Review by Andrew Schenker
Posted on 01 December 2008
Source Sony Pictures DVD (Budd Boetticher Box Set)
With the recent release of Sony Pictures’ Budd Boetticher box set, our understanding of the late 1950s western – that high-water mark of the genre when it had achieved an advanced level of self-awareness but before it dissolved into apocalypse and self-parody – becomes considerably expanded. The set contains five of the seven films that Boetticher made with star Randolph Scott – then at the twilight of his own career – between 1956 and 1960. Quickly and cheaply shot on location, these films are locked into the dusty landscapes of the American west, a rocky, unredeemable terrain over which Boetticher’s camera takes in both fast-paced shoot outs and complex moral/psychological drama (in Andrew Sarris’ formulation the director’s vision is “elemental but not elementary”).
This moral element is especially evident in the films written by Burt Kennedy and Charles Lang (all but 1959’s Westbound) whose screenplays show a fascination with exploring the possibilities of social arrangement and, especially, the role of womanhood in a male dominated milieu. 1957’s The Tall T centers around an arrangement of mock domesticity – Scott’s character forced to cohabit a cave with another man’s spurned wife – as a testing ground for a more permanent social arrangement between the romantic leads. In Decision at Sundown, from the same year, male assumptions about female sexuality – that all women are either virgins or whores – are put thoroughly through the ringer. But for all these films’ provocative explorations of the traditional assumptions about gender roles, their endings often represent a necessary retreat from some of their bolder claims and generally conclude with a restoration of the expected order, even as Scott’s character rides off alone, unassimilable in any social arrangement.
As with many of the films in the series, it is this image of the solitary figure wending his way through the indifferent landscape that opens the Kennedy-penned Comanche Station, the last film in the series and the last feature Boetticher made for nine years. The picture’s opening scene – mirrored in its near identical conclusion – consists of a slow right-to-left pan across a rocky landscape, Randolph Scott riding one horse and leading another behind him as he traverses a series of crags. As Charles Lawton, Jr.’s camera frames him in long shot against a background of grey mountains, Scott periodically disappears behind a rocky outcropping, always reemerging moments later. At once tied to and overwhelmed by the landscape, Scott’s characters are men of solitude, but men who are driven into this state by a great wrong suffered, and, like many a western hero, they go about their business with single-minded determination, ignorant of the dictates of society. These men, too, are all marked by a certain taint of moral compromise. Often forced to make their living through such unsavory employments as a mercenary or a bounty hunter or consumed with a need for vengeance so great that it creates an almost unbearable psychic exhaustion (Ride Lonesome), these characters are not interested in upholding the values of a community, but rather in pursuing a last chance at some form of personal redemption even if they no longer believe in it. If in Comanche Station, Scott’s character, ex-Army officer Jefferson Cody, seems somewhat less compromised and purer in motive than the other heroes in the cycle, he also has less to hope for, left to wander the earth in pursuit of a lingering promise that he surely realizes is hopeless.
Making his way down a crag, Cody is quickly surrounded by a group of Comanches. As he removes a blanket and spreads it on the ground to reveal a Winchester and a handful of assorted trinkets, his trading partners look admiringly at the goods. In a nearly wordless interchange – Cody relying chiefly on hand gestures – the two parties negotiate a deal. The Comanches will take the goods and Cody will be given a white woman, rescuing her from imprisonment at the hands of the Natives. Throughout the film, the woman in question – who introduces herself emphatically as “Mrs. Lowe,” insisting on her essential role as wife – will be continually represented in terms of her value as commodity of exchange. Kidnapped by the Comanches, she is seen as a token by which to obtain a rifle. Then, as the subject of a $5,000 dollar reward posted by her husband, she is presented once again in terms of her trade value. When Cody begins taking her back home, she accuses him of only doing it for the money, that is, of seeing her in exactly the same terms as the Comanches. But Cody, who adopts a tone of magnanimous chivalry toward his charge, insists he didn’t know about the reward and that his interests were unmotivated by mercenary concerns, a claim eventually borne out by the narrative.
But if Cody’s motives are “pure” – as much as returning the woman to her role as “Mrs. Lowe” can be said to be “pure” – the same doesn’t hold for Ben Lane, an ex-subordinate to Cody in the Army whom the latter had had court-martialed for excessive brutality. Stumbling across Lane and his two underlings in the midst of a shoot-out with the Comanches, Cody joins the fight, a nicely staged bit of business with arrows and spears thrillingly landing inches from the heroes’ bodies. After chasing off the enemies, Lane, accompanied by his followers Frank and Dobie, tags along with Cody, plotting to kill both him and the woman and take the money for themselves, since the reward adheres equally whether Mrs. Lowe is returned alive or dead.
As the party wends its way along the trail, Mrs. Lowe becomes an object of keen erotic contemplation for Lane and his men (Cody looks on with more delicacy). Reduced to a tattered, green dress in the shoot-out, she’s forced to parade around in that rent piece of clothing, her voluptuous flesh pushing uncomfortably at its constraints. Looking like the victim of some sort of sexual assault, she soon becomes the subject of admiring and increasingly threatening speculation on the part of the three intruders. In one shot, Lane approaches her by her campfire, asking why her husband didn’t come after her himself. Impugning her husband’s manhood, Lane tells her that “if [she] were [his]” he wouldn’t pay someone else to rescue her. As Lane retreats from the fire, Boetticher tracks backwards with the villain as he rejoins his followers under the overhang of a shelter with the woman still visible in the distance. As the men look over and make insinuating comments about Mrs. Lowe, the director finds the perfect visual analogue for the precarious position of the heroine; three increasingly threatening men dominating the foreground, while the woman, tiny in the background, recoils in bitter distaste.
The party continuing on its way, Lane makes more and more direct statements to Cody about his designs on Mrs. Lowe. (Although these statements are somewhat disingenuous since he never reveals his intention to kill her.) Cody for his part takes on the role of the woman’s protector, defending her husband’s manhood and giving her a garment to cover herself up with. This last gesture essentially serves as an attempt to desexualize her; a gesture necessary not only for Cody to protect her from Lane, but for Cody to protect himself from any “impure” motives. Clearly attracted to his charge, the hero’s mission relies on the suppression of any sexual impulse in himself, even as Lane taunts him about his obvious erotic attachment. In this way, Cody’s attitude represents the inverse view of womanhood to that of the villain. If Lane views Mrs. Lowe as a purely sexualized creature, Cody attempts to see her as asexually as possible. But whereas in Decision at Sundown, this Manichean view of womanhood is called severely into question (resulting in Scott’s most “unlikeable” characterization in the series), in Comanche Station such notions are viewed with considerably less ambivalence. By the time Cody’s real motives for rescuing the woman are revealed, he has come to seem like a man of such unquestionable virtue that we quickly forget that his view of femininity is just as restrictive as Lane’s. Then, when he finally returns Mrs. Lowe to her home and we find out her husband’s reason for not rescuing her himself, Mr. Lowe seems as equally justified in his assumptions as Cody. So Mrs. Lowe can return to being Mrs. Lowe, Cody can return to being the virtuous loner and, having brought his extraordinary cycle to a close, Boetticher can re-affirm the importance of traditional social structures. But having been through the preceding films in the series – everywhere marked by critical inquiry into the norms of domestic arrangement – it becomes difficult to simply accept such an unambiguous conclusion at its word.