Tall T, The (1957)
Release Date: April 2nd, 1957 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Budd Boetticher Actors: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Henry Silva
o call “The Tall T” one of the greatest Westerns of all time wouldn’t be far off – it contains classically adventurous cowboy moments of proving rugged worth, high-tension shootouts, a catchy theme that accompanies the hero (and betrays the seriousness of the later dire situations), and an unforgettable mustached villain. The good guy is always courageous, resolute, and sincere (even if he has to get a tad forcible with the blinded-by-denial damsel in distress), and the bad guy gets enough screentime and complex personality traits that viewers will love to hate him. Even the evil henchmen, drinking buddy, and selfish big shot are amusing, pushing beyond the supporting role stereotypes they fill.
Riding into frame like Shane, Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) heads to Contention to get a seed bull from his former employer (at the Tall T ranch, though it isn’t mentioned anywhere in the film, and the project is an adaptation of the short story entitled “The Captives” by Elmore Leonard). Stopping at a swing station, he meets up with manager Hank and his son before continuing his journey, promising to bring the boy some striped candy on his return trip. Once in town, Pat visits Tenvoorde (Robert Burton), who challenges him to ride any bull of his choice for ownership. Succumbing to his pride, Brennan takes the bet, loses his horse, and begins the long journey back to his own property on foot.
Along the way, he hitches a ride on a stage that carries newlyweds Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Willard Mims (John Hubbard). Once the coach arrives back at the station, the film takes a dark turn – a gang of bandits has murdered Hank and his son and wait to rob the carriage. Cowardly Mims quickly sells out his wife in the hopes that her rich father will rescue them with ransom money, and the group is then relocated to an abandoned mine shaft in the middle of the desert to await a response.
A calculating ringleader who opts to command others to murder rather than sully his own hands, the exceptional Frank Usher (Richard Boone) leads the villainous brigands with plenty of gusto. He keeps Brennan alive for of his gratifying frankness, as if a sardonic jester for the king’s regalement – and because his regular company can’t provide the involving sociability Usher’s evident intelligence longs for. Chink (Henry Silva) is the cold-blooded, psychopathic executioner and Billy Jack (Skip Homeier) is the uneducated, slow-thinking quick draw – neither demonstrating worthy companionship. Boone easily steals the show, even though Scott delivers the best lines of zinging discord. Where the introductory conversations are noticeably strained and generic, the appearance of Usher brings a full switch in tone and instantly improves the dialogue. Every second of screen time quickly becomes a carefully planned and impressively purposeful affair.
A suspenseful divide-and-conquer stratagem, always giving the bad guys the opportunity to shoot first, and a minimal number of characters that allows for appropriate character development puts “The Tall T” a step ahead of most genre competitors. With more violence than was typically found in similar films of the time, it serves as a bridge from the stark heroism of John Wayne’s earlier pictures to the gritty Spaghetti Westerns (and revisionist bloodbaths like “The Wild Bunch”) that followed. Boasting some of the greatest lines of verbal jousting (before finishing with a stunning showdown), dirtying up the clean-cut antihero and giving the antagonist a meatier, funnier, and more commanding presence, the film serves as the archetypal Western thriller and the most important project of director Budd Boetticher’s prolific career. “C’mon now – it’s gonna be a nice day,” Brennan matter-of-factly states, immediately after dispatching three of the ruthless gunmen.
– Mike Massie