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.
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.
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.