Mon 22 Dec 2008
RIDE LONESOME. Columbia Pictures, 1959. Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Pernell Roberts, James Best, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn. Screenwriter: Burt Kennedy; director: Budd Boetticher.
When I was but a lad, Randolph Scott’s westerns were among my favorites, but I always wondered why he always played somebody different every time one of his movies came to town.
Roy was always Roy, Gene was always Gene, and Durango was always Durango (but his alter ego Steve always seemed to have a different last name, a sneaky fact I never realized until IMDB came along).
Having a cowboy star named Steve was all I needed, nothing more.
I never saw Randolph Scott’s later westerns, though. By the time the late 50s came along, I was interested in other things, and it’s only recently that I’ve discovered that the later ones are considered to be among his best.
I suspect that many of you are way ahead of me on this.
In Ride Lonesome, for example, he plays a lean and somewhat mean bounty hunter named Ben Brigade. His prisoner is a young outlaw (and killer) named Billy John, played to callow perfection by James Best. Also on Billy John’s trail, but arriving too late are a couple of other outlaws (Pernell Roberts, in his pre-Bonanza days, and James Coburn, whose film debut this movie was).
The reward money is not what motivates these last two. It’s the amnesty that the governor of the state has promised to anyone who brings Billy John in. Reluctantly they team up with Brigade, though, to make a stand against of a marauding band of Indians who have already killed Carrie Lane’s husband, manager of a stage stop in almost the middle of nowhere.
That makes five of them who, once the Indian threat has passed, must also reckon with the fact that Billy John’s brother (Lee Van Cleef) is not going to take lightly the prospect of his hanging. As Ben Brigade, Scott is laconic to the point of barely moving his lips, his aging features chiseled as if out of well-weathered stone.
A couple of segments of dialogue will illustrate, courtesy of IMDB to get them correct, but they’re the same ones that caught my ear as I was watching:
Ben Brigade: I’d hunt you free.
Mrs. Carrie Lane: You don’t seem like the kind that would hunt a man for money.
Ben Brigade: I am.
I see that I have not yet mentioned Karen Steele, the young and impossibly blonde actress who plays Mrs. Lane, and she of the statuesque figure with measurements that even Barbie could envy. (Most of Karen Steele’s career seems to have been on television; this is one of only a very few movies she made. I truly regret not having a color closeup photo to show you.)
Not surprisingly, Brigade’s temporary allies eye her with lust in their eyes as well as their heart, and even Brigade himself seems to be susceptible to her charms, once or twice. But Billy John is not Brigade’s only mission, and as the title suggests, it’s a lonesome one.
In the list of my all time favorite western movies, I’m thinking it over, but I’m not yet sure that this one’s on it, or that it should be. Other reviewers have praised it highly, but at just over 70 minutes long, the story’s not quite deep enough for me to be convinced. But what it is is extremely good. The color photography is terrific, and all of the actors involved do top notch jobs.
I don’t know why I’m resisting. But as I was watching, the story didn’t quite feel real enough, a little stagey perhaps, or maybe a little too pat for its own good. But as I’m writing this, I’ll tell you what. The movie’s calling me to watch it again, and there’s no way I won’t.
Not only that, but I have a feeling that when I do, it’s going to move up a few notches in my own but totally objective personal ranking.