Oscar “Budd” Boetticher (1916–2001) is one of those directors who would likely have been all but ignored by film historians—if Andrew Sarris had not succeeded in making auteur theory prominent. (I would place Don Siegel, Phil Karlson, Tay Garnett, Edgar G. Ulmer, Allan Dwan, and others in this group, labeled by Sarris as “expressive esoterica.”) Dwan—for whom we are about to begin a major retrospective—had the equivalent of several careers during a half-century of filmmaking, the last of which was somewhat parallel to Boetticher’s most important work in the 1950s making Westerns. Unfortunately, the Museum does not currently hold any of these defining examples of Boetticher’s output, but The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, which just followed the director’s Western cycle, should suffice.
Young Budd, like John Ford, was a football player (and a boxer, too). While Ford became a stunt man, Boetticher became a matador. He came to Hollywood as an adviser on the 1940 remake of the Rudolph Valentino bullfighting classic Blood and Sand, and this early expertise and affection for the corrida eventually resulted in his directing such films as The Bullfighter and the Lady, The Magnificent Matador, and the documentary Arruza. Boetticher’s Westerns, starring Randolph Scott and mostly written by Burt Kennedy, had an enormous influence, as Western historian Scott Simmon points out, on the work of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and, later, Clint Eastwood. There is something almost excruciatingly masculine about Boetticher, his characters, and his attitude. Whereas John Ford‘s heroes have tender moments and Howard Hawks‘s and Peckinpah’s occasionally find humor, Boetticher’s men seem resolutely committed to their often superhuman cause. As one of Randolph Scott’s characters says, “There are some things a man can’t ride around.”
Legs Diamond is in what Sarris deems ”the perverse Scarface tradition,” referring to the 1932 Howard Hawks masterpiece starring Paul Muni. The titular Diamond is played by Ray Danton, who, like Muni, was Jewish with Eastern European roots, and the role established an early pattern for Danton’s career. He played Legs again the following year in Portrait of a Mobster, which featured Vic Morrow as the bootlegger Dutch Schultz. (On my own roots, family legend has it that Schultz once rented a room in Newark in the house of my grandfather’s brother, Uncle Sam, and perhaps romanced Sam’s wife. Family legend also has it that my other grandfather, a plumber, was blindfolded and taken to the woods to repair a still operated by his brother-in-law, Uncle Abe, the bootlegger.) After that, Danton starred in The George Raft Story, a biopic on the (then) still active song-and-dance man turned movie gangster, who had memorably played Muni’s sidekick in Scarface. For those who can’t get enough of Arnold Rothstein, the real-life progenitor of the 1919 Black Sox scandal and a key figure in HBO’s current Boardwalk Empire series, the character turns up in Legs Diamond as Legs’s nemesis. Danton’s later career (mostly on television) provided him with fewer juicy roles, but he lived long enough to see Legs Diamond adapted as a Broadway musical.
One of the virtues of the film is the photography of Lucien Ballard, who had worked with Boetticher on Buchanan Rides Alone (one of the Randolph Scott Westerns) and would be asked to shoot Arruza. Ballard had started out under the tutelage of the great Josef von Sternberg; his first cinematography credits were Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment and The King Steps Out. He went on to photograph such noir classics as John Brahm’s The Lodger and Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (which both appeared in our recent The Weimar Touch exhibition.) He eventually made several films with Peckinpah, including The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Hogue.
So far as Hollywood was concerned, Boetticher went into semi-voluntary retirement in his mid-forties, after Legs Diamond. He struggled with Arruza in Mexico, wrote Two Mules for Sister Sara for Siegel and Eastwood, did a little acting, and tried to make a movie with Audie Murphy, who promptly died in a plane crash. So, sadly, his prime lasted five years—while Dwan survived in the business for 50.