Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Great Scott

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the death of one of classical Hollywood’s great figures, Randolph Scott. How to describe what made him great? That he is the center of all happenings in his movies made with director Budd Boetticher (and others) ~ all flowing to and from Scott. That he is the human and character embodiment of everything Boetticher cinema cherishes: quiet, fanatical moralism, separation, longing for communion, no division between man and nature, directness.

Scott's great because he is one of the best examples we have of the essence of movie character and movie performance, and of what these essences are not. They are not biography or resume, they are not materialism or possessions, not economies or politics, and most emphatically not social psychology. They are thematic and emotional states personified by the performer, states which change shape throughout, however subtly. Scott’s persona is most subtle. That is where the mysteries and dramas of movies live; not in “story beats” or three-act structures. Scott at his best contains the art of film within himself: hidden, secret, very difficult to get at, always elusive – until it’s not. He is anti-Method, anti-theory, unexplained. And a beautiful subject, as beautiful as the horses he rides with such elegance, as beautiful as the dust and land and water he moves across. As do others, Scott proves that great movie personas are born, not formed by the Yale Drama School or ambition or the difficulties of life. The miracle of Scott and Boetticher (or Peckinpah in Ride the High Country, Scott's last work) is a film artist’s marriage with a performer who ideally lives the director’s heart, mind, and soul on-screen.

He is big and shaggy, with flat square shoulders and arms too long in bloused sleeves. His hands, swinging curve-fingered by his sides, are big and veiny. His hair is blonde-brown and dry and dead, blowing around his head like a bad toupee about to fly loose. His mouth is a quick stroke, bloodless. His face a chipped chunk of concrete, with amber, wounded eyes. Yet his presence is astonishingly intimate, almost feminine, as he draws us in and forces us to pay attention to gesture and to the silence between words. And his voice is a beautiful instrument. Inside the West Texas twang, it is warm, dark, hushed, and sad.

He is not afraid of being shamed or beaten. In Decision at Sundown (1957), the bad guy (John Carroll) is “bad” because he had a rollicking affair with Scott’s loose wife – one of many such affairs for the wife. She kills herself (presumably under the pressure of Scott’s rage) so he decides to track down her last lover and kill him. But at the end, the bad guy remains alive, leaving town with the sexiest and most loving girl in the movie – while Scott’s vengeance causes his best friend (Noah Berry Jr.) to be murdered, and Scott himself more alone with his demons than ever, on the road to alcoholic death.

He is always looking for a home, one he will never find. ‘Though tortured by lost or non-existent wives (in Ride Lonesome [1959] – a masterpiece – the lost wife has been hanged by Lee Van Cleef), and while women clearly respond to him sexually, Scott never sends out signals of attraction or need. Seven Men from Now (1956) is the first pairing between Scott and Boetticher. Like all their movies, it is under 80 minutes. Again what moves the story is a dead wife, this time murdered because of Scott’s pride (booted out of a Sheriff's job by rigged votes, Scott broods, forcing the wife to take work in a post office: one in which she's killed by robbers, the "seven men" of the title). He makes us quickly forget the story, as we move from one intense moment of human exposure to another. (Although the wagon being the stolen-gold transport is an awesome twist.) So many wonderful moments in such a short time: Lee Marvin (stealing the movie beyond Scott’s presence) “accidentally” almost smacking the weak husband (Walter Reed) in the face with his coffee tin; Scott peeking over his horse to see Gail Russell’s reaction to their near-kiss as he leaves her; Scott initially refusing to speak to Russell about his dead wife, then saying everything necessary in about 20 words. Due to Scott’s command throughout, there is more tension in the pauses between lines here than in all of Eastwood’s neo-Western humbug.

Seven Men from Now.