The Tall T: Richard Boone excels as the charismatic villain opposite Randolph Scott in this lean, mean Western from Budd Boetticher

The Tall T (1957), directed by Bud Boetticher and written by Burt Kennedy, is the Western that Boetticher made with Randolph Scott immediately after the success of “Seven Men from Now”; and it’s the first of the five Westerns made by Scott’s company, ‘Ranown.’ The film stars Richard Boone and Maureen O’Sullivan alongside Scott and, like all other Budd-Scott Westerns, this gritty little Western was shot in Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California

“Some things a man can’t ride around.”

This is my most favorite line from a Western. It’s simple, direct and elemental; the line perfectly conveys the essence of a classical Western hero- it’s a stylish way of saying ‘a man’s “got” to do what a man’s got to do’. And it’s natural that the line is spoken by the quintessential Western hero, Randolph Scott in the film, “The Tall T,” one of the best Westerns he made with the great director, Budd Boetticher. Scott and Boetticher made seven Westerns together (most of them written by Burt Kennedy) and a variation of this line of dialogue is present in every one of these Westerns- spoken either by Scott or the bad guy. These were spare, lean, stylish Westerns shot in a couple of weeks in the same locations, around Lone Pine, California, and each having a running time of less than 80 minutes; films that boiled the Western genre down to its bare essentials; and, as the above quote signifies, all of them an exploration of masculine honor at its most elemental. There are no social commentary, no political overtones, no deep psychological exploration and not even an overt attempt at being significantly different from one another , either in plot, locations or characterization, in these Westerns; whatever differences exists between these Westerns are limited to quirky variations provided to the dialogue or very subtle tweaks to the plot elements. These films are simply about a loner cowboy hero struggling to survive in a harsh landscape as he battles other loners who could be mirror images of himself. These films unabashedly celebrates a certain masculine moral code, which may not perfectly align with what’s considered conventionally moral but is practiced steadfastly by all men who co-exist in this world irrespective of consequences; and there is actually very little to separate the protagonist from the antagonist, except maybe a sense of justice that the protagonist possesses.

In “The Tall T,” Scott plays Pat Brennan, an ex-ramrod who is now trying to run his own ranch. When the film opens, Pat is on his way to the town of ‘Contention’ to buy a seed bull from his former employer, Tenvoorde (this is how Scott is mostly introduced in these Westerns, always in the middle of a journey). On the way he stops at a stagecoach station to banter with his friend, the station manager and his young son. As he is leaving, he promises the boy that he will bring back cherry striped candy for him from town. In town, Pat runs into another old friend, the stagecoach driver, Rintoon, and his new customers, the newlyweds Willard and Doretta Mims, who has specially hired him to transport them on their honeymoon. Doretta is a plain woman, but the daughter of the richest man in the state and the opportunistic Willard has married her only for her money. At the ‘Tall T’ ranch where he once worked, Brennan tries to buy a bull, but is talked into riding one by Tenvoorde. If he wins, he gets the bull. If he loses he has to give up his horse. Brennan loses, and is forced to walk home, carrying his saddle. On the way he runs into Rintoon, who is transporting Willard and Doretta on his stagecoach; Rintoon gives him a lift back to the stagecoach station; with Pat hoping that he could borrow a horse from his friend, the manager, to get back to his ranch. But when they reach the station, Pat is shocked to find out that outlaw Frank Usher, with his aides Billy Jack and Chink, has murdered the manager and his boy and has taken over the station. When Rintoon goes for his shotgun, he too is killed by the trigger-happy Chink. To save his life, the cowardly Willard suggests demanding a ransom from Doretta’s copper magnate father and volunteers to deliver the ransom note himself. After scribbling a demand for $50,000, Frank hands the note to Willard and instructs Billy Jack to accompany him one mile out of town, where Willard will then hand the note to a passerby for delivery. They are then to regroup at the gang’s hideout in the hills.

After Billy Jack and Willard depart, Frank and Chink lead Doretta and Pat to their hideout, where as Pat seethes in fury, Doretta nervously paces. Chink wants to kill Pat, but Frank, who has grown to admire Pat, does not allow it. Soon, Billy Jack and Willard return and announce that Doretta’s father will deliver the money the next morning. Contemptuous of the spineless Willard, Frank grants his request to leave, then orders Chink to shoot him in the back as he hurriedly rides away without even saying goodbye to Doretta. After Frank cruelly informs Doretta that her husband betrayed her, she sobs in humiliation and takes refuge in the cave. Next morning, Frank rides out to collect the ransom, leaving a jumpy Billy Jack and Chink behind. Determined to avenge his friends’ deaths, Pat uses this opportunity to manipulate the two thugs into believing that Frank will double cross them. A nervous Chink rides out to check on Frank, leaving Billy Jack alone. Pat tells Doretta to unbutton her dress and lure Billy Jack into the cave. When a distracted Billy Jack roughly grabs Doretta, Pat rushes in and wrestles his gun away. In the ensuing struggle, the weapon fires, killing Billy Jack. The sound of gunfire draws Chink back to camp. Pat manages to corner Chink and gun him down as well. Soon after, Frank returns with the money and discovers the bodies of Billy Jack and Chink. When Pat orders Frank to drop his gun, Frank, playing on Pat’s code of honor, reminds him that he owes Frank a debt of gratitude for sparing his life and then walks away and mounts his horse. Upon reaching the ridge, Frank pulls a rifle from his saddle and gallops back, gun blazing. Pat returns fire. Shot in the face by Pat, Frank flails around blindly and then collapses, dead. After hurling away his rifle, Pat puts his arm around Doretta and they walk away.

Burt Kennedy adapted the screenplay from Elmore Leonard’s story The Captives (the first Leonard story to be brought to the screen); and it was one of several Boetticher westerns to be shot in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, a beautiful valley of eerie rock formations with the majestic Sierra Mountains in the background. Alabama Hills was to Boetticher what Monument Valley was to John Ford. Only tough, rugged, resourceful men can survive in this starkly beautiful but harsh and arid landscape; and in Randolph Scott, Boetticher has the perfect leading man who looks like he he may have been chiseled from this rough landscape itself; and who possesses a voice so powerful that they maybe natural sounds echoing back from these mountains. The landscape is beautifully photographed in Technicolor by the great Charles Lawton Jr and superbly score by composer, Heinz Roemheld (Who scored most of the Scott-Boetticher Westerns, of which his score for the “Comanche Station” maybe his best). This, coupled with Boetticher’s masterful direction- his expert framing and camera moves gives the film an epic scope that usual low-budget B-Westerns lack – and the cast’s terrific performances turns the Western into a taut, tension-filled drama located in an engaging, primeval setting. The film is a great example of how people who have skill and passion can make good, visually exciting films even on a limited budget.

“The Tall T” follows the same formula as all other Budd-Scott Westerns, especially the ones written by Kennedy: Scott’s heroes comes into a situation that is not his problem; he can walk away from it at any time, but he choose to stay there and solves the problem. Also, throughout the film, the hero and the villain sizes up each other through long conversations (the way a bull and a matador sizes up each other; Boetticher was passionate about bullfighting and this bullfighting analogy can be applied to the many hero-villain interactions in his films); always letting each other know beforehand what they’re going to do (they will kill each other in the end) and they wind up saving each other until it comes down to the final showdown; These confrontations takes place in a world that’s completely devoid of any trace of law & order, or even civilization (here we see a town and a ranch, but hardly feel the presence of the law) and it’s always up to Scott’s heroes to bring order into this world where violent men run amok. So, it’s no surprise that the bad guys in these films are more interesting than the stoic heroes portrayed by Scott. Archetypal Western Actors like Lee Marvin, Pernell Roberts, Lee Van Cleef and Claude Atkins had memorable turns in these films as bad guys; they may all end up getting killed by Scott, but their characters and performance remains immortal in the minds of the audiences. In “The Tall T,” the antagonist, Frank Usher, is played by another great Western actor, Richard Boone. Boone makes the villain more charismatic and humane than Scott, even though in this film, Scott, in a departure from his usual Boetticher Western heroes, who are rather angst-ridden and dour, starts out as genial and easy-going. He banters with the manager and his son at the Stagecoach station, with Rintoon in town, and with his former pals at the ‘Tall T’ ranch; we even get a funny bull riding sequence which culminates with Scott hiding in a water trough. This is because here Scott’s hero doesn’t have a painful past (usually a dead\murdered wife), nor is he out for revenge; he is a much more ‘normal’ easygoing character here; and It’s only after he realizes that Frank has killed his friend and the boy, and thrown them into the well that he coils up and becomes the tough, avenging hero.

Boon’s Frank has a strange relationship with Pat. Frank not only likes Pat but he also wants to be him; he wants to settle down and have a ranch like Pat. He hates Billy Jack and Chink, whom he considers inferior to himself, and would be happy to get rid of them and have Pat ride away with him. Frank stops Chink from killing Pat, because he finds a kindred spirit in him. But, despite all his charm and humanity, we know that Frank is irredeemable because he has already killed Pat’s friend and his boy; and in the end, Pat will have to kill Frank. But even here, there is a slight twist to the tale, as Frank manipulates Pat into letting him go by forcing him to shoot him in the back; Frank knows Pat well enough; and he knows that Pat’s ‘code of honor’ will stop him from doing that. So, despite committed to avenging the death of his friends, Pat still lets Frank go. This would never happen in any other Western; that’s what make these Westerns special. Of course, Frank himself is bound by his own ‘Code’ and despite getting off scot-free (forgive the pun), Frank can’t help but return to confront Pat with his rifle. This gives Pat the chance to finally kill Frank and make sure that justice is served for the crimes that Frank and his men committed. So, both the characters are prisoners of their own codes and this is their strength and their weakness; it helps the good guy keep his moral superiority over the bad guy, while it leads the bad guy to his eventual doom. Boone and Scott play off each other beautifully and Kennedy’s dialogues are always a treat. He writes such interesting dialogue that John Wayne once referred to them as ‘Broadway on Arizona.’

The supporting cast features Maureen O’Sullivan, who’s most famous for playing “Jane” in the Tarzan series of films– featuring Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, Here, Sullivan is repeatedly referred to as a ‘Plain Jane’ for her ordinary looks that forced her to enter into a loveless marriage. Through the course of the film, (with some help from Scott) She goes from a character who has no regard for herself to someone who is confident of herself and a strong ally for the hero in taking down the villains. Scott, who usually has a hands-off attitude towards women in these Westerns, gets into the act for a change and smothers Ms. Sullivan with kisses in a scene to convince her that she is desirable- that’s another one of the subtle tweaks made to Scott’s character in this film.. Skip Homeier as Billy Jack and Henry Silva as Chink are suitably menacing, with Silva being particularly good as the near-psychotic, Chink, who is a sadistic killer with an effeminate demeanor. Arthur Hunnicutt is also there to give his typical ‘old coot’ act. One thing to notice is that, despite it’s very short running time, the film manages to pack in a fair bit of characterization: each character has a distinctive personality – one is clever but cowardly, one is ruthless by confused, the other is morally strong but still evil etc. – and this comes through very vividly. The film’s violence is also pretty brutal for its time; though nothing is explicitly shown, what is implied is powerful enough- innocent civilians being killed and thrown into a well, Billy Jack gets shot in the face, Frank gets shot in his eyes and goes blind, and so on. This shows that the characters inhabiting this world are as savage as the landscape. . One thing that’s common to all the characters in the film is that they are all lonely, and this subject of loneliness is established right from the first scene where we see the station manager complaining about his lonely existence and his plans to retire the next year , as it’s not ‘natural’ for him or his son to live like this. Though Pat does not complain about it , we feel his loneliness as well. It’s her loneliness that forces Doretta to take a no-good husband; even the villain, Frank, is lonely despite running with two sidekicks. The film ends with (everyone else dead) Pat and Doretta finding each other, finding love, and, thus, finding a solution to their loneliness. That’s a perfect ending for a film about lonely men (and woman) being subjected to and indulging in brutal violence.


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