The Outlaw Variations: The Ranown Westerns’ Finely Drawn Antagonists

The Outlaw Variations: The Ranown Westerns’ Finely Drawn Antagonists

In the westerns concocted by director Budd Boetticher and writers Burt Kennedy and Charles Lang for the actor Randolph Scott, the star invariably plays a man who is, as the 1943 Great American Songbook standard “One for My Baby” put it, true to his code. A man who, to trot out an even hoarier phrase, does what a man’s got to do. Scott plays the hero of each movie, and that hero is stalwart, stoic, determined. When he’s getting the job done, he’s imposingly grim. When he’s thwarted, he clenches his jaw. His expression sometimes betrays a self-pity that he’d rather not show. The Boetticher/Scott protagonist can be obsessive, monomaniacal. On the moral ladder, he sometimes stands only one or two rungs above the men he opposes. And the men he opposes, venal though they may be, almost always have their reasons. One of the neat tricks pulled off consistently by these movies is in giving us a western hero who fits within the parameters of genre convention without ever descending into cliché. Another is in putting him up against opponents who are just as intriguing.

In his splendid memoir When in Disgrace, Boetticher boasts that in the seven pictures he made with Scott, he created “six new stars: Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Craig Stevens, James Coburn, Pernell Roberts, and Claude Akins.” As it happens, all six of those future stars play antagonists of a sort. Marvin goes up against Scott in Seven Men from Now (1956), the first of Boetticher’s pictures with Scott, distributed by Warner Bros. But the rest appear in the five Columbia Pictures releases presented in this set. And while these actors’ performances are all remarkable, theirs are not the only indelible villains in these films.

In The Tall T (1957), adapted by Kennedy from an Elmore Leonard story, Scott’s Pat Brennan is arguably the most relaxed straight arrow of this collection’s bunch. While riding from out of nowhere to a town called Contention, he volunteers to buy some candy for youngster Jeff, son of a stagecoach stationmaster. Because that’s just the kind of fellow Brennan is. The predicament he eventually winds up in involves a kidnapped heiress, her craven husband, and a trio of despicable outlaws. How despicable? They’ve killed the kid who asked for the candy, along with his dad.

Top of page and above: The Tall T
Buchanan Rides Alone

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