"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Tall Men (Fox, 1955)

The Quite Short Men.

Clark Gable was never good in Westerns. His whole persona was wrong. That brilliantined hair and caddish mustache would have made him a good Zorro, maybe, and he was at home in a frock coat on a riverboat or in a southern mansion, but as a Western hero he simply wasn’t convincing.

And sorry, but Jane Russell was a joke. Quite amusing in Son of Paleface as a sub-Johnny Guitar heroine in pants, she was just a sex symbol in the sleazy The Outlaw and as for Gable being unconvincing, she had no shred of the Western about her at all. I'm sure she was a nice person and all.

The Tall Men is a romance-drama which happens to be set in the West. It was a commercial Twentieth Century Fox 50s vehicle for these stars and nothing else.

It has other basic weaknesses: the plot is too thin to sustain such a long story, the dialogue at best indifferent, and the whole farrago is corny and trashy. The pace is painfully slow and at times you just long for it to be over.

The Victor Young music (much trumpeted in the posters) is in fact vin ordinaire and the Leo Tover photography not too bad when we are outside in ‘Montana’ (it was actually shot around Durango), but there are far too many static studio scenes (the whole first part of the film) for a tale that depends on the great outdoors and braving the elements. And much too much talking.

The movie was produced by Howard Hawks’s brother William, and maybe he was hoping either for Outlaw-type sex appeal or Red River-type grandeur and passion. He got neither. As for the sex, the unmarried Gable and Russell characters may have stayed alone daringly long (for the prudish 1950s) in a snow-bound cabin but they did nothing there but talk – for what seems like hours – in an interminable part of the film until, thank goodness, the US Cavalry arrives to put a merciful end to the dialogue. They are in this cabin talking for 17 minutes of screentime but it seems like an hour.

Surprisingly, it was directed by Raoul Walsh. You’d expect therefore dashing action and a cracking pace. Instead we get a tired, overlong film that has little charm and no Western flair. What was Walsh thinking? True, he was in his twilight years but how could the director of the rip-roaring They Died With Their Boots On have signed off this turgid tale?

And the tall men? Gable had to stand on a box in certain scenes.

La Russell has a trite song to sing about how tall men are preferable to short ones but she does it endlessly, until you are irritated by it, to say the least.

Cameron Mitchell plays Gable's younger brother (they are ex-Quantrill guerrillas, as if that were a recommendation) and Mitchell was always good, so that was something anyway. He comes to a St. Sebastianish end. Emile Meyer was in it too, though he makes one brief speaking appearance and is then written out; I don't know why they bothered. Will Wright is the (rather surly) bartender, which is nice.

Fox certainly threw budget at it. It's a big cast and in bright Color De Luxe. Such location shooting as we get is rather fine. At one point they lower a wagon down some bluffs as if it were a Oregon Trail epic. Heaven knows why because the cattle just streamed through a gap in the cliffs beside the wagon.

No, sorry, this is no good. Even the fact that Robert Ryan is in it couldn’t save it (though he was 6 foot 4; they should have called it The Tall Man). He looks bemused throughout and never gets a chance to shine. One of the best ever Western actors was confined to a minor badman role in expensive clothes with lousy script. No, it really won’t do.




  1. Anonymous 'Northwest Passage' again. This was the review I knew this was the blog for me. There was another one, too. I can't remember what it was but it had a wagon train in it. Perhaps it's this one. Isn't it truly awful? I saw the film the first time and logged on to read what you thought of it and it was like you were reading my mind. That's become the habit ever since and half the fun. That's why it a huge surprise to sometimes find us diametric opposites like 'Northwest Passage'.

    1. The Tall Men has its admirers but I'm certainly not one of them, and evidently neither are you, dear Anonymous.
      But go ahead liking Northwest Passage, by all means. Everyone has the right to be wrong.