Last week at the Cinematheque Top 5 Project, site proprietor Kevyn Knox posted the results of his best westerns poll. No surprises among the top five finishers (save number three—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly??), though when it comes to handicapping oaters I’m the last person you’d ever want to rely on.
Let’s see … it’s probably Bud Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959) in my number one slot (for the minimalist desolation, a hardscrabble dry run for Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, all broken waste and laconic cowboy palaver), then Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) at two (for the austere classicism—horse, rider, sky, mountains, piney breaks—with sudden pointillist spurts of color, e.g., in the mountain mining camp, to counterpoint the Zen-like stripping down), and … then what?
3. Not The Searchers. Not that I have anything against John Ford, but the stylization’s too schizoid for comfort: e.g., all that naturalistic Monument Valley rhetoric (shades of Sergei Eisenstein, in the heroic up-angle shooting) versus the boxy studio artifice of Natalie Wood’s Indian encampment. If The Sun Shines Bright (1953) were even remotely feasible as a western—and to me it does actually feel like one—I’d unreservedly put it third (click here for Jonathan Rosenbaum’s warm appreciation). But the river that says yes to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Long Riders and even The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (!) unfortunately says no to Kentucky. So y’all go figure.
4. The Ruse, William S. Hart (1915). Because something by or with this silent-era icon has to be on the list, and since (shame, shame) I haven’t seen Hell’s Hinges … Come to make fun, then go away astonished: as an early modernist study in the psychology of underplaying, the guy’s at least 30 years ahead of the competition.
5. The Phantom Empire (1935). With, gulp, Gene Autry—which probably isn’t anyone’s idea of a “good” western, or even a good serial, a singing cowboy chapter play that takes place mostly underground. Like a Max Ernst bricolage, in the thematic mating of misaligned elements—but aside from Cameron Menzies’s Things to Come and Powell/Berger/Whelan’s The Thief of Bagdad, no movie sparked my childhood imagination more. And where would The Mole People be without it!