The Tall T (1957) Budd Boetticher

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    One of the ironies of Budd Boetticher’s “The Tall T” is that under different circumstances the two main protagonists could have been friends in this deceivingly simple story. Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) is a non-conformist rancher, a loner who refuses to become part of a larger ranch owner’s consortium, even after he loses his horse in a bet with the rancher, that he can ride a bull. On his way back to his place, he hitches a ride on a stagecoach driven by longtime friend Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt). The stage is soon held up by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his gang only to find to their frustration there is no money on board. The stage is a special run, carrying newlyweds Willard Mims (John Hubbard) and his rich bride Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan), to their honeymoon destination. Chink (Henry Silva), one of Usher’s men, cold bloodedly kills Rintoon and the remaining three are taken as prisoners. Mims, a wimpy former accountant, begs for his life informing the robbers about Doretta’s family fortune and that her father would be surely willing to pay for her safe return. After he arranges for the ransom payoff, the cowardly Willard is told he can safely leave. Without even saying anything to his wife Willard attempts to leave as Chink aims and shoots him in the back. When Usher goes off to pick up the ransom, Brennan, begins to erode the trust between Usher’s two stooges systematically separating and eventually killing them both.

Tall T Still   While little seems to happen, Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy draw out every bit of tension and nuance from the story and their actors. It is a  minimalist work with a small cast and little action, with only the rough western landscape looming large over the entire canvas. Unlike John Ford, Boetticher’s western presents a colder version of the west, there is little, if any sentiment in his work.  His characters kill without emotion or trepidation. For example, early in the film we find out the outlaws killed a stationmaster and his young son dumping their bodies unceremoniously into a well.

    Of the four main characters, three present a façade around their true selves. Willard Mims first comes across as a decent gentle man who is in love with his new bride. As we are soon to find out the former accountant is a conniving little weasel, who married Doretta for her money. Once under the control of the outlaws he willingly and spinelessly betrays his wife to try to save himself. Doretta, views herself as a good woman sticking by her man insisting they married each other for love. She later, after his death, admits that she knew all along Willard married her for her money and that she married him because she feared a life of loneliness and a desire to get away from her wicked father. Frank Usher also is deceiving himself into believing that some day he will have his own ranch and leave the outlaw life. He views himself as better than his two cohorts, who he describes as “animals.” It is only Pat Brennan, who does not give us a pretense of being someone other than what he is. Brennan is straightforward, admitting at one point that he is afraid, still he is intelligent and composed enough to outsmart the killers managing to segregate the members taking them down one by one. Brennan is a typically stoic Randolph Scott character who only displays any passion twice in the film, first, after Doretta admits she married Mims more out of loneliness and self-pity than love.  Brennan, holding her expresses his disapproval of her living a lie telling her “sometimes you gotta walk up and take what you want.” He then swiftly kisses her hard on the mouth. Later on, given the chance to take on the killers he is ready to kill and make sure it all ends here and now. 

talltx    Richard Boone gives a standout performance as the top outlaw, Frank Usher who deludes himself into thinking he could have a life similar to Brennan however, sees the desperado life as his only avenue there. Boone gives us so many nice touches to his character that Usher is the most sympathetic character in the film.

    Burt Kennedy’s screenplay is based on the short story, “The Captives”, by Elmore Leonard, whose works were also the source for “3:10 to Yuma” and “Hombre” among others. Today Leonard is better known as one of our best crime fiction writers whose novels include “Get Shorty”, “Out of Sight”, and “Be Cool.” Most recently, his novel “Killshot” was made into a good film and unceremoniously dumped almost straight to the video market. Much of the dialogue in the film Kennedy wisely took straight from the short story. In an interview at the Parallax View website Kennedy mentions that “The Tall T” was originally a project he wrote for John Wayne and his partner, Bob Fellows. When the partnership broke up, the project went with Fellows and he eventually sold it to Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott’s partner.

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9 comments on “The Tall T (1957) Budd Boetticher

  1. R. D. Finch says:

    In the last few months I’ve seen three of Boeticcher’s Westerns that he directed in the 50s, starring Randolph Scott. I found them all solid, unfussy, unembellished–not quite the caliber of classics like “Stagecoach,” “My Darling Clementine,” “High Noon,” “The Naked Spur” or “Ride the High Country,” (few Westerns are) but all very entertaining. For me the key word in your post is “minimalist.” These are lean works, with no padding and not an irrelevant moment in them. And they all build to tense and dramatic climaxes that keep the viewer in the movie’s grip right up to the end–in this case the battle of wits between Scott and Boone and the way Scott uses his intelligence to manipulate and outwit his adversary. You covered all the essential things in “The Tall T.” Boone was a great villain, all controlled menace. O’Sullivan seemed naive but turned out to be a no-nonsense realist, just as you wrote. As much as I liked this movie, I liked “Ride Lonesome” even more. It was if anything even more minimalist and reminded me a bit of the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns where Stewart is driven by the desire for revenge. I’m on the lookout for Boeticcher’s “Seven Men from Now,” which comes highly recommended to me and even has Lee Marvin as the villain. Hope you’ll be writing on other of the Boeticcher-Scott collaborations in the future.

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  2. Ed Howard says:

    Great writeup of a great film. What I love about Boetticher’s Westerns is how formalist they are. He pares down the Western to its essential elements and then carefully explores the boundaries of his chosen genre. This film and *Ride Lonesome* are probably his best works, particularly the stunning conclusion of the latter film, which upends all expectations about what’s going to happen, delivering emotional catharsis rather than gunplay.

    I also love Boetticher’s sense of humor. His narratives usually have a laidback loose quality that allows the tension and suspense to rub up against character moments and ragged comedy. In *The Tall T*, the opening bull-riding sequence establishes Scott’s character by poking some fun at him, and later, while in the middle of a taut confrontation with the villain, he bumps his head against a doorway, causing the bad guy to laugh along with the audience. Stuff like this tends to rub some people the wrong way, but I think it’s an intrinsic part of Boetticher’s cinematic worldview, part of his openness to unconventional ways of dealing with the conventions of the Western. *Buchanan Rides Alone*, certainly Boetticher’s funniest film, shouldn’t be overlooked either.

    The above-mentioned *Seven Men From Now* is also a fine film (and the first Boetticher I saw), but not quite up to the standard of *The Tall T* and *Ride Lonesome* — it’s more straightforward, not quite as formally austere as Boetticher’s other work with Scott. Really, though, any Boetticher is worth seeing, including his non-Scott work — *The Cimarron Kid* is a solid Audie Murphy Western with some great action sequences.

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Oddly, I needed to see this film again on the recently-released box set to appreciate it for what it is. Boetticher may not resonate from the get-go, but as its a tense, character-driven movie with treachery at every turn and charcaters who are not what they seem to be, it reaches deeper than many conventional westerns that are popular for reasons other than profundity. As you indicate yourself, strong material provided for the underpinning, (you present the historical evidence there with an appropriate listing of Leonard’s film contributions) and incomparable chemistry developed between Scott and Richard Boone, who, despite falling on the opposite end of the law, had mutual respect for each other. Of course, Boone, was not your archetypal bad guy, as he was extraordinarily ruthless, as can be evidenced in the scene where he gently pulls a cover over a sleeping Maureen O’Sullivan, while knowing full well that he plans to kill her.

    Your statement here:

    “While little seems to happen, Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy draw out every bit of tension and nuance from the story and their actors. It is a minimalist work with a small cast and little action, with only the rough western landscape looming large over the entire canvas…”

    –really captures the quintessential essence of this film from an execution standpoint, but like any work of resonating context, it’s what lies beneath the surface that provides for the real fascination.

    Boetticher’s west is indeed much colder than John Ford’s, and as others above rightly contend, this is much the case with some of his other work, of which this film now stands in my estimation as the best. Certainly there is no dearth of one-liners either, but that all part of its subtle, superbly-written screenplay.

    In your infectious enthusiasm and ability to convey the style of the director and the complex characters who inhibit the frame, you have given this film a comprehensive examination. You must take a bow, my friend.

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  4. Livius says:

    Very fine assessment of this great movie. I hold these Boetticher/Scott movies in the highest regard and I’d agree with the assessment above that The Tall T and Ride Lonesome are the cream of the crop.
    I did a write up on these films on my own blog when the Sony box came out late last year and I have to say it was a genuine pleasure to be able to view them all back to back and see both director and star develop as they went along.

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  5. Dave says:

    Great stuff, John. I’m somewhat new to Boetticher’s films and still haven’t seen all of them. As Ed said, this is among his best. I personally prefer Ride Lonesome, which I think is among the best westerns ever made period, let alone just the best from Boetticher. Still, this one is right on its heels. Rather than type out a lengthy comment, I’ll just parrot what Sam has said that your enthusiasm really comes through in this review… awesome stuff, particularly for someone like me who could watch and discuss westerns all day! Be on the lookout for some westerns showing up in my neck of the woods very soon…

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  6. John Greco says:

    Well, it seems all are on the same page with this and “Ride Lonesome” as being Budd’s best. I recently watched a non-western by Boetticher called “The Killer is Loose”, a decent crime film that he made around the same time he was doing these westerns.

    R,D. – you hit it on the head by stating these are lean works with no padding building up to tense and dramatic climaxes. I am on board with you and Sam on Richard Boone’s classic villainous character. Has anyone seen “The Night of the Following Day?” Boone is a nasty sadistic SOB in this overlooked work. Anyone remember “Have Gun Will Travel?”

    Ed – you are so right about the humor in Boetticher’s work. In “The Tall T” it is almost as if Budd is going in one direction before he turns it all around, lulling you into a false sense of security.

    Sam – Elmore Leonard is a great writer of dialogue, his novels sparkle with great wit. I have not read any of his western but I am a big fan of his crime books. Get Shorty, Out of Sight, The Big Bounce and Rum Punch (made into the movie Jackie Brown) are all smart witty books.

    Livius – You and some of the others all mention the Boetticher box set, I am going to have to invest in it. Thanks for stopping by and I will check out your blog.

    Dave – I have come back to westerns a few years ago after a long stretch of avoiding them and it was seeing a couple of Boetticher’s films that whet my appetite again.

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  7. So far I’ve looked at three films in the Sony Boetticher set and I’d also say Ride Lonesome is the best of what I’ve seen, but Tall T is also very good. I was impressed as you were with the parallelism of Boone’s aspiration to a normal life and Scott’s ruthlessness when forced into survival mode. Your excellent write-up reminds me that I need to finish that box set and see Seven Men From Now and Westbound

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  8. John Greco says:

    Like yourself Samuel, I have yet to see Seven Men From Now and Westbound. I am going to have to pick up the box set.

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