In the realm of Hollywood cinema, the phrase “actors’ director” is a fairly common descriptor, thrown about casually in the popular press and used as shorthand by critics to characterise a filmmaker who prioritises the needs of their actors ahead of other elements of the cinematic process. Typically associated with names like Kazan, Lumet, Cassavetes or Nichols – or, in an earlier era, Cukor or John Cromwell – the label evokes a certain stereotyped image – actors or former actors, arriving in Hollywood from New York theatre, bringing with them the prevailing styles, the priorities, the approach, of a milieu which privileges dialogue and performance. The unspoken implication of the label is that their filmmaking is less pure as a result – sullied, in some way, by the stench of theatricality. Directors who waste time worrying about what the actors are doing are misguided interlopers, hiding their inability to tell stories cinematically behind walls of words and artificial emoting.
While the above may be an exaggerated caricature of a certain perspective, the mere existence of the category “actors’ director” subtly reveals the innate suspicion among so many of acting as an art form. For how often do we hear corollary phrases regarding other areas of filmmaking? Is there a group of “cinematographers’ directors”? Is Robert Wise or Hal Ashby ever called an “editors’ director”, reducing them to one-trick ponies because they began their careers with a particular speciality? No. For it’s assumed without question that the title of director necessarily encompasses sensitivity to the arts of editing and cinematography. It would be tautological to add a qualifier in this regard. Real filmmaking, it seems, takes place behind the camera, with the machinery.
This isn’t the place for an examination of the politics of acting in cinema – if such a field even exists. But the manner in which we sometimes reductively categorise filmmakers can prevent us from seeing the breadth of their talent. Many of the quintessential “actors’ directors” suffer from the lack of attention paid to other elements of their work.
Equally, filmmakers who are pigeon-holed in other ways – by genre, say, or by budget, or by a pre-Hollywood sojourn in the bullrings of Mexico – can find themselves boxed into a corner, critical appraisal of their career focussing upon readily identifiable tropes (mythology of the Western, codes of masculinity, lean, sparse or elemental stylistics) and neglecting elements which may be at odds with a neat categorisation. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that Budd Boetticher is a more accomplished director of actors than he’s generally given credit for being.
“I sure ain’t about to get myself mixed up in a mess if there is one but, by golly, if there is one I’m sure gonna see it.” – Cass Bunning (Richard Lapp), in A Time for Dying (Budd Boetticher, 1969)
It’s entirely apt that Boetticher is so prominently quoted in Laura Mulvey’s seminal article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,1 for he’s one of Hollywood’s great scopophiles. Cinema, for him, is pure spectacle and he watches coolly as his narratives unfold – cool as in non-judgemental, cool in the manner of a football spectator who supports neither team but gets caught up in the drama of the match. The above quote from his A Time for Dying, the only film for which Boetticher received sole screenplay credit, beautifully captures this essence. For Boetticher, the show is the thing.
Loath as I am to rely on the same biographical crutch as so many Boetticher commentators, I’ll still draw an analogy to his training as a torero. Bullfighting, often called a sport, is looked on by aficionados as theatre – a cultural performance akin to ballet or opera. The fabulously attired torero is acclaimed for the beauty and elegance of their work. The enactment of time-honoured rituals, the quality of the passing and lancing, are the raison d’être of the bullfight. The result – in the sense of “a plot” – is rarely in doubt. The fate of the bull is as sealed as that of any villain faced up against Randolph Scott. But the crowd doesn’t hate the bull – on occasion, they will even petition for a bull which has fought especially impressively to be spared – and nor does the torero. Just the opposite, toreros understand their dependence upon the bull for their success – the more worthy a foe, the greater the glory. But, more importantly, the greater the spectacle. The putative hero of the bullfight isn’t a protagonist, as such, but one part of a larger show – an actor playing the role of the torero, if you will.
This perspective informs the oft-mentioned ambiguity of Boetticher’s characters. The villains in his films are rarely all bad, the heroes are never all good. Sometimes, as in the case of the Lee Marvin character in Seven Men from Now or the Pernell Roberts character in Ride Lonesome, it’s unclear until the end whether a character is a hero or villain. And in the underappreciated example of Horizons West, Robert Ryan’s hero is the villain. For Boetticher, the labels invoke no value judgement. The characters are all present in the arena of the narrative – the thrill of the film is in watching them dance, admiring their verbal thrust and parry, their artful manoeuvring around each other and the obstacles presented by the plot, how they conduct themselves in Andrew Sarris’ oft-quoted “floating poker games”.2 How, in acting terms, they go about achieving their objectives. A cinema conceived of in this manner places the cast at the centre of everything – when what matters is not what the characters are doing but how they are doing it, the films become defined by the work of the actors.
“I cut the picture on the set, in the camera, so they couldn’t cut it any other way”3 – Budd Boetticher
The strategy of denying coverage to studio editors in order to influence final cut in absentia is popularly associated with John Ford4– who, ironically, famously excised 42 minutes from Boetticher’s passion project Bullfighter and the Lady.5 Unlike Ford, who generally supervised a circus of vaudevillian buffoonery amongst his ensembles, Boetticher’s use of the technique is aided by the complexity of his characters and his sensitivity to the dramatic rhythm of a scene.
As Horizons West (1952) approaches its climax, Robert Ryan’s Dan is pursued by a lynch mob. His longtime friend and war buddy Tiny (James Arness), takes him to a church basement to hide. They sit facing each other in a classical two-shot. There’s a brief cut to the mob out on the street (possibly merely to mask Boetticher’s breaking of the 180 degree rule) and when we return to Dan and Tiny the camera has moved behind Ryan – who’s seated in semi-profile, out of focus in the foreground – while Tiny confesses his awkwardness at holding his former commander under arrest. Here, Boetticher executes a startling manoeuvre. Dan assuages Tiny’s guilt and assures him “there’s no hard feelings”, then rises and comes toward the camera, turning his back on Tiny. Boetticher pulls focus onto Dan and pans with his movement, settling on a close-up of his face while Tiny – now offscreen – talks of the change he’s noticed in his friend. We watch Dan’s face change, harden, as if he’s only now coming to realise the truth of that change in himself. Ryan, the actor, doesn’t pre-empt the emotion – it unfolds across his face as the realisation washes over him. He turns back and walks to his initial position in the scene, the camera again panning and pulling focus on to Tiny so as to restore the original framing of the shot. But Dan uses the movement to mask an attack on Tiny, overpowering him before shooting him in cold blood.
Given that Richard Rush claims to have invented the technique of racking focus in the mid-Sixties6 – I’ll be generous and assume by “invent” he means he was the first to use it in a repeated and systematic way, thereby popularising it and turning it into a ubiquitous stylistic trope of TV cop shows – it’s eye-opening to see Boetticher utilise it in a minor Western in 1952. What’s the motivation behind it? Once the two men separate in the scene, there are cuts back to a single of James Arness so this is no mere stylistic flourish, not about gratuitously maintaining a sequence shot. The difficulty in executing such a delicate focus change mid-scene – twice – while simultaneously panning, combined with the need to light Ryan’s close-up as if it were a separate set-up suggests that speed or simplicity of shooting wasn’t the issue, either.
What Boetticher wants is to watch the change in Ryan. The transition from hero to villain, which we’ve been watching since the opening of the film, has finally dawned on him. It’s a private moment for him which requires isolation in the frame. To achieve this purely through cutting breaks the smoothness of the transition – like witnessing a solar eclipse, a person’s self-realisation is a rare and beautiful thing. Showing it through cuts is clunky and requires Kuleshov-effect trickery – manipulating the audience into thinking they’re seeing something that isn’t there. Boetticher wants such a crucial moment to unfold in front of us, and with an actor of Ryan’s subtlety on hand he has the opportunity to let it. It’s the essence of cinema – or, at least, of a certain approach that we might call an actors’ cinema.
“He had the greatest sense of humour and he would let me do anything” – Actor Nancy Gates on Boetticher.7
Two crucial requirements of an actors’ cinema are space and time. Space and time to inhabit a set or location, to become comfortable within it, to take ownership of it. Space and time to form connections and relationships with the other actors/characters, maintaining the integrity of the performance arena without cumbersome equipment or distracting technicians disrupting the dynamic. Space and time, at a fundamental level, to be free to move – to drop the head or shift the weight without ruining a rigidly composed close-up or upsetting the rhythm of a tightly constructed montage. (I talk here of space and time within the performative moment, within the scene itself, not in terms of rehearsal or preparation which is another matter entirely. Boetticher’s shoots, often limited by budget, were famous for their lightning production schedules).
Boetticher’s cinema is characterised by the simplicity of the shot structure – he often holds on medium to wide shots, maintaining the integrity of the performances and allowing pacing to be dictated by the characters’ interactions rather than imposing an editorial rhythm. Less bravura, less self-consciously attention-grabbing than the sequence shots of Welles or Preminger – he’s not interested in long takes for their own sake, always comfortable cutting into these sequences for impact and returning to the master shot – it isn’t always so obvious that Boetticher stages his scenes quite theatrically, using the space of the set or location in a manner echoing those two great actor-auteurs.
Right across his career, Boetticher afforded his casts great freedom within the frame – as early as Behind Locked Doors (1948), we find multiple examples of unbroken takes running over two minutes. The most impressive, taking place in the day room of the Sanatorium to which Richard Carlson’s detective Stewart has had himself committed, sees Carlson and the sympathetic attendant Hopps (Ralf Harolde) entering from deep in the frame, walking into the foreground to engage with a seated patient, then crossing to the right with the camera tracking in to frame them in a two-shot. They share a cigarette and their attempt at conspiratorial conversation is interrupted by another patient entering from the garden doors. After placating him, they take a seat and Hopps warns Stewart about the danger of the sadistic night nurse Larson. Hopps then exits to the rear of the frame as Larson ominously appears and crosses the room. Stewart rises from his seat and the camera follows him as he regards the table of game-playing fellow patients who’ve been seated silently in the centre of the room the entire time.
The whole shot, lasting almost two and a half minutes, turns a scene of expository dialogue into an elegant dance of furtive glances and implied menace. More interestingly, for our purposes, it allows Carlson and Harolde to dictate the pacing of the scene – under Boetticher’s direction, obviously. And it affords them the opportunity to form a quiet bond in front of our eyes – making and breaking eye contact with each other, relaxing into synchronised seating positions on the couch, letting Harolde instinctively reach to put a friendly hand on Carlson’s leg before catching himself in the act – a gentle, understated, completely natural connection with each other which justifies Hopps’ later choice to risk his own safety to save Stewart.
One could argue that this kind of shooting style is dictated by the confines of the production – fewer set-ups means a cheaper, quicker shoot. But go back to Escape in the Fog (1945), an equally cheap B-thriller, and we can find only one shot which runs longer than a minute. Boetticher developed this approach no doubt partly in reaction to seeing his films edited in ways which altered his aesthetic intention. But the cornerstone of that intention is the importance of maintaining the integrity of the performative space – to keep the bull and the bullfighter together as much as possible.
“And he listened to his actors. If an actor said, “I’d like to try it this way”, he’d say “Let’s try it” – Actor Rand Brooks on Boetticher 8
Of course, simply allowing actors freedom is no guarantee that they’ll use that freedom well. Contemporary cinema is littered with “Cassavetes-inspired” low-budgeters boring us silly with loose, improvised (what I would call ad-libbed) naturalism that plays like reality television. The bullfight is not just about the interaction of the bull with the bullfighter: it’s about the interaction between the performance and the ritual. Similarly, the value of an actor’s performance lies not in simply doing whatever they want but in how they can harmonise the strictly performative with the overarching themes and narrative structure. In short – how does their work help the film?
The climactic confrontation from The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) provides an instructive example. Legs, having witnessed the final erasure of his gangland power, returns to his apartment for an emotional encounter which sees long-suffering wife Alice finally leave him. The scene, running four minutes and ten seconds, contains a wide shot of the apartment which takes up 3:11 of the scene’s runtime, interrupted only twice – first by a fourteen second sequence of three alternating medium close-ups of the pair, followed later by a forty-five second sequence of five shots, again alternating medium close-ups, as Alice delivers her final, damning speech before exiting. Ray Danton’s Legs twice retreats from the foreground living area to the bedroom deep in the frame – once during the altercation and again after Alice leaves – and, when he makes his final, fateful phone call to ex-mistress Monica, he’s a comparatively tiny figure in an almost Wellesian space.
What this approach means for the actors is that they have nowhere to hide, so to speak. It can expose their limitations – Karen Steele’s Alice, notably, wavers a little in her delivery of some (admittedly awkward) dialogue – but it can also create some startling results. It’s hard to imagine Alice’s guttural expression of disgust at Legs’ desperate final embrace of her emanating from a carefully framed close-up. It’s a moment of unexpected spontaneity, eloquently expressing her character’s emotional state with an immediacy and clarity not possible through any other means. For a brief moment, the human inside the character shows her face and Alice is no longer a collection of character traits or a vehicle for plot development or the embodiment of Legs’ absent moral compass. She’s a person, living in the moment of the scene.
The importance of this achievement is easy to overlook or dismiss. Steele’s flash of inspiration is exactly that – it flashes by and she returns to her default self-consciousness for a brief final monologue. But the electricity generated by that spark persists. The connection she’s made with the audience, the connection which allows us to see beyond the cliché, is as difficult to break as it was to make. Many directors go a whole career without providing such a moment of (dare I say it) performative transcendence. Boetticher’s cinema is littered with them.
Nor are they merely confined to obviously “dramatic” scenes. The Killer is Loose (1956) offers a startling example of Boetticher providing his actors with time and space to develop emotion. When Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) is woken with the news of an escaped prisoner, he readies himself for work while wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming) dutifully heads to the kitchen to prepare his breakfast. The scene which follows contains just two shots. The first is a ninety second wide-shot of Lila alone in the kitchen. As she washes her hands, puts the coffee on, fetches eggs and bacon from the fridge, she questions her offscreen husband about the escaped prisoner, gradually receiving confirmation of her suspicion that this isn’t just any escaped prisoner but Leon Poole, a man who’d sworn to seek vengeance on Sam. We watch her as she moves around the kitchen, obviously repeating her well-worn morning ritual – like a micro-Jeanne Dielman – but expertly choreographed pauses betray her growing fear. It spreads across her face, her voice becomes gradually more tremulous, her equilibrium thrown so subtly out of balance that it’s only when Sam arrives onscreen at the end of the shot and puts the bacon in the pan that she remembers to turn the stove on.
Boetticher then cuts into a medium two-shot which lasts a full two and a half minutes, Lila’s fear transforming into resolve. She wants Sam to quit the police force. Their discussion of the matter, punctuated by embraces, cajoling and a little emotional blackmail, is clearly not their first such conversation and, though conducted respectfully, concludes with Sam accusing her of making an unreasonable request. To which she replies in classic Boetticher fashion – after a fourteen second pause in which we’ve watched her digest the conversation – “I’ll ask again”.
Why is this scene important? More pertinently, why is Boetticher’s work with Fleming and Cotten important? Later in the film, Lila’s fear causes her to act irrationally, exposing herself to the killer. Her behaviour, at face value, is implausible and it needs to be made plausible in order that she doesn’t lose audience sympathy. And she doesn’t, even when other characters lose patience with her behaviour. That connection she made with us – that ninety odd seconds we spent alone with her in the kitchen, where Fleming allowed us the privilege of watching emotion grow in her body, where Boetticher hit pause on that relentless noir B-movie pace to give his actor the time and space to simply exist in the frame – has persisted. We’re not afforded the opportunity to scoff and say “As if someone would go back to the house when she knows the killer will be there” because we’re not dealing with just “someone”. We’re dealing with Lila Wagner as played by Rhonda Fleming, a very specific person who’s already sold us on the aspects of her character which compel her to behave in the way the plot requires.
“Now I been in love with miss Lily Langtry for – well, forever I guess – but I ain’t never seen her.” – Judge Roy Bean (Victor Jory), in A Time for Dying (1969)
Boetticher understands the power of fantasy. Whether that fantasy is a longed for dream – as Lily Langtry is for Judge Roy Bean or the post-revolution utopia is for the peasants of Wings of the Hawk (1953) – or a memory – as Randolph Scott’s succession of dead wives are in the Ranown films (not just dead, but absent, never a flashback for any of them) or Sgt. Kallek’s dead brother is in Red Ball Express (1952), – the influence that an absent perfection can hold over a person’s psyche is a constant theme in his cinema. The desire for revenge, after all, is the desire to escape the grip of a phantom, to achieve closure, as much as a quest for justice. His characters are so often imprisoned psychologically, held in thrall to a dream or a memory which they can’t escape because of its very ineffability. The necessary dramatic corollary is that the characters themselves are grounded and concrete.
Boetticher’s rich and varied ensembles share one quality – they are inerasably present. This presence takes many forms: the granite visages of his Randolph Scott heroes; the flamboyance of Anthony Quinn (Magnificent Matador) or Ray Danton (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond) or Gilbert Roland (Bullfighter and the Lady); the unexpectedly gutsy Julie Adams (Wings of the Hawk) or Lucile Bremer (Behind Locked Doors) or Karen Steele (Westbound); the garrulous impudence of Lee Marvin (Seven Men from Now) or Pernell Roberts (Ride Lonesome) or Richard Boone (The Tall T); the conflicted reasonableness of Van Heflin (Wings of the Hawk) or Joseph Cotten (The Killer is Loose) or Glenn Ford (The Man from the Alamo) or Jeff Chandler (Red Ball Express); or the uncategorisable oddness of Wendell Corey (The Killer is Loose) or Victor Jory (A Time for Dying) or Henry Silva (The Tall T).
Yet, no matter what the character’s journey nor how they’re expressed, an actor in a Boetticher film must leap off the screen at you. They must create their character as specific and idiosyncratic, for they are the literal embodiment of their director’s faith in the individual. Their existential problems are solved not through intellectualism nor politics but action. And action, as the word tells us, requires actors.
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in Screen 16 (3), p. 6-18. ↩
- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (New York: Dutton, 1968), p. 124. ↩
- Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Talk: Directors at Work (Rutgers New Brunswick: University Press, 2011), p 43. ↩
- Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2001), p. 251. ↩
- Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Talk: Directors at Work (Rutgers New Brunswick: University Press, 2011), p 46. ↩
- Schauer, Bradley “The Auteur Renaissance” in Cinematography, Patrick Keating, ed, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014), p. 104. ↩
- Robert Nott, The Films of Randolph Scott (Jefferson: McFarland and Co., 2007), p.189. ↩
- Robert Nott, The Films of Randolph Scott (Jefferson: McFarland and Co., 2007), p.189. ↩