Budd Boetticher: A DVD Wish List

The release of The Films of Budd Boetticher finally brings five essential films by the director to DVD. Along with Paramount’s release of Seven Men From Now a few years ago, his career-defining “Ranown Cycle,” the six westerns starring Randolph Scott that made Boetticher’s reputation, is now available on home video. It’s a triumph, but it’s only a start. The five films in the box set more than double the amount of films by Boetticher available on DVD. Boetticher’s first western, the 1951 The Cimarron Kid with Audie Murphy, and his 1953 The Man From the Alamo with Glenn Ford, arguably the best film of his Universal period, are available in the Universal budget release Classic Western Round-Up Volume 2 (why didn’t they draw a couple of Boetticher’s other Universal westerns to fill out of the set and make it an unnamed tribute to the director?). And then there’s Behind Locked Doors, a genuine B movie whose reputation is based largely on the appearance of cult actor Tor Johnson as a crazed wrestler in an insane asylum. As a footnote, The Fleet That Came To Stay, a combat documentary short that Boetticher made while serving in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy during World War II, is available on various DVD anthologies, including the VCI release Combat Camera: The Pacific.

That’s nine features in a career that spans 35-some features and numerous television productions.

Here’s a checklist of ten Boetticher films that I would lobby for DVD release:

Otto Kruger in "Escape in the Fog"
Otto Kruger in "Escape in the Fog"

The Missing Juror (1944) / Escape in the Fog (1945)

These two films from Boetticher’s apprenticeship in the Columbia B movie factory are nothing like the films that made his reputation, but they are engaging and stylish thrillers that make the most of his budgetary limitations. Each runs barely over an hour. Together, they would make an engaging double feature disc. Languishing somewhere in the vaults of Sony, they have never been released on home video but do sometimes appear on TV.

The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)

The first Budd Boetticher movie. Literally. His previous films were all credited to Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name. With this semi-autobiographical film, about a brash American in Mexico who befriends and trains under a legendary bullfighter, he used the name we all know him by: Budd Boetticher. The film, produced by John Wayne, earned Boetticher his only Oscar nomination (for “Best Original Story”) and raised his stature in the industry, but the film released in 1951 was not the film he intended; under the guidance of John Ford, the film was cut down to under 90 minutes to get a release. In 1987, the film was restored to its original 124-minute running time and shown at film festivals and subsequently released on VHS and laserdisc. A special edition featuring both the release version and the restored Director’s Cut is long overdue.

Red Ball Express (1952)

Boetticher’s World War II picture chronicles the work of the Army Transportation Corps and their daring efforts to continue trucking supplies to General Patton as his tanks outran the Allied supply lines. Not the most romantic of subjects but Boetticher makes a rousing picture of it and even hints at the racial tensions in the Corps (which the Department of Defense demanded be played down). It also marks the film debut of young screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who went on to make his fame writing Peyton Place and four films for Alfred Hitchcock, including Read Window

Seminole (1953)

Six of the nine films that Boetticher directed in his two years at Universal were westerns. I’d like to see all of them get released, from his rodeo drama Bronco Buster to his shot in 3-D (but released flat) Wings of the Hawk, but this western, about the cavalry chasing the Seminole Indians through the swamps of the Everglades (does that make it an Eastern?), makes a great contrast to his more traditional western films of the period. My proposal to Universal Home Video: a Budd Boetticher Westerns collection with Bronco Buster, Horizons West, Seminole and Wings of the Hawk. They could even toss in The Cimarron Kid and The Man From the Alamo from the previous DVD release to fill it out.

"The Killer is Loose"
"The Killer is Loose"

The Killer is Loose (1956)

Joseph Cotten stars as a working-class police detective targeted by a bank robber (Wendell Corey) gone mad with vengeance in this low-budget crime thriller that Boetticher made independently after two frustrating years a Universal. It’s a low-key piece with a nicely unhinged performance by Corey, but it features one of the most memorable jolts of violence in Boetticher’s filmography, accomplished with an exploding milk bottle that quite effectively communicates the physical damage of a gunshot to the human body. Made for United Artists, it’s part of the Warner Bros. library and shows up periodically on Turner Classic Movies.

“Maverick” (1957)

No, not a movie. Boetticher directed the pilot of the classic TV western starring James Garner as the quick-witted gambler and small-time con-man who drifted across the west and proved to have an unerring skill for self-preservation. When the pilot went to series, Boetticher directed the next two episodes and set the light-hearted tone of the show (it has some affinities with Decision at Sundown) and the easy humor of Garner’s Bret Maverick, a character who could have come from one of the Ranown films. It was released on VHS exclusively through Columbia House Video subscription.

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960)

Boetticher’s lone gangster film is an offbeat character study starring Ray Danton as the real life dancer turned depression-era thug and mob killer and Karen Steele as his girlfriend. Danton is all sleazy, small-time charm as a hustler willing to shoot his way to the top, a rat with a gun and a sense of style. Boetticher and cinematographer Lucien Ballard shot the B&W film in the style of the old Warner gangster pictures, but the grotesque deaths are all Boetticher. This is also part of the Warner Bros. library.

A Time for Dying (1969)

Boetticher’s last feature reads like a dark twist on his Scott westerns, with a pair of young innocents who discover their idealized west is a corrupt and violent place that they are utterly unprepared for. The two young leads are weak actors but Audie Murphy has great authority as Jesse James (a small role that dominates the leads) and Victor Jory plays Judge Roy Bean as a poet sociopath. Though it had played on TV, it made its belated New York theatrical debut in 1982 and was briefly available on a fly-by-night VHS label. Rights are a bit uncertain.

"Arruza" newspaper ad

Arruza (1972)

The film that almost killed Budd Boetticher. Seriously. This drama of this labor-of-love documentary can never live up to the real-life story behind its production, but it is a defining film in Boetticher’s career. He left Hollywood to create the definitive bullfight film, a chronicle Mexico bullfighting legend Carlos Arruza’s return to the corrida as a rejoneador (a horseback bullfighter). By the end of filming, Boetticher had survived poverty, faced imprisonment and survived a bout of pneumonia that almost killed him. His leading man had been killed in a car accident and Boetticher still battled for final cut on the film. “I did not compromise on any shot in Arruza,” remarked Boetticher in an interview. “And I still sit in the theater and cry a little and love it and shout ‘Olé’ at my friend. So I cut Arruza. Right or wrong, that’s it.” The documentary exists in two versions. Anthony Quinn narrates Boetticher’s cut. Briefly available on VHS.