Ride Lonesome

(Budd Boetticher, USA, 1959): Yer dern tootin’ there’s some things a man can’t ride around, for instance the awesome beauty and formidable precision of this elementary revenge western directed by Budd Boetticher. Featuring Randolph Scott in trim, thin-lipped retribution mode, Ride Lonesome is at once one of the most desolate and ritualistic of Boetticher’s parables of honor betrayed and restored, playing out almost exclusively against a backdrop of rock, desert, scrub and blistering high-noon sunlight. From the opening, where Scott’s bounty hunter Ben Brigade happens upon the calmly waiting fugitive (James Best) due to hang back in Santa Cruz, the movie unfolds as series of sparsely opposed figures in vast expanses of frame. When the pair stumble upon a another duo of professional stalkers — Pernell Roberts and James Coburn — at a stagecoach depot populated only by the high sierra-chested widow Karen Steele, the game is afoot, and the game is basically an exercise in crossing open desert and trying to figure out the rules everybody else is playing by. Is Brigade really after the kid Billy’s bounty, or is he deliberately luring Billy’s hotly pursuing brother (Lee Van Cleef) into a trap motivated by an old, deep and clearly unhealed wound? And how trustworthy are Roberts’ and Coburn’s bounty hunting desperadoes, who know amnesty is theirs if they take Billy in over Brigade’s dead body? And how can this sumptuous and intelligent woman possibly make it unmolested across this killing landscape? A movie simmering with barely sublimated sexual tension, displaced rage and cross-circuited conflicting agendas, Ride Lonesome is only that much more remarkable for its almost Beckett-ish minimalism and control, which uses the Cinemascope frame as tool for composing in as few bold strokes as possible: watch how the final act plays out around the stark vertical figure of the hanging tree, the natural-world version of Brigade himself. You’ve got to wonder if Sergio Leone didn’t see this one at some point while he was wondering whether he could make a cowboy movie on his side of the Atlantic, and you’ve got to marvel at how the tiny cast encapsulates the past, present and future of the late-fifties western: there’s the veteran cowboy icon Scott, The Left-Handed Gun‘s Best, Bonanza‘s Roberts, The Magnificent 7‘s Coburn and Leone’s own Lee Van Cleef. A humdinger of a western, and the acme of Boetticher’s formidable B-movie art.