If I had to pick three films to show why Budd Boetticher is such a great American director, then certainly Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), 7 Men From Now (1956) and Ride Lonesome (1959) – all screening July 21 – 24th at the Aero Theatre – would come damn close. Two of these, Bullfighter and 7 Men, were among his personal favorites and the films he was proudest of making. By coincidence or fate, both of these were rescued by the UCLA Film & Television Archive from being essentially “lost” films, at least Boetticher's preferred versions – and he lived long enough to see them both beautifully restored, a gift he was deeply grateful for.
|Budd Boetticher (right) on the set of 7 Men From Now with John Wayne and Randolph Scott|
His early films for Columbia and Universal, from proto-noirs like Behind Locked Doors (1948) to terse action films such as Red Ball Express (1952) and westerns (Horizons West, 1952; The Man From the Alamo, 1953) are tremendously entertaining – but they also show a director chafing against the creative and bureaucratic limits of the Hollywood studio system. Like Charles Foster Kane, Boetticher always gagged on the silver spoon: he would notoriously get out of his Universal contract with a literal bang, by purposely rigging an on-set explosion with too much dynamite and nearly leveling an entire block of Universal’s backlot. Bullfighter and the Lady, the first of two films independently produced by Boetticher’s friend (and occasional sparring partner) John Wayne, is arguably Boetticher’s first true masterpiece as a filmmaker. It’s the movie that shows him transitioning from being a talented director of basically generic tough-guy pictures to one of the most remarkable directors of his (or any) generation.
What makes Bullfighter so compelling, 65 years on, particularly when the blood-sport itself is so widely condemned? In large part it’s because the film is so intimate and autobiographical: Boetticher traveled to Mexico in the late 1930s as a brash outsider, and managed to befriend some of the country’s finest bullfighters (experience that served him well as advisor to Tyrone Power on the 1941 version of Blood and Sand). In the movie, Boetticher’s life-long friend Robert Stack plays a thinly-disguised version of Boetticher himself: an outspoken American sportsman whose curiosity leads him to train to become a bullfighter – and whose arrogance leads to tragic consequences. In reality, Boetticher nearly died from being gored in the rear end by a bull (and carried a sliver of bull horn, unknown, in his gut until well into his 70s). Boetticher loved the sense of tradition and spectacle in bullfighting, and the deep emotional bond between the bullfighters themselves – but he also understood as an artist that machismo can carry a very heavy price, and it’s this savage, sudden undercutting and subversion of male posturing that gives Bullfighter (and several of Boetticher’s other masterworks like The Tall T, 1957) its emotional wallop. Hauntingly poetic and beautifully photographed in black and white by cinematographer Jack Draper, Bullfighter is an outsider’s view of a country, Mexico, that Boetticher dearly loved and returned to time and again throughout his life. It’s also a film that was nearly lost in Boetticher’s original version: after he turned in a two hour-plus cut of the film, producer Wayne brought in another of Boetticher’s friends and sometimes-rivals, John Ford, to “save” it, hacking over 35 minutes out of the movie. It’s an act of desecration that Boetticher never fully forgave Ford for participating in – although UCLA Film & TV Archive was, miraculously, able to restore Bullfighter to its full 124 minute length, the version that the Cinematheque will be screening.
If Boetticher had just made Bullfighter and his early Columbia and Universal pictures, no matter how entertaining they are, he’d hardly be revered and ranked with Anthony Mann, Samuel Fuller, Don Siegel, Howard Hawks and John Ford as one of the greatest American filmmakers of his era. But in the mid-1950s he paired up again with producer John Wayne who was launching his own company, Batjac Productions, and with veteran actor Randolph Scott, to make 7 Men From Now. This and the six Scott-starring Westerns that followed – The Tall T, Decision at Sundown (both 1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Westbound and Ride Londsome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960), most produced by Harry Joe Brown and written by Burt Kennedy, came to be known collectively as the “Ranown cycle.” Along with the James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaborations and the films Wayne himself made with Ford and Hawks, the Ranown films represent one of the finest actor-director partnerships in cinema – and, arguably, the most poetic and deeply moving expression of the American Western ever caught on film. Two of the films showing at the Aero, 7 Men and Ride Londsome, are among the high points of the cycle – which means they’re among the best Westerns ever made, period. Many years later, Boetticher was attending a film festival in Spain where he was scheduled to meet Sergio Leone. Boetticher was uncharacteristically anxious, because several film critics had suggested in writing that Leone had liberally “borrowed” much of his style from Boetticher’s. “I didn’t think so – but I was afraid Sergio would think that was my opinion too,” Boetticher once confided in me. When he got to the festival, he was surprised by Leone waiting to greet him. “Budd Boetticher, I stole everything from you!!” Leone shouted, throwing his arms up. And to a degree, every great director of Westerns that followed Boetticher, from Clint Eastwood to Sam Peckinpah to Sergio Corbucci, “stole everything” from him.
An enormous amount has been written about the Ranown films, and it’s worth seeking out critics like Jim Kitses (whose masterful book Horizons West borrows its title from one of Boetticher’s movies) and Blake Lucas, for their superb observations on the cycle. I’ll only add that the films are very short (7 Men and Ride Londsome are both under 80 minutes), they’re stunningly photographed (7 Men by William H. Clothier, who also did The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Ride Londsome by Charles Lawton Jr., who did The Lady From Shanghai and 3:10 to Yuma), and they have a very rich and surprising undercurrent of humor that offsets the tragic violence and emptiness of the pitiless landscape Scott crosses in the films, a wanderer without a home. Boetticher himself was something of a wanderer his whole life, but he faced it with great humor. Boetticher was the greatest natural storyteller I’ve ever met, so I’ll end with one of his favorite stories, about shooting the first of the Scott / Ranown films, 7 Men From Now:
A bullfighter friend of Boetticher’s was in Los Angeles and called him up, just as filming was about to start on 7 Men. “Boetticher, I’m crazy in love with Lana Turner – and she loves me,” the matador gushed to Boetticher on the phone, who listened calmly, then replied that she was already very publicly married to actor Lex Barker (of “Tarzan” fame), and that she was, in Boetticher’s colorful language, “trouble.” Instantly an ice-cold female voice interrupted on the other end of the line: “Budd, you’re an asshole!” Lana Turner shouted, and hung up.
A few days later, on the very first day of principal photography for 7 Men From Now, Boetticher got an unexpected phone call at the studio from Turner’s husband, Lex Barker – who demanded to know if Boetticher had insulted his wife on the phone. Boetticher admitted he had without mentioning the extenuating circumstances – Turner’s affair with Boetticher’s bullfighter buddy. Barker demanded to meet Boetticher to settle it mano-a-mano. Boetticher hesitated, knowing Barker’s size, then replied, “Okay, Lex – I don’t think it’s necessary – but if you want to meet, I’m at the studio shooting 7 Men and I’ll have a lunch break in the afternoon. Just come by here and I’ll fight you then.” He hung up the phone, then returned to the set to rejoin Randolph Scott and John Wayne, who both saw Boetticher’s troubled expression. When he explained what was going to happen – Boetticher duking it out with Tarzan – the very conservative and cautious Scott started fretting about the bad publicity they’d get, on the first day of filming. Boetticher turned to John Wayne, who thought for a moment, then said, “Can you take him, Budd?” Boetticher, who was a former Golden Gloves fighter, just nodded and said, “Yep.” “That’s good enough for me,” Wayne answered. Barker never showed up.
Dennis Bartok is a filmmaker and screenwriter, and currently head of distribution for art-house distributor Cinelicious Pics. He was formerly head of programming for the American Cinematheque. His book on the vanishing world of film collectors, A Thousand Cuts: the Bizarre UndergroundWorld of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies, comes out in September from University Press of Mississippi.