The last of the red-hot, golden-age Hollywood genre buckaroos, Budd Boetticher, who died November 29 at the age of 85, represented a long-vanished prototype: the man’s-man studio director who, before turning gruffly to making pictures, had spent years as a boxer or a stevedore or a soldier or what have you. Boetticher outdid the competition by becoming a professional matador in Mexico right out of college—a scenario difficult to beat for hard-won iron-man chops in Tinseltown. Migrating to Hollywood some five years later as a technical advisor on Rouben Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand (1941), Boetticher loitered around the studios before making his debut in 1944 (on a programmer entitled One Mysterious Night). From there, Boetticher hammered out a B-movie career of over 30 features, including several bullfighting films (most famously, 1951’s The Bullfighter and the Lady).
In truth, Boetticher’s Boys’ Own history— which includes his Industry-idiosyncrat years, his military service as a hard-nosed propagandist, and his doomed return to Mexico in 1960 to make Arruza—had a great deal to do with the way his films were received, particularly in the ’60s, once auteurists began commanding the canonical bulwarks. Indeed, most of his early films are notable only in bearing his name, although 1948’s Behind Locked Doors is a whacked-out psycho-ward noir that portends the full flowering of Sam Fuller, and Horizons West (1952) handed Robert Ryan one of his most notable scumbag characters.
It was the small cycle of westerns Boetticher made with Randolph Scott, producer Harry Joe Brown, and screenwriter Burt Kennedy, from 1956 to 1960, that is still shockingly unique. Ultra-realistic, weathered, fatalist, and never less than adult, the “Ranown” films reforged the dynamics of the genre and cleaned out the mythic baloney, paving the way for Peckinpah, Hellman, and the very idea of an “anti-western.” Due in equal parts to Kennedy’s dry, read-between-the-lines screenplays and Boetticher’s fundamental, unprettified grip on desert landscape, Seven Men From Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Westbound (1959), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960) exude a remarkably tough everyday-ness and a virtually Renoir-like empathy for hollowed-out heroes and troubled outlaws alike.
After an odd, intensely stylized gangster saga (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, in 1960), Boetticher disappeared south of the border to film a documentary on bullfighter Carlos Arruza, an inglorious trip that sucked up seven years and landed the director briefly in a Mexican prison. Arruza emerged in 1971, but by that time the romance of ritualized blood sport was no longer fashionable. Of old-school American filmmakers, Boetticher seems second only to Fuller in being absurdly overdue for an exhaustive biography—or even a biopic. But had we known nothing at all about the man, the Scott-Kennedy westerns would still leap out at us as bereaved visions of an American frontier muddied by human desperation.