SOME THINGS A MAN CAN'T RIDE AROUND

Director Budd Boetticher started out his professional life as a bullfighter in Mexico.  He knew a lot about bullfighting and made three films on the subject.  Because of this it's become a critical commonplace to discuss all of Boetticher's films in terms of bullfighting, finding parallels to and metaphors for bullfighting in his work.

Wary as we must always be of the critical commonplace, it is in fact almost impossible to understand Boetticher's formal methods without thinking of bullfighting.  On a narrative level, the parallels take us only so far.  Boetticher's Westerns invariably involve a duel to the death between two characters, a good guy and a bad guy, which can be read as an image of the duel between matador and bull — but most Westerns involve such a duel.  The bullfighting metaphor doesn't add much to our understanding of the contest — except perhaps in explaining the conflicted emotions Boetticher often encourages us to feel about the two figures involved.

His heroes are never wholly heroic and his villains are never wholly bad.  Hero and villain often share admirable qualities which, given a slight spin in one direction or another, lead to moral or immoral actions.  This can be said to evoke the conflicted feelings about bull and matador in the corrida.  We root for the matador but we also root for the bull, particularly if he is brave and determined and clever, and part of us resents the matador for killing an especially admirable bull, even though this is what we pay him to do.

As I say, though, it's in the area of formal procedure that bullfighting truly illuminates Boetticher's work.  In bullfighting, space is everything — and ultimately the difference between life and death.  Working the bull in the broad expanse of the ring, focusing his attention on smaller and smaller areas of the ring, finally calculating the distance between the bull and himself down to fractions of an inch during the passes with the muleta — these are the concerns of the matador, on which his life depends.

In the framing of his shots, Boetticher has similar concerns.  A man's relationship to vast empty spaces, the way he does or does not make a place for himself in them, tell us much about his character.  The way antagonists move in a contested space, the way they watch each other and calculate their chances, are always the central focus of Boetticher's action sequences.  Martin Scorsese says that this concern with movement and space in Boetticher's work extends to the subtlest gesture — a hand moving six inches can be a crucial fact.

Boetticher's Western stories can seem simple, but they never are — just as a bullfight is never simple.  The meaning is all in the details, and the details require intense concentration to read fully.  Boetticher's use of space to evoke character and relationships is not limited to traditional action sequences, either.  There's a tracking shot towards the end of The Tall T in which the hero and the woman he's trying to protect run from a shack to the shelter of some rocks.  They have just played out a love scene, but the way the camera follows them over dangerous ground, racing with them as they race together towards their destiny, tells us more about what they are to each other than the kiss they've just shared.

She stumbles, he lifts her back up — they get where they need to be.  He tries to send her off to safety alone but she won't leave him — she insists on facing whatever's coming at his side.  The tracking shot has already made us feel what she's feeling.  They're in this together.

In The Tall T the protagonist speaks a line that sums up the code of every Boetticher hero — “Some things a man can't ride around.”  Characteristically, the moral imperative is expressed in spatial terms.  Where you stand, with whom and against whom, the challenge you ride out to meet — these things are character for Boetticher.  They play out in his films like ceremonies in a ritual space, as they do in the bullring.

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