The legendary Randolph Scott, producer Harry Joe Brown, and director Budd Boetticher ride the dusty trail in Criterion’s new five-film collection The Ranown Westerns. Five B-level westerns; their stories may be simple but with beautiful locations and a terrific cast, they rise far above the average for five feature films of thrilling action and adventure brilliantly restored in 4K UHD. Five films with terrific A/V and an exciting assortment of bonus features - for genre fans, this is a Must Own collection.
Just because a film is technically a B-level picture shouldn’t imply it’s not deserving a passing grade. These days B-films rarely ever see much action in a theater and are often sold off as fodder to fill a streaming platform’s roster rarely seen and hardly appreciated. But there was a time when these films not only picked up a theatrical run - often as a double bill - but were also given a chance to earn some measure of respect. Westerns were the Superhero movies of their day featuring legendary larger-than-life characters caught in action-packed morality plays - and they were often cheap to produce. Some were instantly forgettable, others were genuine classics. Between The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station, long-time genre star Randolph Scott, his producing partner Harry J. Brown, and director Budd Boetticher craft five character-driven action-packed tales of the old west for Columbia Pictures. They might not shine as brightly as some high water markers of the genre, but they’re proof that a lot can be done with a little commitment to story, filmmaking ingenuity, and a great cast of veterans and hungry up-and-coming actors.
The Tall T (1957)
Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) is just trying to keep his stake alive. Going into town he hopes to be able to barter for some livestock but ends up losing his horse on a bad bet. When he gets back to the stagecoach stop, he finds the operators dead and three bandits (Richard Boone, Skip Homeier, and Henry Silva) waiting for the next stage and its cashbox. Instead of a stage, they get heiress Doretta Sims (Maureen O’Sullivan) and her cowardly new husband Willard (John Hubbard). Now Brennan and Doretta are caught in a game of survival depending on if her father pays the ransom.
Decision at Sundown (1957)
For Bart Allison (Randolph Scott), the search is finally over. After three years’s finally found the man he believes rode off with his wife and left her for dead, Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll). Arriving in the town of Sundown, Bart is hellbent on revenge for this indiscretion, starting by disrupting Kimbrough’s nuptials to local socialite Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele). Kimbrough has spread his money around buying up the local law and turning any good man into a paid killer and they’ve got Bart cornered. As Bart’s old friend Sam (NoahBeery Jr.) tries to convince him of the truth about his wayward wife, Bart’s rage can only be satiated with blood.
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)
With enough money to set up his own stake, West Texan rancher Tom Buchanan (Randolph Scott) crosses the border from Mexico in the dusty town of Agry. Caught in the middle of a dust-up, Buchanan is framed for murder by the crooked lawmen so they could rip him off the $10,000 he had in his gunbelt. After being acquitted of the crime at trial, he’s still a marked man for death when he comes back for what’s his. The only help he’s going to get is the one deputy with a conscience Pecos Hill (L.Q. Jones) because West Texas boys gotta stick together!
Ride Lonesome (1959)
The deadliest bounty hunter alive, Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) has his man - Billy John (James Best). While he’s determined to take Billy in alive, it’s not the reward he’s after, it’s Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) he wants. Backing Brigade’s play is the partnered up one-time outlaws Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn) looking to turn Billy John in and earn an amnesty pardon for their past crimes so they can go straight. With the recently widowed Mrs. Lane (Karen Steele) along for the ride, the men will have to face a band of renegade Mescaleros, hot sun, and rough terrain before they can face Frank nad his gang at the hanging tree.
Comanche Station (1960)
After his own wife was taken years ago, loner Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott) has spent his days peacefully trading with the Commanche for other women’s lives. After completing the trade for Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates), Cody intends to get her home to her husband in Lordsburg but outlaw Ben Lane (Claude Akins) and his men Frank (Skip Homeier) and Dobie (Richard Rust) have plans to bring the woman in themselves for $5,000 - dead or alive. With Lane and his gang on one end the angry Commanche on the other, Cody will have to keep a sharp eye and ride fast to get Nancy to safety.
Running at just over 70 minutes each, the five films in Criterion’s collection of Budd Boetticher’s Ranown Westerns fly by like a breeze. (“Ranown” is Randolph Scott and Harry J. Brown’s production label - Randolph + Brown = Ranown) With to-the-point stories and scripts, there’s nothing wasted as every second counts. With plenty of action, these films aren’t the stereotypical gunfights and rampaging native films many people associate with the genre. At the heart of each film is a smartly scripted character drama with Randolph Scott in the lead. It could be argued he’s simply playing a variation of the same character in each film, but he’s damned good at it. Made when he was winding down his career (after nearly 40 years and 100 performances), Scott is in commanding form. Earnest and honest, he displays an incredible range in each role elevating these films well past the simple cash grabs they could have been for a star of his stature. He could have coasted to retirement but these films capped off by 1962's iconic Ride the High Country, Scott went out on top and on his terms.
Of the six final films he made with Budd Boetticher (Westbound wasn’t produced by Harry Brown and was released by Warner Bros.) I’d say Ride Lonesome is my favorite. I love a good chase film and this film delivers the goods with a menacing Lee Van Cleef - albeit in a small role - as the main antagonist in pursuit of our heroes. The film steadily builds upping the stakes along the trail until they get to the climatic showdown at the Hanging Tree. Pernell Roberts and James Coburn are terrific as the “can they or can’t they be trusted” allies of Ben Brigade with Karen Steele giving the film its heart without simply being a stereotypical woman in peril or a useless love interest.
In second place has to be Decision at Sundown. I liked this because it sets itself up for a hellbent revenge actioner and just when you think bullets are about to fly, it brilliantly subverts genre conventions. It digs in deep for the justifications for revenge and blinding hatred, but then also examines the personal responsibilities of each character. That doesn’t mean the film is void of action, there are plenty of great gunplay scenes, but of the films in this set, it’s the one that has the strongest almost revisionist sense of a moral compass. Scott also shows the most range of any the films concluding on one of the most tragic-feeling endings. It’s genuinely a great flick.
My next favorite of the pack is The Tall T. While the story itself isn’t the straightest bullet, it was based on an Elmore Leonard story but deviated from it quite a bit, the film is an often intense well-executed thriller. Scott is overpowered and out-gunned so he has to think the long game of survival for himself and O’Sullivan. While we wait for his opportunity to strike and fight back, we get to enjoy some great performances from Richard Boone and an awesome early evil role with a two-gunned Henry Silva.
Comanche Station is another great one and I really enjoyed Buchanan Rides Alone, but I felt those played closer to genre conventions rather than subverting expectations. That isn’t to say they aren’t good, they’re damned entertaining, but perhaps not quite as much as the others. Regardless, with this set, you score five great very entertaining films for the collection. A lot of folks who should know better like to pick on B-movies, particularly B-Westerns as some form of “less-than” entertainment when in fact the opposite is true. These aren’t the biggest productions ever mounted but they’re tonally consistent, well-written, well-acted, smartly directed films that are often more engaging and all around better than some of the biggest over-budgeted films to come down the production pipeline. And as I’ve said many times now - they’re entertaining.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection saddles up for one of the most exciting collections to ramble down the dusty trail - The Ranown Westerns - Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher. This is a fully-packed six-disc collection. Three 4K discs and two Blu-ray discs for the five films in 4K HDR and 1080p with an additional Blu-ray disc dedicated to bonus features. The discs are housed in a fold-out digipak with individual trays for each disc, nothing stacked, housed in a slipcase with spine number 1186. Also included is a 32-page booklet featuring essays from Tom Gunning and Glenn Kenny on top of the standard information about restoration transfers and audio information.
NOTE - As of right now I haven't been able to rip the 4K discs, so images are sourced from the 1080p Blu-rays but when I can I'll try and circle back to add 4K sourced pictures and hopefully some video samples.
Normally in a collection like this, I would parse out my thoughts about each transfer individually, at least in a little snippet, but aside from aspect ratio differences, they are uniformly excellent. Sony’s work at scanning and restoring the films with HDR and color grading performed from a variety of sources, each film is a stunning entry on 4K Ultra HD - and Blu-ray. This is where I do appreciate Criterion offering up both formats in one shot because fans who don’t yet have 4K aren’t left in the cold. Those 1080p presentations are terrific, near spotless efforts that on their own would be worth highest marks, but then you watch these films in 2160p with Dolby Vision HDR and those grand scenic vistas truly come to rich life.
Details are immaculately clear letting you fully appreciate facial features, the beautiful shooting locations, and the costumes and production design. Eagle-eyed Western aficionados will have no trouble seeing spotting some familiar locations that were repeatedly used in other films. Fine film grain is evident and naturally resolved throughout each film. Optical effects like opening credits or any kind of soft dissolves can have a little bit thicker grain structure with a rougher appearance, but nothing serious or detrimental to the overall enjoyment. For films of this vintage that's perfectly normal and acceptable. Again, if Blu-ray was alone on these films they’d be stellar entries for Criterion with beautiful colors, crisp whites, and deep blacks, but the Dolby Vision HDR grade really pops the highlights without overblowing or oversaturating primaries. Skin tones are healthy and natural without looking oranged or peached. Primaries are vivid with rich blue skies, bold reds, and bright yellows.
The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, and Buchanan Rides Alone were each presented in 1.85:1 while Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station are presented in 2.35:1. Again, aside from the aspect ratio differences, the accolades listed above are applicable to each film. There may be some subtle differences in quality here and there, but detailing those would amount to some pretty severe nitpicking when the overall scores wouldn’t differ. When I tried to separate my thoughts individually I honestly found myself writing variations on the same thing ultimately coming to the conclusion these films look incredible on both formats and should be celebrated.
Like the video transfers, each film in this collection scores an impressive LPCM mono audio mix. And in terms of score rating, they all amount to the same star count. But how sound is used in each film is what I admire about these tracks. On top of the basics like clear dialog, active atmospheric sound effects, and some great music by Heinz Roemheld (among other stock sources), each film has a slightly different feel from one to the next. The Tall T feels vast and open amongst the rocks where Scott is being held captive by the outlaws whereas Decision at Sundown can feel much tighter and more confined since it largely takes place inside or on a redressed studio backlot set. Likewise, Buchanan Rides Alone is a bit of a balance between that sonic aesthetic but has a lot more gunplay and doesn’t really exploit moments of silence to build tension or suspense. But then when you dive into Ride Lonesome or Comanche Station the music cues and sound design feels bigger and more epic to fit that extra-wide frame. Largely free of any age-related issues, some slight hiss can slip in here and there in each film but nothing too distracting. Put simply, each film enjoys an excellent audio mix.
On the bonus features front, Criterion delivers an excellent slate of new(ish) and archival extras for fans to dig into. On the newer side of the mark are some great introductions for each film from either Taylor Hackford or Martin Scorsese - save for Comanche Station since Hackford did the commentary track in 2008. And speaking of commentaries the Jeremy Arnold and Jeanine Basinger commentaries for Ride Lonesome and The Tall T respectively have been brought back for this set - each a worthwhile listen. The bonus features Blu-ray disc is loaded with archival documentaries and interviews about and with director Budd Boetticher. These are great full-throated pieces but I’d say newer film fans will get the biggest kick out of the 2005 documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That featuring adoring interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Hackford, and Peter Bogdanovich among others. On top of the great commentary tracks, you’ve got the near side of six hours of great extra content to enjoy before or after you read all the essays in the booklet!
4K UHD Disc One
4K UHD Disc Three
Blu-ray Disc One
Blu-ray Disc Two
Blu-ray Disc Three
Between Rio Bravo and The Ranown Westerns, fans of the rough and tough Old West have had quite the summer building up their 4K collections! The pairing of legendary Western actor Randolph Scott, producer Harry J. Brown, and director Budd Boetticher yielded a string of terrific films in a very short amount of time. What we have in this set are five great examples of top-quality B-movies that command the respect of their bigger-budgeted and better-marketed counterparts. With great scripts and straight-to-the-point stories, Scott shines in his final years as an actor showing his magnetic range with a cast of colorful up-and-coming performers to back his play. With swift runtimes, Boetticher doesn’t waste a frame of film keeping each story on track without ever shortchanging the key character beats. Best of all, they look incredible on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray!
The Criterion Collection delivers an excellent set offering up terrific 1080p and 2160p Dolby Vision HDR presentations for each film with impressive audio to match. On top of great transfers, which is what I would have happily settled for, Criterion pulls out a range of amazing new and archival extras to keep you busy long after you binged through the films. Any of these films would make great double features, but be careful, it’s easy to zip right through all five without even noticing the time flew by. In short - Must Own