Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959)

Between 1956 and 1960, Budd Boetticher directed seven westerns starring Randolph Scott, the best of which, including Ride Lonesome (1959), were scripted by Burt Kennedy. Known as the Ranown Cycle (though not all were released under the banner of Ranown Pictures), they are economical masterpieces, balancing tersely poetic dialogue and austere classicism with the stripped-down punch of B westerns.

These outdoor chamber dramas follow small bands of travelers through starkly inhospitable terrain, and dissect the complex dynamics of groups bound together by conflicting goals and one shared aim – survival. Kennedy composed variations on an inexhaustible theme, with Scott as a stiff-backed, taciturn man pursuing a solitary and secretive quest. He crosses paths with brutish thugs, endangered women, and marauding Indians; and he crosses swords with intelligent, charming, morally ambiguous outlaws who are alternately allies and threatening rivals. All these people are constantly maneuvering for position, probing each other’s motives and weak spots, in long stretches of talk, hard riding and mounting tension that are broken by sudden, startling bursts of violence.

Ride Lonesome is the darkest and most majestically bleak entry in the cycle. Filmed around Lone Pine, California, it is set in an otherworldly wasteland of jagged rocks, bleached sand dunes, and parched plains closed in by distant mountains. Human presences are marked by smoke signals or dust clouds in the distance, and by the ruins of isolated stage posts and corrals. Empty space dominates the wide-screen compositions, making people look dwarfed and pitilessly exposed. Their journey is haunted by nightmare images: a stagecoach filled with corpses, a hanging tree in flames. The hero, numbed by trauma and single-mindedly obsessed with avenging the past, qualifies this as a noir western, in which the genre’s elegiac mood shades into something burned-out and inconsolable, bitter as the taste of ashes or loneliness. --Il Cinema Ritrovato