Film7070 Week 5: 1957

1957: The Tall T

I’ve often heard the classic westerns produced by Director Budd Boetticher and star Randolph Scott spoken of with a reverence reserved for the likes of the Mann/Stewart and Ford/Wayne partnerships but until watching The Tall T my only experience of the pairs output was the superior revenge western 7 Men from Now. It’s fair to say that after watching The Tall T I’m now a fan and you’ll probably see a couple more of their films popping up in Film7070 in the coming weeks.

Several things set the The Tall T apart from the crowd of low budget westerns of the period, for starters there’s the script from Burt Kennedy. The first twenty minutes or so are spent establishing Scott’s character Pat Brennan, and it’s twenty minutes full of information – he’s a rancher, he works alone, he quit his previous job as a foreman on a larger spread to try his luck on his own, he’s unmarried and he’s not adverse to a gamble, the latter fact leaving him afoot when he wagers his horse against a prize bull. The result of all this is that we feel like we know Brennan in a short space of time, and we like him, he’s a happy-go-lucky kind of guy who takes the rough with the smooth and doesn’t bear a grudge, although he’s not one to be laughed at. The beauty of Kennedy’s script is that we get all this information from a few exchanges that never feel anything but natural, there’s no sense of forced exposition. This deftness of touch is apparent throughout the film as we are introduced to other characters.

The film also features two fine performances, firstly from Scott and also from Richard Boone as the films main villain Frank Usher. Scott’s an actor I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve got older, growing up I always found him wooden and unconvincing. It took Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country to convince me there was more to Scott than I’d originally thought and I think he’s certainly an actor who improved with age. Here he’s given a wonderfully rounded character to play, and he exudes rough charm and ready wit as Brennan.

It’s rare for a western villain to be as fleshed out a Boone’s Usher. He’s far more than the usual ‘black hat’ for the hero to face. He’s charming, funny and, were it not for some of the acts he’s instigated, he’d be a likeable guy. There’s a sense that, under different circumstances, he could have been living Brennan’s life, the two characters being similar in many respects. I may not have cared for Scott as I was growing up but Boone is an actor I’ve always admired. I’m too young to remember his most famous roll as Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel but I remember watching Hec Ramsey, which started in the early seventies when I was about seven or eight. The Tall T came out the same year Have Gun Will Travel debuted on TV and it’s easy to see how he made the leap from supporting actor to TV star.

Boetticher weaves these elements together to create a tense little film that’s low on gun play but high on character, but when the lead does start flying he handles the action with as much aplomb as the psychological thrills that have gone before. He even manages to make you wonder if things will follow their usual path for a low budget oater i.e. the villains lying dead in the dirt while the hero rides off with the girl, although in this case the girl, Maureen O’Sullivan, most famous (to me at least) as Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan, hadn’t been a ‘girl’ for some time. It’s one more thing that sets Boetticher’s film apart, it’s not just the maturity with which the film is handled, it’s the maturity of the characters themselves.

I think I’ll stop now as this is coming dangerously close to a full review, something that was never the plan for Film7070 posts, but I will leave you with this – if you are a fan of the western genre then you owe it to yourself to seek out The Tall T. Trust me you won’t regret it.
[rating:4]

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