Thursday 27 August 2020

Movie Review: Ride Lonesome (1959)

A routine but robust western, Ride Lonesome is a modest package delivered with minimal fuss. 

In rugged desert terrain, veteran bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) arrests fugitive Billy John (James Best), but not before Billy sends his men to fetch help from his brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef). Ben has a multi-day journey to escort Billy to Santa Cruz, and at a rest stop operated by Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) and her husband, Ben and Billy encounter outlaw Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and his sidekick Whit (James Coburn, in his screen debut).

Ben and Sam create an uneasy temporary alliance with a common objective of delivering Billy to justice, Sam intent on securing an amnesty in the process. Once Mr. Lane is confirmed as dead the group continues the trip to Santa Cruz, and have to fight off an attack by tribal warriors intent on kidnapping Carrie. Frank and his men are soon in pursuit, and with Ben choosing the long and slow trails, Sam starts to suspect that Ben's real target is Frank, with Billy being used as a lure.

The sixth of seven westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott (who co-produced the films with Harry Joe Brown, hence the "Ranown Cycle" label applied to the series), Ride Lonesome is written by their frequent collaborator Burt Kennedy. Clocking in at an efficient 73 minutes, the film is a compact effort, never threatening to rise much above budget and talent limitations, but also easily maintaining a basic level of engagement and competency.

Majestic CinemaScope photography and sometimes clumsy editing summarize the film's ambitions and constraints. On close examination the plot makes little sense, and the portrayal of the Mescalero natives is particularly obtuse: their attack consists of riding in circles to offer themselves as best possible targets, and this after their Chief offers a horse as a trade for Carrie. But the film does work its way to a stirring climax, Brigade's real intentions revealed in a final confrontation with Frank. The jagged bond between Brigade and Boon is another steady source of spiky macho posturing with multiple possible outcomes.

The elemental dialogue matches the stiff performances. Kennedy's script stays in clipped economy class, and Scott, showing all of his 61 years, appears particularly uninterested in expressing any emotion other than cold and stoic. Pernell Roberts breathes more life into the Sam Boone role, while Lee Van Cleef is largely wasted: the seemingly critical character of Frank appears in all of two scenes. Karen Steele brings plenty of incongruous glamour to the desert, Boetticher not restraining any of the salivatory ogling by the sweaty men in her company.

Ending with an unforgettably fearsome image of a fiery cleansing, Ride Lonesome also rides straight and true, but along a narrow trail.

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