With ”Ride Lonesome” we are back in western land, a favorite genre of the fifties it seems. I can almost feel the groan coming (oh no, another western, oh no, another western bashing), but this is neither. “Ride Lonesome” is actually quite interesting.
According to the Book and Wikipedia director Budd Boetticher made a series of westerns with Randolph Scott. I have no idea how that worked out as a series, “Ride Lonesome” is the only one I have seen, so I do not know if there is a progression or if “Ride Lonesome” is typical. What I do know is that the western genre has developed quite a bit through the fifties, eventually leading up to the Leone westerns of the sixties. What I find very interesting is that the boundary between good and bad, right and wrong is getting blurred. There is no such thing as a white knight out of medieval chivalrous novels (you might want to consult my book blog on those). Instead the heroes are flawed and may even approach the status of antiheroes. At the same time the bandits are not condensed evil, but may be more complex or as in “Ride Lonesome” reformed to the extent that we do not know where to place them. In the same vein good or bad actions are not what they seem and in that grey zone people get a lot more real and interesting.
In “Ride Lonesome” the one we hang on to is Randolph Scott’s bounty hunter Ben Brigade. He is Gary Cooper light with the same posture, same clipped speech and same ramrod integrity. He has caught a wanted murderer, Billy John (James Best) and is taking him to town. We are not in doubt that he is the one we vouch for, he keeps doing the right thing. Or does he? Increasingly he says things and acts as if something is not right and he is being way too callous.
At a shift station Brigade encounters Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn), two wanted men, as well as the station manager’s wife Carrie Lane (Karen Steele). First appearance is that Sam and Whit are keeping Carrie prisoner. Is Brigade going to rescue a damsel in distress from two bandits? Nope, it gets a lot stranger than that. The local Indians are on the warpath and forces the group together and soon they are riding out towards Santa Cruz to bring in Billy John for his hanging. Sam and Whit wants Billy John for themselves. Not for the money though, but because there is amnesty to those who bring him in. As Brigade does not want to give up his prisoner Sam and Whit seem likely to simply kill Brigade.
Here is the question: Is Brigade as clean as he seems and are Sam and Whit as bad as they appear? The witness is Carrie who is thus our eyes and ears and she is confused.
I like it when movies play with the stereotypes and makes us reconsider our prejudices. I admit that it can be done even better as Leone would show us a few years later, but even to ask this question in the chivalrous genre of the western is interesting.
If “Ride Lonesome” has a flaw it is that it is too short, only 70 minutes. It spends effort describing characters who are more than two dimensional types, but leaves me hungry for more. It is obvious there is a lot more to these characters that could be explored and the Carrie Lane character deserves a larger role than just being the observer with the questions and the eye candy. Dumping a girl like that into a group of lonely men should spark all sorts of drama, but it does not and besides being unrealistic it does seem like a missed opportunity.
“Ride Lonesome” is not the greatest western ever, but it is still worth watching and with its short running time it is certainly an easy watch.