When it’s on: Sunday, 9 September (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

A Sunday matinee treat comes in the economical shape of Ride Lonesome, one of the best films to emerge from the collaboration of Budd Boetticher (director), Harry Joe Brown (producer), Burt Kennedy (writer) and Randolph Scott (star). The partnership turned out a short series of Westerns in the late 1950s, defined chiefly by their cheapness, sub-80 minute running times and character driven dramas. This clocks in at around the 73 minute mark, little over an hour of your life, and what you get for your investment is no mere quickie, rather a beautifully weighted piece that packs in action, dialogue, humour, chase scenes and welters of suspense. So taut does Ride Lonesome become by the denouement that you realise not a minute has been wasted.

The plot is little more than a curtain raiser for the human drama that unfolds. Scott plays Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter who’s been tracking Billy John (James Best) for several days so that he can turn him in at Santa Cruz and claim the reward. In the opening minutes, he indeed catches up with and accosts his prey, only to find Billy John has sent word to his far more dangerous brother, Frank (Lee Van Cleef) for help. As the pair make their way across a suitably desolate landscape, they pick up a pair of outlaws (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn) who’ve also been trying to catch Billy John in order to have their slates wiped clean, and widow Mrs Lane (Karen Steele). Soon enough, they’re riding towards Santa Cruz, knowing Frank’s gang is in pursuit, and then it emerges that’s exactly what Ben wants to happen…

The main source of tension should be the looming clash between Ben and Frank, but it’s clear this will be a straightforward gunfight and both protagonists know it. Not just that but they know why too, as a previous crime committed by Frank becomes the primary focus of Ben’s pain. In fact, the pair take their time heading for the inevitable showdown, both fully aware of the fact at least one of them won’t survive it and therefore not rushing towards that point. Instead, the conflict that drives Ben and Roberts’s character, Sam Boone, develops into the more interesting business. Boone is looking for rehabilitation. His every fibre is bent on achieving it and he knows it lies in being the one to hand Billy John over. At some stage, he needs to get between Ben and his captive, leading to some marvellous, edgy scenes when the pair are in discussion, all surface pleasantness masking the reality that, at some stage, he’s going to betray the hunter. The obvious friendship between the pair just makes that moment more difficult to contemplate, yet loads scenes like Billy John acquiring a Winchester and holding Ben at gunpoint with irresistible suspense.

Even better is that none of these characters are really good or bad. Ben, the closest Ride Lonesome has to a hero, is driven by retribution. His friends and allies are all shaped by questionable past lives. Frank is no one’s idea of a cardboard villain either, coming across as complex and even a little regretful. If there is an underwritten character, it’s Steele’s token female, who looks as part of the Old West as a botched shot of aeroplane tracks (which don’t occur here), but she’s amply sexy enough to add to the tension. Best of all is the sense that Boetticher pointed the camera at his actors and told them to do what they thought their characters would. This obviously didn’t happen. Ride Lonesome clearly follows a tight script, but I have real affection for films that are so led by their characters over the plot that it feels, at certain points, as though they’ve walked away from the screenplay and taken on lives of their own, which happens here.

Ride Lonesome was filmed in the Alabama Hills of California, not exactly new scenery for Western viewers yet I don’t remember a time the region has looked quite so harsh or lonely. The emptiness, the lack of a human touch, all of this matters, of course, in a tale of desperate, morally flushed out people who face stark choices and have been shaped by bitter circumstance. It’s highly recommended.

Ride Lonesome: ****