The Tall T




Dir: Budd Boetticher - Cast: Randolph Scott (Brennan), Richard Bonne (Usher), Maureen O'Sullivan (Doretta), Skip Homeier (Billy Jack), Henry Silva (Chink), John Hubbard (Willard), Arthur Hunnicut (Rintoon)

The opening of The Tall T, the second of the Bud Boetticher-Randolph Scott collaborations, is  surprisingly benevolent. Scott is a former ramrod called Pat Brennan, who's on his way to his old boss to bargain over a bull. During a stop at an isolated stagecoach station, he promises the young son of the station holder to buy some striped candy for him in town. The boy's father says Mr. Brennan has no time for such a thing, but Brennan counters the argument: Sure he has time for this.

Boetticher never got closer to create a warm feeling of security in the tradition of the John Ford cavalry westerns, in which the cavalry fort was treated as a hearth and home in the midst of a wilderness. This station may be small, but it's a warm place, a home for travelers in the middle of nowhere. We seem to have arrived in a more gentle world than the bleak universe described in most other Boetticher westerns, but the opening is delusive: the journey will lead Brennan back to this station, and things will look radically different upon his return.

After his visit to town, Brennan loses his horse in a bet so he must continue his journey on foot. He is picked up by a stagecoach driver, his old time friend Ed Rintoon; also on board are a newly married couple, Willard and Doretta. The stagecoach makes a stop at the station, so Brennan can deliver the candy to the boy, but at this point the kind movie takes a very dark turn: the place has been overtaken by a ruthless bandit, Usher, and his pair of henchmen, Chink and Billy Jack. Rintoon is shot when he reaches for his gun and Brennan soon discovers that the father and the boy have been murdered in cold blood by the bandits. When Willard informs Usher that his father-in-law would pay for Doretta's save return, the gang leader sends him with a ransom note note of $50,000 ...

Instead of being one of the most warm-hearted movies of the Ranown Cycle, The Tall T is the bleakest and grittiest of them all. The violence is rather brutal and graphic for a film of '57 and it expresses a very dark, pessimistic vision on the human condition: all characters seem to be lost in life. Usher saves Brennan's life because he prefers to talk to him rather than to the two youngsters he's traveling with, Chink a psycho who made his first kill at the age of eleven (his own father) and Billy Jack, a stray cat who doesn't even know how old he is ("Mainly young"). Willard is a coward who only married Doretta for her money; Doretta is frustrated about her plain looks and married Willard because she feared to become an old maid ...


I have always enjoyed the movie, but it has never been a special favorite. Boeticher's best movies describe a journey through open country, with the travelers pausing somewhere, but not for long. The Tall T is set in the open, but instead of a journey, a horse trek through hostile country, it's a hostage drama, the action is largely confined to the lair the villains have chosen, and the camera remains with the hostages and their guard(s) while others ride off. It was shot on those magnificent Lone Pine locations - forever Boetticher territory - but the beauty created is more static, less filmic. 

That said, the film has a lot to speak for it: some great tension is created in the second half and the tight script also offers a series of wonderful one-liners, conjuring up entire worlds, giving depth to the characters. Most of these lines were taken directly from the Elmore Leonard original story The Captives, that served as the base for Burt Kennedy's script (1). The casting is brilliant. Henry Silva and Skip Homeier are perfectly believable as Chink and Billy Jack, two rebels without a cause, but full of suppressed anger and sexual desire, and former Mrs. Tarzan Maureen O'Sullivan convincingly embodies the suppressed sexuality of a middle-aged woman, homely looking, but attractive enough to put some notions into a young man's head. But at the core of the story, and the drama, is of course this confrontation of Scott's character with the bandit leader Usher, played to perfection by Richard Boone. 

At first glance Usher lacks the charm of some of the other gang bosses from the cycle, played by, for instance, Lee Marvin or Pernell Roberts: he's a ruthless opportunist, but we learn that he's not pure evil: he's still a man with a sense of fair play, upholding a certain moral standard: he shoots Willard because he despises his cowardice and vile behavior of selling out his bride. Like most other Boetticher villains, he's Scott's mirrored image, not the incarnation of evil, but the incarnation of Scott's fears, an inner demon that can only be exorcized in the classic genre ritual of the duel to the death. If he doesn't stand up against Usher, he'll be exactly like him. He cannot let it happen:


Brennan: I'm going to finish this once and for all.
Doretta: Oh, but why?
Brennan: Some things a man can't ride around. 

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Comments

  1. Henry Silva is a great villain. I'd never really noticed that how he exits the film is very similar to how he emerges...from the shadows, coming out of the station ,and then from shadows of the hideout shack.

    I think your points about Frank are well made. He respects Pat. I'd say he even looks up to him, but knows he'll never be like Pat. He definitely prefers his company to that of his partners.

    Richard Boone sure had some fancy coiffed hair for being out in the wilds for so long.

    Guys like Arthur Hunnicutt are the "seasoning" that make so many westerns so memorable. Loved that guy....

    Is there a more pitiful, sniffling man than Willard? He's the worst of the whole bunch. Can't even claim insanity like Chink.

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