Ride Lonesome, whose title is poetic if nothing more, might be the last of these movies to pop up on the List that’s made by a studio, it’s a legit feature with Hollywood actors, and yet it’s just barely over an hour long; about 75 minutes, in this case (same as with the very wonderful Cairo Station–which, like this movie, is available on YouTube for free); so it feels, in that respect, like an episode from some western TV show. It’s short and simple. Cowboys and “Indians,” bounty hunters, a grieving damsel, a lecherous bandit, a courtly roguish hero with a troubled past, and a mysterious grief-hardened elder as the bounty hunter.
James Coburn also has a strange bit part and it is SO weird to see him as a spry, lanky, frumpish twentysomething. I’d have thought he was born with the mustache and scowl he wears so perfectly in Duck You Sucker (a lesser-known Sergio Leone western, the middle of his “Once Upon a Time” trilogy, and probably my personal favorite entry in his body of work–though I’m quick to acknowledge that it’s not his best) (his best, I think, is Once Upon a Time in the West, in case you’re wondering–which we’ll be talking about shortly).
The premise has our hero, played by Randolph Scott, picking up a young bandit played by James Best.
Couple towns back, Best shot someone in the back.
Scott’s arresting him to pick up the bounty.
They go on to stop at a kind of waystation, I’m not quite sure what it is, but it’s being overseen by Karen Steele, who, like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, emanates more dignity than the role supplies. She isn’t a mewling damsel, not quite, but she’s not far from it. Her husband is killed by natives, off-screen, and so she has to ride along with Scott and Coburn and Best and another bounty hunter, played by Parnell Roberts–the whole thing is kinda flat and silly, with a Cowboy v. Indian shootout in the middle that feels like an overt and inconsequential action beat. We get to see Karen Steele fire a shot and kill a Native in self defense and then slacken with remorse, so maybe you could write the scene off as part of her arc. Even so, that’s what it’d feel like: a write-off.
But there’s a neat little switcheroo in the plot that makes things interesting, and there’s a perfectly suspenseful scene involving the question of whether a rifle is loaded or not, and the final shot is one of the most beautiful of any western to grace the List so far (it’s actually not so improbable to imagine that the final shot–and, to its credit, the mood that surrounds it delivery–is so influential that it becomes the sole reason for this movie being on the List).
Could be I’m a little dense here, but in a decade where the western seems to be a vehicle for moral inquiry and political commentary (JOHNNY GUITAR, HIGH NOON, and MAN OF THE WEST being prime examples), Ride Lonesome seems curiously apolitical. It’s ultimately a revenge story, and as a revenge story it hits a pretty dark climax (might even reflect some of the psychological stuff that’ll be explored in cinema around the world starting in the early 1960s with stuff like THE HOUSEMAID and PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM, which we’ll get to in a minute), but otherwise it seems almost novel for the way that it says, “Hey, here’s a cowboy story. It’s simple and fun. Remember when movies were like that?” The budget is small, the moral is clear, the character arcs are so conventional you can almost measure them with a protractor. Simple simple.
I don’t really see why this one’s on the List otherwise, cuz it’s so unremarkable, but it’s also just barely more than an hour long, and it’s got about three notably good scenes. It’s an example, I think, of strong, lean, efficient storytelling. It doesn’t give you much, but it also doesn’t take anything. More than a little tone deaf by today’s standards, but so’s the whole fantasy of a noble and rakish old west. Like southern gothic, with its occasional undertones of nostalgia for a dapper Confederate paradise, the idea of an old west that’s depicted in Ride Lonesome is something you either suspend your disbelief and get aboard with, or you don’t.
In this case, I was pretty happy to do it.