Unless there’s a big surprise in the next month and a half, I think Sony/Columbia’s Budd Boetticher Collection will wind up as the DVD release of the year. It really should be called the “Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott Collection,” because all five films in the set have Randolph Scott, the rugged, easy-going Western hero, as the star — but it’s Boetticher, and his cult following among filmmakers, that was the impetus for this set; Sony had never released these films on DVD before and most of them hadn’t even widely available on VHS, but Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and other bigshots got together and talked Sony into releasing obscure classics on DVD, starting with these Westerns. (Boetticher and Scott made seven Westerns together; the first, Seven Men From Now, is available in an excellent and inexpensive special edition from Paramount.)
It’s hard to explain what makes these Westerns so compelling, which I think in itself is a clue to why moviemakers feel so passionately about them. Though the scripts (mostly by Burt Kennedy, who later became a director himself) are very good, these are not movies that seem like much on paper, in words; their impact is in the images and the people and the feelings they create. They are, as the French used to say, “pure cinema,” a tribute to the power of movies to stir up emotions in ways you can’t quite explain.
These movies are all B-Westerns, under 80 minutes, intended to run on the second half of double features. The casts are small and the settings very spare (you got your desert, your generic Western town, and maybe the occasional ranch). Most of them follow strict, Kabuki-like conventions: Randolph Scott is a hero with a checkered past, often out for revenge; the villain is a guy who is not too different from Scott and could have been his friend in different circumstances; there’s a woman who gets protected by Scott and whom he chivalrously calls “Ma’am”; Scott wins in the end. (Does that even require a spoiler alert?) But within those conventions, these are some of the toughest, most involving and even surprising Westerns ever made.
A case in point is the first film in this set, The Tall T, based on an Elmore Leonard story. The surprise is the sudden shift in tone in the picture: it starts out light, almost a comedy, and suddenly turns very dark and violent. The emotional impact of the film is in presenting characters who grow before our eyes: the meek heroine learns to assert herself, the “sympathetic” villain is confronted with the fraudulence of his attempt to pretend that he’s better than the thugs who do his dirty work; the hero actually admits, more than once, that he’s scared. It’s a conventional B-Western, but it’s so tough and smart and uncompromising that it seems to obliterate the conventions and make us feel like we’re watching real, desperate people fighting for their lives and their dignity.
Boetticher’s talent was for making these stock characters seem like real people, getting strangely natural performances from the actors (within the bounds of the traditional Western characters they’re playing) and making the most of the limited range of camera setups available in a quickly-shot B movie. His less-is-more style combined with Scott’s underplaying combined with Kennedy’s bare-minimum dialogue (Scott’s lines often consist of nothing but two-word questions like “Do we?” or “Am I?”) make these scenes feel amost poetic, like this opening scene from Ride Lonesome with Bounty Hunter Scott confronting one of the many giggly young thugs who populate these movies.
The transfers seem fine, considering that these movies inevitably look kind of grainy: they used cheap colour processes that don’t hold up well over the years. There are commentaries on most of the movies; there’s a long new documentary on Boetticher’s entire career, containing clips from most of his movies (even non-Sony movies), and each film has a short segment with a big-shot director talking about why he likes the film. Actually, Scorsese and Eastwood are both outclassed by the lesser-known Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman), who has some really insightful things to say about Decision at Sundown.
Five movies, lots of extras, in a package that amounts to about $11 a film — it’s worth getting if you get only one classic-movie set this Christmas.