The Tall T (1957) Budd Boetticher

talltThe Tall T is a superbly bleak western from Budd Boetticher. Boasting a screenplay by Burt Kennedy, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, it stars Randolph Scott as rancher Pat Brennan. After losing his horse in a bet with a fellow rancher, Brennan is now walking his way back to his place. Along the trial comes a stagecoach. Hired by sleazy accountant, Willard Mims (John Hubbard), the coach is making a special run carrying Mims and his newly married bride Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan), the plain Jane daughter  of a rich coal mine owner. The couple are on their honeymoon. Seeing Brennan along the road, the coach’s driver stops and picks him up despite Willard’s complaints that he hired the coach for his personal use. Continue reading

The Big Clock (1948) John Farrow

big-clock-title-stillJohn Farrow’s  “The Big Clock” is a taut thriller with a tightly wound  clock ticking away as its protagonist  becomes more and more isolated and desperate after he has been indirectly set up to take the fall for the murder of his tyrannical boss’ lover. The film is based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing with a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer. Adding nicely to the tension is John Seitz’s impressive cinematography. The theme of greed, the cut throat behavior and heartlessness that exists in the corporate world, makes this film relevant more today than ever. Continue reading

Where Danger Lives (1950) John Farrow

“Where Danger Lives” starts on an odd little note, or maybe it is just me. Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is telling a bedtime story to a sick little girl in the hospital. It is a strange beginning because as we soon find out it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. You end up with the feeling it was just padding for a film that runs only 82 minutes. We soon meet the real woman of the story, Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue), a suicide victim and as the movie progresses we find out a bit of a psychotic. The film moves to the dark side as Dr. Jeff falls for this beautiful, yet seemingly vulnerable woman, and as he and we soon will find out, she is anything but vulnerable, more like deceitful, dangerous and pure evil.

    From RKO pictures released in 1950, “Where Danger Lives” is at times a riveting film noir whose characters spiral insanely out of control more and more as the film comes to a maniacal end. Dr. Jeff Cameron saves the life of suicide victim, Margo Lannington. They are soon attracted to each other and quickly become involved. She tells him she lives with her rich controlling father. Unknown to Jeff, Margo’s “father” is really her husband (this is the first of many lies she weaves) and when he confronts her sadistic hubby, Frederick (Claude Rains) who tries to warn Jeff that once he starts down this path there is no turning back, an argument ensues and Frederick attacks Jeff with a fireplace poker. After several severe strikes, Jeff manages to knocks Frederick down and out with a Mitchum size power punch. Jeff, dazed from the beating by the husband, stumbles to the bathroom to wash off the blood. When he returns still dazed, a concussion setting in, he discovers Frederick is dead. Jeff wants to call the police but Margo insists they can’t. Who is going to believe them that it was an accident, she says. We find out later Margo smothered Frederick to death while Jeff was out of the room attending his wound. However, she leaves the impression that Jeff’s punch did Frederick in. For the remainder of the film we find the two fugitives on a nightmarish, doomed, almost surrealistic journey as they attempt to escape across the U.S. Mexican border.

Jeff continues to suffer from the concussion and the formerly meek Margo asserts herself while Jeff, earlier the self-assured professional, remains confused and dazed. Margo’s behavior is erratic only making things more confusing for Jeff. She refuses to listen to radio reports about the police pursuit, knowing that the truth about her husband’s death will be discovered, and Jeff will become aware of what really happened; how she smothered him to death and he did not die from a head trauma from Jeff’s punch. Their trip to the border is one of avoiding roadblocks, most of which unknown to them, were set up for other reasons unrelated to their fleeing. At one point, they stop in a small town where they are unexpectedly arrested, though not for being fugitives but because Jeff does not have a beard! It seems they arrived during the small town’s annual beard festival where every man is required to have a beard.

    While the overall film is uneven, the climatic ending in the border town is one of the film’s highlights, as is the cinematography of the great Nicolas Muscusa who provides a nightmarish darkly lit claustrophobic look, filled with low angle shots that gives the film much of its stylistic visual appeal.  Robert Mitchum is in his element here and is a joy to watch, working those sleepy eyes as he gives us a character that is sucked into the claws of a dangerously off balanced woman, similar in her treachery to “Angel Face” Jean Simmons in the Otto Preminger classic he would make two years later. Mitchum has a great scene where her stumbles down a flight of stairs. Shot in one continuous take, Mitchum did the fall without the assistance of a double.

Faith Domergue is convincingly immoral, seemingly possessed by the role of Margo, an archetypal femme fatale. Though probably best remembered for her role in “This Island Earth” and as another in the long line of Howard Hughes “discoveries”, this is the role of her career. Claude Rains is his usual smooth self as Frederick, at first amused by Jeff’s infatuation with his wife; he even attempts to warn him that Margo is not what or who he thinks she is.  Unfortunately, his role is all too brief. Even briefer is Maureen O’Sullivan’s (director John Farrow wife) role as Jeff’s good girlfriend, Julie Dorn. The screenplay is by Charles Bennett who is best remembered as a long time associate of Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage and Foreign Correspondent).

Overall, the film is an uneven mix, some scenes seemingly there just for padding i.e. the entire wedding scene. “Where Danger Lies” may be an uneven noir but with fine performances by Mitchum and Domergue and especially with Macursa behind the camera it is a must see.

The Tall T (1957) Budd Boetticher


    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.