In the year 1959 two of the greatest low budget westerns ever made were released. These are films of great narrative economy, visual minimalism, and aesthetic precision that looked to distill American mythology into something more intimate; more character based. One of these films is André De Toth’s Day Of The Outlaw and the other is Ride Lonesome.
More than De Toth’s film, Ride Lonesome is concerned with the visual lexicon of the popular western. The images that comprise Ride Lonesome are of wide cinemascope landscapes populated with small and isolated figures who are almost suffocated by the breadth of the world around them. This is the trademark style of director Budd Boetticher’s westerns. A Boetticher western draws its heroes as literally chiseling away at familiar spaces that are romanticized in other western pictures. Ride Lonesome is no different in how it tells the story of one man’s revenge.
Ride Lonesome is one of a handful of films made as a collaboration between Boetticher, screenwriter Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott. These films are lean and mean westerns with a pulpy edge that inevitably start slow and gradually build towards some great cathartic release. These aren’t films structured around well choreographed gunfights or rowdy slapstick antics, these are westerns of a mature and measured quality that are invested in the more psychological aspects of myth making. Boetticher and Kennedy do not subvert the genre so much as they lay it bare, stripped of all the bells and whistles that give the genre its wide commercial appeal.
Ride Lonesome ends with one of the single greatest images of any western: Randolph Scott standing beside the tree where his wife was hanged as that tree burns. This one image, stark and dramatic, sums up and concludes all of the narrative threads in Ride Lonesome; from the tale of redemption, the story of perseverance, to the classic revenge narrative. Burt Kennedy had a gift for scripting small ensemble westerns where the multiple narrative arcs never feel clumsy but always feel organically entangled. Aspects of these stories unfold with minute revelations as Scott, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn and Karen Steele make their way with a bounty (James Best) towards Santa Cruz.
In seventy-three minutes Ride Lonesome accomplishes as much as the average two-hour, big budget western of that period. Ride Lonesome may be minimal, but it is also powerful and full of depth. It’s as if Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) had been filtered of all its extraneous elements and compressed to just its most fundamental expression of human frailty in the face of revenge. In this way the films that Scott, Kennedy and Boetticher made together serve as the blueprint for the cycle of revisionist westerns made from the mid-sixties through the early eighties. An aesthetic continuity can be seen from Ride Lonesome to Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1966) that only reenforces just how essential these westerns are.