In 1969 Jim Kitses’ Horizons West: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah: Studies in Authorship within the Western was published. The three filmmakers considered by the author were, at the time, peripheral figures,1 little known outside of the auteurist evaluators inspired to rescue Hollywood’s neglected filmmakers from the margins of critical respectability. Kitses’ thesis was that all three filmmakers “found their essence within the western.” 2 To this point Peckinpah had remained rooted in the genre (or within its periphery) whilst Boetticher and Mann’s filmographies displayed the genre vagaries of jobbing journeymen during the studio era. In accordance with the prevailing discourse of the time, genre and auteur theories are fused together – with the mastery within the former making the case for the latter.
Also in 1969 the National Film Theatre presented a season of Budd Boetticher’s films including the British premiere of his latest work, Arruza. 3 For the occasion the British Film Institute engaged Kitses to compile a dossier of articles – new and previously published – on the director and his cinema. The publication, a slim 50 pages in length, included pieces by those critical heavyweights of the period, Andre Bazin, Andrew Sarris and Peter Wollen, plus filmmakers Burt Kennedy and Bertrand Tavernier.4 Kitses himself also provided an entry. Close to half a century since its publication, Budd Boetticher: the Western remains eminently readable, albeit pot-bound in the discussions of genre, auteur theory and worldview that were being thrashed out at the time.
Whilst still crucial, both texts concern themselves primarily with the director’s westerns, with an emphasis on seven particular titles – Seven Men From Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), Westbound (1959) and Comanche Station (1960). Often referred to as the ‘Ranown’ cycle, these films all starred stalwart genre veteran Randolph Scott with five produced by Harry Joe Brown and five with screenplays by Burt Kennedy. 5 To my mind the intense concentration on the Ranown cycle with its clear collaborative nature at the expense of Boetticher’s other features potentially undermines claims of this director as an auteur. In the decades since Kitses one would have assumed that there would be comprehensive accounts published that would expand upon this notion so it may seem surprising that Refocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher is the first full-length book to attempt to wrangle a study of the director’s entire career. In comparison, if we hark back to Kitses, Anthony Mann – although seemingly now again out of favour – did have a thorough text devoted to his work by Jeanine Basinger in 1979, and Amazon’s virtual shelves are groaning under books on Sam Peckinpah. Yet, other than the director’s autobiography (now long out of print and hard to obtain) there is next to nothing published on Budd Boetticher, even though his Ranown westerns continue to be revived and discussed. And that is the key. It is the seven films of the Ranown cycle that have received the majority of critical attention, at the expense of the majority of his 25 other feature films. To reconcile this brief cycle with the rest of his filmography is a task that would frustrate the most fervent writer (or editor).
With their anthology Refocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher, editors Gary R. Rhodes and Robert Singer have bravely attempted such an enterprise. And yet the structure of the book still does hedge its bets somewhat, by being divided into two sections with the final seven chapters devoted to the Ranown cycle and the first six chapters examine, one could say “the rest.” Let’s tackle my one criticism of the book first. My key point of consternation is found in the titling of these sections as “The Non-Westerns” and “The Westerns” in that prior to teaming with Scott, Boetticher had already directed eight films within the genre. Black Midnight and The Wolf Hunters (both 1949) were Monogram quickies and it is probable that only the most ardent of scholars could detect a directorial touch or an advancement of the genre’s form. However, Boetticher’s move to Universal in the early 1950s provided him with higher budgets and mid-tier stars including Audie Murphy (The Cimarron Kid, 1951), Van Helfin (Wings of the Hawk, 1953), Robert Ryan (Horizons West, 1952), Rock Hudson (Seminole, 1953) and Glenn Ford (The Man from The Alamo, 1953). Although not as revered as the Ranown cycle, the Universal westerns allowed the director to develop his personal style and to examine the potential that the genre could offer. As neither Ranown films nor non-westerns they are excluded from any serious consideration within the book. Whether this was based upon the submissions received or an editorial insistence upon such generic demarcations is unknown. However, the fact that these films, if mentioned at all, are at best relegated to the occasional aside does the project a serious disfavour. Certainly an argument could be made that the Universal westerns did not overly inform the Ranown cycle, but let’s enable that discussion. By hermetically sealing the Ranowns from his other entries in the genre, the risk is run of inadvertently creating a scenario whereby Boetticher’s influence upon the Ranown’s is lessened to that of a collaborator (with star Randolph Scott, producer Harry Joe Brown and screenwriter Burt Kennedy) than of a controlling artistic hand. To be fair to the editors this is also a similar course taken by Kitses who named Horizons West after one of Boetticher’s Universal westerns, and then neglected to mention it at all within his discussion of the director’s work!
Having come to terms with its structural parameters there is much to recommend within Refocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher. That the films of the first half of the book have generally been devoid of much critical discussion allows the authors a degree of autonomy in their approaches, but within most chapters the Ranown films cast a shadow of destination, whereby the line of critical inquiry is one in which lines of authorial signature (flourish and world-view) are drawn (mostly) forward to his celebrated westerns. This is not intended as a criticism of the approach, for it provides the text with a degree of coherency and linearity, whether by conscious choice of the contributors (and editors) or by the fact that, when removed from the orbit of the Ranown cycle these films lose their lustre by association.
Indeed such lustre can often be difficult to detect as only two of his first ten credited features (when he was known as Oscar Boetticher) are brought in from the critical cold. That Escape in the Fog (1945) and Behind Locked Doors (1948) may both be considered films noir does allow them an alternative net for critical rescue. Although both films have previously been referenced as inclusions within the classical noir cycle, Marlisa Santos’ chapter is one of the rare efforts to place them together as the works of a single filmmaker. Santos recognises Boetticher’s ability to create atmosphere and menace within the limitations of the films’ meagre production values but she also discerns traces of the minimalist style and the sense of cruelty and hostility as a natural order that are manifest in his later work. Importantly, as Escape from the Fog is one of the few Boetticher films with a female lead, her role in the narrative is somewhat more complex than the dismissive view of female characters stated by the director in later years.
Another noir, The Killer is Loose (1956), receives the attention of two chapters and the devoting of such space is worthwhile. Tony Williams’ discussion of male trauma leading to hysteria within the suburban space of the film noir and its correlation to that experienced by several Scott characters within the Ranown cycle illuminated, for this reader, the westerns as prescient products of the 1950s. Similarly, Hugh S. Manon’s investigation of the same film’s use of technology makes a fascinating case for The Killer is Loose’s significance in its acknowledgement of television’s increasing role in the dissemination of news in preference to that of the print media. How noir’s narrative tropes could be reconfigured to account for the immediacy of the new medium allows this film to be viewed as a marker in closing the classical noir cycle.
The impact of television upon Hollywood has been long documented but it had a particular effect upon those second-string directors such as Boetticher who found their once bread-and-butter cinema assignments move to the small screen in the 1950s. Boetticher’s work in the medium is given due appraisal by David S. Hogan who provides an excellent overview of the challenges faced by Warner Bros in the period and the director’s under appreciated role in overseeing the development of their hit series Maverick (1957) and that of its fondly remembered protagonist, Brett Maverick (James Garner) for whom Boetticher helped hone a witty, charming western hero but one who could fall back on using his fists when required.
Boetticher’s obsession with bullfighting, its traditions, rituals and spectacle influenced his own belief system, one which came to be recognised within his later westerns and more obviously within the three films he made on the subject. The first, The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) argues Frederik Gustafsson exemplifies the graceful minimalism of both the essence of bullfighting and the ideology and style that Boetticher would expand upon in films outside of the arena. As distasteful as one may find bullfighting, the knowledge of the “sport” and Boetticher’s relationship to it is crucial in understanding his worldview and career path. Although his final feature, the documentary Aruzza (1971) is dealt with only within the editors’ introduction, it places the difficult film as a focal end-point – the distillation of the many films that preceded it. The introduction and Gustafsson’s chapter provide the long-required study that allows the reader to understand this aspect of the Boetticher’s work (and life) as more than an attachment to the outcomes of a blood sport.
It is the second half of the book that is more assured, and so it should be. With the weight of past discourse (with which many readers will be familiar) the Ranown section is more the sum of its parts, with a pleasing sense coherency and completeness. Smartly, the section begins with a well-researched chapter on the economic and industrial context of the Ranown films, providing the anchor to Hollywood business and audience preferences of the time that similar director-studies often neglect. With this knowledge firmly in place, the section’s writers offer broad and engaging discussions on the cycle, ranging from stylistic motifs, the use of space and landscape, the reflection of 1950s inter-generational conflicts and an interrogation of Boetticher’s worldview. Crucially this assists in freeing the director’s signature from the collaborative shackle of the Ranown series. The section has been well curated. While there is occasional repetition of plot synopses, there are far fewer than would naturally be expected, and while there are various references to Kitses, they are expansions upon his thesis, rather than simple affirmations. The final chapter explores the debt owed to the Ranown westerns (and other Boetticher films) by the recent television series Breaking Bad (2008-2013). Whilst there is no evidence that the series’ creator was directly influenced by the films, author Robert Guffey detects enough clues within the six seasons to suspect that genuine points of reference exist within the narrative. That Boetticher’s worldview, his pursuit narrative and morally ambiguous protagonists, could be within the ancestral lineage of one of the 21st century’s the more notable pieces of recent popular culture is testament to its enduring appeal. Also intriguing is the notion that the small screen is the medium that best serves the Boetticher model. For although the director had a keen sense for landscape, it was with an eye for augmenting the tone and psychology of character-based narratives, rather than the creation of visual spectacle. It is this emphasis on characters, their essence, shifting morality and interplay added to the pursuit narrative that has one thinking Boetticher would flourish today as a television director. In this reach forward to modernity the chapter also acts as a satisfying continuation of the television-related chapters of the book’s earlier section.
Edinburgh University Press’ ReFocus series intends to excavate the often neglected or overlooked American directors and offer interdisciplinary approaches to the understanding of their work. Although I question certain structural choices within this volume, the diversity of approach and the individuality of the writing come together for a common focus with such clarity and illumination result in Refocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher being an essential achievement. It is the publication that fans of Budd Boetticher have longed for.
But next time, please, some of his other westerns too?
Gary D. Rhodes and Robert Singer (eds.), ReFocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).
- Peckinpah’s breakthrough, The Wild Bunch, is discussed within the book but its cultural impact had yet to be fully felt. ↩
- Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah: Studies in Authorship within the Western (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), p.27. ↩
- It should be noted that Arruza is generally credited as a 1971 release, which is when it finally secured a US theatrical run. However it did screen at international festivals prior to this. ↩
- Jim Kitses (ed.), Budd Boetticher: the Western (A BFI Education Department Dossier) (London: BFI Education Department, 1969). ↩
- There remains conjecture as to whether Westbound, made without the participation of Brown or Kennedy and produced as part of a contract-fulfilling obligation at Warner Bros should be counted as part of the cycle. The editors refer to both six and seven films in the cycle on different pages of the reviewed book, further marking the murkiness of distinction. ↩