37 SOME THINGS A MAN JUST CAN’T RIDE AROUND
Before he died the actor Richard Boone had a busy professional life. Most of the time he played either a villain or someone with a harsh character but given the chance to be a hero he found approval from audiences. The TV show Have Gun Will Travel, in which Boone starred, was so popular it inspired a rock and roll hit record. Jonathan Banks is famous for his performances in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. He also made a brief appearance in the Breaking Bad movie El Camino. Neither of these two men is handsome. Boone had a tanned wrinkled face that looked like the inside of one of the cigarettes that killed him with throat cancer at the age of 63 years old. In Breaking Bad the eyes of Banks are described by crooked lawyer Saul Goodman as looking like those of a cold fish. Although someone somewhere will love Jonathan Banks, the rest of his face has similar limitations. Banks played handy man Mike Ehrmantraut to gangster Gustavo Fring. The unhurried efficiency, overall disdain and direct but minimal conversation of Ehrmantraut persuaded many viewers to regard him as romantic. Jonathan Banks picked up TV awards for his portrayal of Mike Ehrmantraut. In Breaking Bad the performance of Banks is a positive addition but there are always limits or strengths and weaknesses. Obliged in Better Caul Saul to deliver something more than a cameo the actor Banks revealed his limitations. Instead of being an asset as they were in Breaking Bad his age and impassive facial features were a hindrance. Perhaps he lacked inadequate inspiration which is a surprise because his performance appeared to be modelled on those by Richard Boone.
Despite him no longer being around we should be wary of describing Richard Boone as inadequate inspiration. The man was a force and he enhanced great films like The Tall T and sometimes rescued the not so great. He did this in the entertaining but not quite right Rio Conchos. Everything that exists in the performance of Jonathan Banks in Breaking Bad can be found in the performances of Richard Boone. The two men not only belong to the same physical category of big, ugly and impressive but even appear to share similar vocal chords. The disdain of Boone was something gruff, a bad taste that nestled deep at the back of his throat. Jonathan Banks talks in the same way. Well before Better Call Saul arrived the suspicious believed that Banks had based his characterisation on the style and manner of Richard Boone.
Budd Boetticher directed the classic Western The Tall T in 1957. Randolph Scott was the star but Richard Boone provided the unforgettable contribution as Frank Usher, the villain that leads a gang of stagecoach robbers. Both Frank and his reincarnation Mike Ehrmantraut are sympathetic criminals. Frank Usher yearns for thoughtful conversation and being able to do something decent like own his ranch and to make a living in a way that provides self-respect. At the beginning of The Tall T the lead character Brennan has his masculinity tested in a bull wrestling contest. Brennan fails. He has already been warned about living alone on his ranch and becoming gentle. Frank Usher is more than the villain who might have been worthwhile in different circumstances. He exists as the measure of how Randolph Scott will establish his masculine worth and strength. Mike Ehrmantraut has a similar function for Walter White. The schoolteacher and crystal meth manufacturer is prone to hysteria, good in tight corners but also prone to creating them. Ehrmantraut is composed and fatalistic, and Walter is often anxious and desperate. The men exist to be compared. In The Tall T there is some sympathy for Frank Usher and his wasted potential. We are not, though, invited to regard him as romantic. Frank Usher is condemned for his mistakes. When Frank highlights the limitations of the members of his gang the hero Brennan offers the simple judgement. ‘You ride with them.’
The overall attitude to Mike Ehrmantraut by critics and viewers has been more forgiving. He has been described by one critic as a man who does bad things but who has a good heart. This is demonstrated in how Mike is kind and patient with his granddaughter. The same critic condemned Walter White as a man who, despite his financial problems with his medical bills for cancer treatment, always needed power and status and suffered from envy. Walter White, according to this critic, has a bad heart and poisonous ego. Walter, when measured against gangster handyman Mike Ehrmantraut, is an inferior human being. Fans also support Mike. They think he has style and, because he is not discreet with his discontent, they confuse his self-contained behaviour with integrity.
All this is nonsense. This reaction to Mike Ehrmantraut amounts to romanticising someone who is no more than a self-satisfied lackey to corrupt power. If audiences in the past were charmed by the villains portrayed by Richard Boone, they at least had the sense to root for the heroes. It is Randolph Scott in The Tall T and not Richard Boone who insists that ‘there are some things a man just can’t ride around’. Mike does challenge Walter White and his excesses but his resentment is nothing more than someone resisting change. Mike wants his comfortable life to continue, and it being provided by murderer and gangster Gustavo Fring is of no concern to this supposed hero who has had to borrow his insouciant style from Richard Boone. What interests Mike is not integrity but the sanctity of his personal comfort, and for that he ignores the crimes and victims of Gustavo Fring.
There is another link between Frank Usher and Mike Ehrmantraut or Jonathan Banks and Richard Boone. Breaking Bad showrunner, writer and director, Vince Gilligan, told his cameramen that he wanted the show to look like a Sergio Leone Western. In one scene there is even a reference to the weathervane in the opening scene of Once Upon A Time In The West. Yet when he decided to use a name of a Western director Vince Gilligan introduced Boetticher as the surname for the drippy libertarian Gail who helps Walt make crystal meth. Vince Gilligan is an admirer of Budd Boetticher. In one of the Breaking Bad podcasts he recommends listeners to discover his films and Westerns. The likelihood that Jonathan Banks appealed to Vince Gilligan because his performance was similar to that of Richard Boone cannot be dismissed.
Even by the complicated standards of irony the use by Gilligan of the name Boetticher for an educated karaoke dilettante and self-justifying drug criminal is bizarre. It might even constitute a betrayal by an admirer. Boetticher was a traditional male whose best films were Westerns that featured a self-reliant and unsentimental hero. Budd Boetticher would have been irritated to see his name used in this way. If he had been alive and watching Breaking Bad when tedious Gail was killed, the Western director would have cheered. But if Budd had been alive, Gail would have had a different surname. Not Leone perhaps but something like Ford, Mann, Daves, Surges or Peckinpah.
Budd Boetticher made four great Westerns and a couple of others that are interesting and worth a look. These additional two, though, have been overpraised. Boetticher was at his best when he used his talents in a modest way on four small films that relied on simple plots and a handful of characters. His other classic movies were Comanche Station, Ride Lonesome and Seven Men From Now. Boetticher and his scriptwriter avoided the routine condemnation of the traditional Western. In The Tall T, though, there is a memorable exception. This is a chap called Willard Mims. The rat like and suitably named Willard marries for money and on his honeymoon abandons his wife to the gang of Frank Usher. Mims does this in order to save his life. Even the bank robbers recognise the moral limitations of Willard. They dismiss him as a talker.
This is a characteristic that Willard shares with Walter White. There are many scenes in Breaking Bad that feature Walter pleading to be listened to and insisting that people let him talk. At some point in creating Breaking Bad the writing team lost sympathy for Walter White. How much that was a consequence of ad hoc decisions by Vince Gilligan and the writing team is not known. It is more than playful to wonder if Gilligan, when naming one of his characters Boetticher and steering Walter towards evil, remembered Willard Mims in The Tall T. And, if he did, perhaps Gilligan thought why not resurrect a lookalike of tough guy Frank Usher to offer healthy but unfair moral scorn. The idea might have been reinforced for Vince Gilligan when they were filming the external and Western stylised scenes of Breaking Bad. The look of the TV series is supposed to be Sergio Leone but using the outdoor scenes in the low budget classic Westerns by Budd Boetticher as a model would not have only captured a more appropriate look for a TV show but also been more practical. As with the life of Frank and the decline of Walter White, there is much to think about.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.