Even those of us who have devoted tens of thousands of hours to watching films have blind spots — important pathways of cinema history that we’ve never ventured down, or, perhaps even more embarrassingly, major movies whose greatness we’ve never quite grasped. But being shut in is the perfect time to open doors. So here is a new column, focusing on gateway movies. If you’re unfamiliar with an essential director, I will recommend the ideal place to start. If you’ve always felt a particular type of movie was not for you, the goal is to change that.
Let’s start with wide-open spaces and a genre that has repeatedly been written off for dead: the western, which undoubtedly lives on in revisionist variations (“Unforgiven,” “Deadwood”) and the most enduring of all parodies, “Blazing Saddles.” When people say they hate westerns, I always think they’re imagining something like “Bonanza” or a movie like “Shane.” Without too much disrespect to “Shane,” the best westerns are rarely so clear-cut in their delineations of right and wrong. They deal in moral gray areas; they take place when society is still establishing basic laws and codes of honor.
They are brisk (all run fewer than 80 minutes), they are master classes in tight screenwriting and suspense, and, while they can be watched in any order, they illustrate how westerns’ meaning often lies in theme and variation.
Cinephiles argue over whether the cycle’s official count should include all seven Boetticher-Scott collaborations or just six (excluding “Westbound,” a 1959 dud that Boetticher had signed on for in a hurry). All but their final movie are available on major services.
“Seven Men From Now” (1956): Rent or buy on Amazon, Google Play and iTunes.
“The Tall T” (1957): Rent or buy on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.
“Decision at Sundown” (1957): Stream it on Tubi.
“Westbound” (1959): Buy or rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.
“Comanche Station” (1960): Not available yet.
Tough to the bone, Boetticher’s films were B movies in their day. They are not the most poetic westerns (for that, see “My Darling Clementine” or nearly any other John Ford outing). But they may be the most archetypal, and watching them in close succession takes you almost over the range of the genre, from a portrait of a righteous lawman to the darker corners of revisionism. (Though most famous for westerns, Boetticher also directed superb noirs like “The Killer Is Loose.”)
One key to the movies is simply to observe the outwardly stoic Scott, whose accent and attitudes vary from picture to picture. In “Seven Men From Now,” he plays a former sheriff tracking the men who murdered his wife, killed at a job she took only because he refused to work as a deputy. Just two movies later, Scott’s cause is less clearly righteous in “Decision at Sundown,” which signals that something is amiss with the leading man by introducing him with a stubble-covered face. The movie takes the power of vengeance away from Scott’s character, a swaggering cuckold named Bart Allison, and gives it to the residents of Sundown, who have their own reasons for running the villain (John Carroll) out of town.
As with all of Boetticher’s films, it is hard not to marvel at the economy of the storytelling, which in “Decision” follows a large ensemble over a single day (a day that, yes, ends in a sundown). The depiction of the self-deluded townsfolk has a faintly Eugene O’Neill-like bleakness. A saloonkeeper sums up the atmosphere: “If you’d been tending bar as long as I have, you wouldn’t expect so much out of the human race.”
“Ride Lonesome,” with the sweeping, wide-screen vistas of CinemaScope, has the feel of a culmination. Scott is Ben Brigade, a remorseless bounty hunter and (again) a dead-wife avenger, but this time an abandoned frontier homemaker (Karen Steele) pushes him to question whether his latest bounty ought to be hanged. Narratively, the movie follows a strategy introduced in “Seven Men From Now,” having Scott’s character team up with a natural enemy (the gold-chasing Lee Marvin in “Seven Men”; Pernell Roberts and James Coburn as amnesty-seeking outlaws in “Ride Lonesome”) for a common cause, postponing an inevitable showdown. Even with the men in constant motion, the film plays like a feature-length standoff.
The plots, typically scripted by Burt Kennedy or Charles Lang (“The Tall T” comes from a story by Elmore Leonard), are almost Socratic in the way they layer on complications. As others have suggested, Boetticher’s westerns are also unusually claustrophobic. The have a habit of isolating characters in campsites, stables, jail cells and clearings, inverting the possibility of escape and travel inherent in the genre. But that is another way of saying that these films bring out the versatility of westerns. They are the opposite of wagon train movies.
You will occasionally have to put up with cringe-worthy racial attitudes. The depiction of Native Americans as horse-eating, husband-killing savages doesn’t sit well in modern eyes, and the name of Henry Silva’s character in “The Tall T” is so offensive it cannot be printed.
But Boetticher also won credit for his progressivism, which can be seen in the misleadingly titled “Buchanan Rides Alone,” which finds Scott, as a roving West Texan named Tom Buchanan, forging a friendship with a Mexican man, Juan (Manuel Rojas), whose father is widely regarded as a populist benefactor in Mexico. But Juan — and initially, Buchanan — is scheduled to hang for murder in a corrupt border town, run by a self-dealing family whose members include the sheriff and the judge.
If the central question of a western is how we live together in a fair society, then Boetticher’s movies play like a continuing, ever-deepening argument.