides Alone and the TV show Maverick) and Henry Hathaway (on his classic Westerns The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit).
The film follows the exploits of a couple of bank robbers named Carter (Steve McQueen) and Carol McCoy. Carter begins the film holed up in a maximum security prison for holding up a bank. However, he’s up for potential bail on good behavior and should be released any time now. Therein lies the crux of the problem as he inexplicably is never released. His old crime boss, Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson), pulls the political strings that could have Carter freed, but Benyon wants something in return before he cedes this freedom to his past employee: a sexual experience with Carter’s wife Carol. Obviously Carter is against the whole thing, but realizes this may be his only chance to escape prison for some time. He asks his wife to do the deed and she complies.
Benyon holds up his end of the bargain and uses his influence to free Carter. As Carter is starting over once again and needs some bread, Benyon also gives him a new job on a minor bank heist. He hires both McCoy’s and two goons of his own who turn out to be rather unprofessional. One man is gunned down during the heist itself as he gets trigger happy and lets loose the first kill, thereby inciting cops to fire back. The second man tries to pull a fast one on Carter at the meet-up point, but Carter is quicker to draw and plugs the man, Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri), four times in the chest. Unfortunately for the McCoy’s, Rudy was wearing a bullet-proof vest, survives and spends the rest of the film tracking them down in an effort to kill them both and reclaim his cut of the heist money (and the McCoy’s cut as well for good measure).
Added to this problem, is the complication of Benyon. During their intimate evening together, he and Carol agreed to take out Carter when the heist was over and he returned to Benyon to deliver the money and take his cut. Carol has once again grown close to Carter, however, and triple crosses Benyon. She changes her aim, and my god, is her aim true. She plugs Benyon, her and Carter run off with all of the money, and now Benyon’s men and his brother are out for revenge as well.
Finally, the cops initially have no clue that Carter and Carol are in on the heist. But eventually, through a series of unfortunate mishaps, they are identified as the prime suspects in the case of the heist, and in the multiple murders surrounding it. So now, with an assassin, a crime family, and the police on their trail, they must trek halfway across the country, stealing cars and hiding in garbage trucks all along the way to escape, they hope, to Mexico. But this wouldn’t be a Peckinpah film without a climactic final shootout with their aggressors, their pursuers. And unlike in The Wild Bunch wherein the death of our heroes signifies the death of the West and an ideological move into a more complicated, less honorable, forthright society based on law and technology, and wherein our heroes must therefore die off as dinosaurs of a time long gone, Carol and Carter are ultimately characters who must continue to survive.
And survive they do. With the help of a sympathetic ex-con (Slim Pickens) who drives the couple over the border and into Mexico, and eventually sells them his truck for the hefty sum of $30 grande: their offer. This shows the relative good faith and decency of the couple who never wanted to hurt anyone, but were dragged into impossible circumstances through problematic turns of fate. And turns of fate that would kill just about any other duo any less smart, or half as hard.
The resultant picture was critically maligned at the time, which is bewildering today upon the re-viewing it. The Getaway is a just a good little heist picture with plenty of action, nihilism, humor, and good-spirited fun. A picture every bit deserving of the box office numbers of drew (more than ten times its budget of $3 million USD), and one of the biggest grosses of any film in Steve McQueen’s career. The biggest of Peckinpah’s. And not even a Western.
[Check out another one of my Peckinpah film reviews here: Major Dundee]