Tuesday, November 18, 2008

THE TALL T (1957)

Randolph Scott is the man whose whereabouts the Statler Bros are always asking about. His is the name that can reduce the population of Rock Ridge to a scene-stopping chorus of awe. So I assumed for a long time that he was just a hokey cowboy hero. Then I saw Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, Scott's final film, and I began reading about Scott's teaming with director Budd Boetticher. They made seven films together, and growing ranks of fans seem to rate them on a level with the '50s westerns of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart. That's a big claim.

Hollywood's '50s westerns should get more credit than they do. They may be mistaken for '50s TV westerns in some minds, or the lot are lumped together in unfavorable contrast with the Italian westerns of the '60s and '70s, but I think both genres benefit from the comparison. The spaghettis have their virtues, and the best from '50s Hollywood simply have a different set. The output of Columbia Pictures in particular is pretty formidable, from Mann & Stewart's Man From Laramie and Rudolph Mate's The Violent Men through Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma and Cowboy, through Robert Rossen's quasi-Western They Came to Cordura. Columbia released five of Boetticher's seven Scott films, starting with The Tall T. That fact may clinch the studio's status of Western champ for the decade.

Like 3:10 to Yuma, The Tall T is taken from an Elmore Leonard story, but Martin Scorsese suggests in his intro to the DVD that Burt Kennedy's screenplay isn't very faithful, or at least not pleasing to Leonard. The movie, at least, deals with Pat Brennan (Scott), who's come to the town of Contention (which also figures in 3:10) to buy a bull. We first see him stopping at a switch station where he visits with Hank the stationmaster and promises to bring back some cherry striped candy for Hank's son. In town, he checks in on stage driver Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt) and meets his passengers, Willard Mims and his new wife, the daughter of a copper baron. Brennan loses his horse in an attempt to win a bull on a bet and has to walk home. He hitches a ride on Rintoon's stage over Mims' objection and returns to Hank's station to find it seemingly deserted.

The station has been taken over by a three-man gang: Frank (Richard Boone), Billy Jack (played by Skip Homeier, and no relation to the stink-footed '70s hero), and the outrageously named Chink (a baby-faced Henry Silva). They were expecting a mail stage to rob, but Rintoon has come through ahead of schedule as Mims' private driver. This gang won't take disappointment well, but Mims intends to save himself by suggesting that Frank hold his new wife for ransom, which he'll solicit from the old man.

The bulk of the picture deals with Frank, Chink, Brennan, and Mrs. Mims waiting for Mims and Billy Jack to return. This is where the film gets really interesting. We get an instance of what I understand to be a recurring theme of the "Ranown" films, with Brennan and Frank emerging as almost mirror images of one another. Frank wants to settle down on a piece of land like Brennan has, but sees crime as the only way to achieve his goal. He doesn't see or comport himself as a villain, but as someone who does what he has to, as he imagines everyone else does. He adheres to his own code of honor, which emerges in his treatment of Mims and his chastisement of Mrs. Mims for protesting it. When Brennan questions his claim to moral superiority over Mims, Frank protests: "If you don't understand the difference, I can't explain it to you." As it develops, he's too honorable for his own good, while Brennan, our hero, proves as ruthless as survival requires. Both men have eyes on Mrs. Mims, but while Frank seems only to tentatively offer her some food, Brennan later forces himself upon her (within a certain limit) while exhorting her to stand up for herself. Later still, Brennan sows distrust among the gang, but Frank proves more loyal to his men -- to his eventual ruin -- then Brennan would have the boys believe.

The Tall T impressed me with its brevity. It's done in 77 minutes, a running time comparable to the early Universal horror classics, and as with them, you don't feel shorted. Even when, at my first glance, the picture seemed to take its time really getting started through the comedic business in town, it still managed effective character development amid the natural beauty of the location. It does quite well without the gratuitous picturesqueness or iconic posing that bloats many modern films (influenced in part, alas, by spaghetti westerns). It benefits most from dialogue designed for meaningful underplaying from Scott, Boone and even Silva in what could have been more of a showboat role. Theirs are the sort of performances that sometimes get dismissed as non-acting because they lack the emotive histrionics that earn Oscars, but what they achieve at their best is an illusion of authenticity that fits the film perfectly. Only Arthur Hunnicutt really sticks out in the hammy role of an old coot, but we're not burdened with him for long.

Two standout visual moments for me are Brennan's fight with Billy Jack and a tense showdown with Chink. The former comes to a shocking shotgun climax with more blood then you might expect from a '50s film. The latter is wonderfully timed as Brennan gives Mrs. Mims a loaded gun to fire repeatedly at Chink's location while he takes another position. Boetticher intercuts perfectly from Doretta firing to Brennan and Chink successively counting down the shots, ratcheting the tension toward the moment when Chink will break out from cover.

This is the first film in Sony's new box set of the Columbia Ranowns. I watched it on my modest HP monitor and it looked good except for the credits, which seemed to have a layer of irremovable (?) grit on them. The next time I watch, I have the option of hearing historian Jeanine Basinger comment on the film. This first disc also includes a documentary about Boetticher that first appeared on TCM, along with the Scorsese intro. There's also a trailer that looks as run over as the opening credits, and the usual Sony promos. I'll keep you posted as I work through the remaining films in the set, but The Tall T is a good start for anyone discovering Boetticher and Scott.

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