Stoic Glory: Budd Boetticher

Whenever a notable filmmaker from the Golden Years of Hollywood dies, it has become almost obligatory to intone that “an era has died with them”. In the case of Budd Boetticher (pronounced Be-ti-ker), who died at the age of 85 on November 29, 2001, this cliché is, sadly, true.


Perhaps it was already true long before his death, at the moment when Boetticher made his last great studio film, the lean, electric, gangster classic The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). Although Boetticher was a robust, vital, productive man who pursued many projects over the subsequent forty years (including a colourful autobiography, When in Disgrace), he only managed to make a handful of little-seen ‘late’ works.


Boetticher’s finest and best-known years as a filmmaker were the 1950s. There, in the safe, B movie margins of studio production, working within the tight rules of a popular genre, he produced a string of taut, low-budget Westerns that, as an achieved, coherent body of work, rate alongside Preston Sturges’ comedies of the ‘40s or Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague art films of the ‘60s.


Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960) – most scripted by Burt Kennedy (later to become a director) and all starring Randolph Scott, thought by many at the time to be already past his prime.


These movies are, at first glance, deceptively simple. Filmed on sparse, outdoor locations in the small, North Californian town of Lone Pine, they tell rugged stories of greed, law enforcement and revenge, relying more on quick, decisive gestures than prolix dialogue.


Scott incarnates a stoic, cowboy hero who, as a rule, does not reveal what is driving him. Slowly, through the course of his highly coded interactions with others and indirect plot revelations, we come to understand the gravity of his quest.


Boetticher never underestimated the intelligence of his audience – he sketched only the essentials and left it to our imagination and compassion to fill in the rest. When we reach the endings of his films – such as the unforgettable image of Scott before a burning tree in Ride Lonesome – we truly feel we have arrived somewhere, wiser and more alert to the mysteries of human behaviour and morality.


The other masterpiece of Boetticher’s career is The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), a highly authentic paean to a sporting ritual beloved of the director. As with Seven Men from Now, it was the restoration and re-circulation in recent years of this classic that led to a resurgence of interest in Boetticher’s legacy.


Australian film culture has always had a special part to play in keeping the flame of Boetticher’s appreciation burning. In July of 2001, the Brisbane International Film Festival staged a retrospective tribute to the director. He could not be present, but two of his most significant champions were on hand to introduce the films with passion, enthusiasm and insight: TV host Bill Collins (who generously presented Boetticher’s work as often as possible on Foxtel) and critic/actor John Flaus.


For Flaus, as for several generations of film buffs, critics and programmers in this country, Boetticher represented the highpoint of a lost classicism in American filmmaking. Flaus recognised the value of these movies from their first commercial screenings in the ‘50s, and he bristled at the snobbish rejection they suffered at the hands of high culture pundits.


In a 1970 essay, Flaus wrote: “Boetticher’s grammatical precision and economy is never indulgent of the thrill of violence, the sentimentality of pastoral splendour, the macho supremacy complex or the righteousness of the spelled-out ‘issue’. Moral values are lived out, not argued out, victory is the outcome of nerve, not muscle, and a tarnished mirror is held up to the identification figure of the hero, with only fitful gleams of anything that might be called glory.”


As for Boetticher, he remained on the ball until the very end, scripting what filmmaker Raúl Ruiz regarded as “the perfect Western” – who could do it justice now, perhaps Clint Eastwood or Monte Hellman? – and offering some priceless advice to aspiring filmmakers in the course of a tribute to Andrew Sarris, “the critic who reinvented my career”:


NEVER say your movie ‘could have been better’. The honest reaction will always be: ‘What the hell happened to you?’


NEVER tell your leading man that you would rather have had his role than direct. He’ll be glad to trade you.


NEVER give your editor too much film. They all have great ideas, and you may not recognise your picture at the premiere.


NEVER trust a major studio. Try to get your artistic control on paper. The real tycoons who could make decisions – the Cohns, Zanucks, Goldwyns, and Warners – are all dead, and the new executive committees might just sneak-preview your Citizen Kane into a rock musical.


© Adrian Martin December 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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