The plot is a variation of that in two of the team's earlier films, Seven Men from Now (1956) and Decision at Sundown (1957), with Scott's laconic character (here named Ben Brigade) seeking revenge for the death of his wife. Ben's plan is to capture inept outlaw Billy John (James Best) and use him as a lure to attract Billy John's brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef), who years earlier killed Ben's wife. Soon joining the duo are a newly widowed stationmaster's wife named Mrs. Lane (Karen Steele) and two outlaws, Sam and Whit (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn), who have been looking for Billy John themselves so as to attain amnesty for their past crimes. As this group makes its way across a magnificently desolate landscape of rock formations and sand dunes, the characters interact in every possible combination, trying their best to connive, to bargain, to outwit the others. Plot is second to character here, and the five main characters are richly drawn to say the least, elevating a simple, inexpensive little movie -- barely over an hour in length -- into something truly remarkable and memorable.
Audiences love these Boetticher/Scott westerns whenever they get the chance to see them. Ride Lonesome in particular is a very well balanced movie, with just enough action, suspense and gunplay mixed with outstanding humor, tender character moments, and an intelligent story that culminates in something resembling Greek tragedy. From the very first scene, Ride Lonesome establishes a pattern of suspenseful drama broken up by humor. It happens over and over again through the film and is a pleasing way for the story to be constructed. The climactic imagery dealing with Ben finally ridding himself of his vengeance and bitterness is powerful stuff, and the outcome of his constant back-and-forth sparring with Pernell Roberts' Sam is wonderfully unpredictable. Without giving it away here, let's just say that Boetticher had to fight the Columbia studio brass pretty hard to get the ending he wanted involving the Sam and Whit characters. When the executives saw it (and more importantly when they saw the audience reaction to it), they agreed that he had been right.
Boetticher and his ace cameraman Charles Lawton, Jr., shot Ride Lonesome in the "Alabama Hills" of Lone Pine, Calif., Boetticher's favorite location. It was Boetticher's first foray into CinemaScope, though Lawton was already a pro at the format. They frame the barren landscape beautifully, with the wide image serving to stress the emptiness of the place and the "loneliness" of the story. Lone Pine has been a popular location for movies over the years, with such classics as Gunga Din (1939), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Gunfighter (1950) and High Sierra (1941) all shot there.
One of Boetticher's most notable trademarks in Ride Lonesome is the way the hero and villain are positioned in the frame. (The film actually has three villains -- Pernell Roberts, James Best, and Lee Van Cleef -- but the main one, the one whom Scott spars with the most, is Roberts.) Boetticher once said that the only thing separating his heroes and villains was circumstance. The fact that they had grown up in different environments was the lone reason for their different outcomes in life, and in all other ways they were equals. He shows this by constantly giving them equal weight in the frame, whether they are riding side by side or just sitting by a fire drinking coffee -- always trying to verbally outmaneuver the other. Very rarely does one carry more weight in the frame than the other.
Another Boetticher trademark worth looking out for is the attention paid to horses. Boetticher was a genuine horseman who kept a stable of Spanish horses till the day he died, and his love of the animal is always on display in his movies. Few other westerns find so many ways to work in moments of washing, tending to, or somehow caring for horses. In Ride Lonesome, a sick horse even becomes an important plot point.
One of the Ride Lonesome's credits reads: "A Ranown Production." "Ranown" is an amalgamation of "Randolph Scott" and "Harry Joe Brown," who had their own production company for many years (previously called Scott-Brown Productions). Brown was a real Hollywood veteran who had been around since the silent era as writer, actor, director, cinematographer, singer, and finally producer. He and Scott produced 14 movies together -- all westerns for Columbia, and all starring Scott. After Boetticher's success with Seven Men from Now, released by Warner Brothers, Scott and Brown took Boetticher into their fold to make three more films. But after the third, Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), the studio tried to fire Harry Joe Brown. Boetticher and Scott announced they would not make any further westerns unless Brown was brought back. In an indication of how successful these little films were, they won their case, signing a 2-picture deal with Harry Joe Brown as executive producer and Boetticher as producer/director. They named this partnership "Ranown," which is why the term appears on this film and again on Comanche Station (1960).
This was Pernell Roberts' third feature film, and his charisma and talent are already very much apparent. He brings a great deal of humor and credibility to the role, looking very natural in a western costume and on a horse. Roberts would later find his biggest fame on television with his starring roles in Bonanza and Trapper John, MD.
Karen Steele was a former model who had had a few bit parts since the early 1950s, including a small role in Marty (1955). When Boetticher met her on the advice of his agent in 1957, he immediately cast her in Decision at Sundown and then Westbound (1959), followed by Ride Lonesome. During this time they had a stormy affair, which finally came to an end after their fourth collaboration, the gangster drama The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). The Barbie-doll-looking Steele may not be the most realistic kind of woman to find living in the middle of nowhere in the old west, but Boetticher and writer Kennedy intelligently use her heightened sexuality as part of the story, having other characters comment on and joke about her stunning looks - which helps make the audience accept her as real.
James Best, who seems to be having the time of his life playing the dim-witted Billy, had appeared in two earlier pictures directed by Boetticher when they were both under contract to Universal: The Cimarron Kid (1952) and Seminole (1953). Much later, Best found fame as Roscoe P. Coltrane in the hit TV series The Dukes of Hazzard.
Making his film debut in Ride Lonesome was James Coburn. Everyone could see he had a bright future. According to Boetticher's memoir When in Disgrace, on the third night of the shoot Randolph Scott asked Boetticher and Kennedy over dinner, "Who's the skinny young fella in the red underwear I played that scene with today?" "His name is James Coburn," they replied. "Well, I like his style. Why don't you two dream up some new lyrics for him?"
It was because of this exchange that one of the most delightful scenes in the film came about, the one in which Pernell Roberts tells Coburn how much he likes him and then invites him to be his business partner, prompting Coburn's surprised and joyous reaction. The scene never fails to generate a laugh, and as Boetticher later wrote, it makes Coburn so lovable that audiences "just want to hug the guy." Boetticher sent this edited scene to director John Sturges when Sturges was looking to cast The Magnificent Seven (1960). Coburn, of course, got the part.
Producer: Budd Boetticher; Randolph Scott (uncredited)
Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Burt Kennedy
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Randolph Scott (Ben Brigade), Karen Steele (Mrs. Carrie Lane), Pernell Roberts (Sam Boone), James Best (Billy John), Lee Van Cleef (Frank), James Coburn (Whit)
C-73m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold