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

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Tall T (Columbia, 1956)



I was saying when talking about Gary Cooper the other day that Warner Bros Westerns in the early 1950s were often billed as major films but were actually little more than minor Westerns with stars. The process could also work the other way: sometimes what was costed, shot and marketed as a short low-budget movie or supporting feature could actually turn out to better quality than the so-called big-budget studio efforts.

Such is the case with the series of Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Westerns that some dismiss as B-pictures but in reality are excellent examples of the genre.

The second of the series of Westerns directed by Boetticher and written by Burt Kennedy was as good as the first - Seven Men From Now (Warner Bros, 1956) - and in some respects even better.

This is partly because Kennedy wrote the screenplay from one of the master Elmore Leonard’s best tales, The Captives, and the story is taut and gripping. See? It’s that man Leonard again. The story was first published in Argosy magazine in February 1955. The movie follows it closely, though the film adds occasional scenes.

Then again, like the excellent Hombre I was talking about the other day, the film has Richard Boone as the bad guy. He is superb (as he always was) and gives us a complex character, like Lee Marvin in Seven Men, appealing in some ways and morally close to Scott. These Boetticher bad guys were well drawn and there is a certain ambivalence about them: we are almost on their side.


Boone is supported in The Tall T by two truly nasty heavies, very well played by Skip Homeier as young Billy Jack and the excellent Henry Silva as Chink. The bad men are truly frightening. Homeier had been the punk kid who gunned Gregory Peck down in The Gunfighter, you will remember, and he got slightly typecast in punk-kid roles. He mostly did low-budget Westerns and TV it must be said but occasionally he was really good, as here. Need a sneering gunman? Call Skip. Silva was new to Westerns. He'd had a small part in Viva Zapata! as a peasant and had also been in a Wagon Train episode but that was it. Budd Boetticher, reported by Robert Nott in his very good book The Films of Randolph Scott, said, "Henry Silva I just loved. He came down to play the part, and he had never seen a horse up close before, and he put the wrong foot in the stirrup! But he rode fairly well, I thought." Silva got the taste for Westerns because in 1958 he came up against Gregory Peck, this time in The Bravados, and the same year was a heavy in The Law and Jake Wade.


Maureen O’Sullivan (from the Tarzan pictures) is excellent as the plain woman who rather than become an old maid agrees to be married for her money to a scoundrel (John Hubbard) – not all actresses would have accepted such a role. As a scenario, 'cowardly husband with wife who deserves better (and look, here comes Randy!)' had worked well in Seven Men. She 'grows' during the picture and becomes a real woman. It’s a good performance. Arthur Hunnicutt does his classic old-timer stage driver act. The cast is small because these films were not huge epics. Rather, they were high-quality, low-budget, short actioners (this one was shot in twelve days and is 78 minutes long) with interesting development of well-written and well-played characters.

Randolph Scott is outstanding. He starts as a cheery, decent rancher, ever ready with a smile, prepared to go out of his way to buy candy for a kid (actually the movie is a bit too light at the start, but that does at least give impact to the brutality to come). But when the outlaws come and, horribly, throw the little boy’s body down the well, Scott changes. He becomes the hard man of Seven Men from Now. Even when he escapes the bandits’ clutches, he does not flee. He has to settle accounts. He does this with guile and grit.


Being an Elmore Leonard story, it's is set around Contention, AZ and there is some lovely photography of fine scenery (Alabama Hills, California, in fact) by Charles Lawton Jr. There were no interiors, according to Burt Kennedy for budgetary reasons, but it really improves the picture. Visually, the film is attractive and the color fine. Really, everyone in the story is lonely, and the empty vistas and wide shots of riders in open landscapes accentuate that. There are some masterly directorial/photographic touches: for example when Scott learns that the outlaws have killed the stationmaster and his young son, the camera just pans, following Scott's gaze towards the well and then back to the outlaws. Nothing is said, and Scott's stony face betrays little. It’s a very powerful moment.

‘The Tall T’ is presumably the name of the ranch Scott is trying to make a go of, or the ranch he visits in the early part of the film, though the name is never mentioned, either in the movie or in the short story. Some anonymous Columbia exec gave it the name.

The Heinz Roemheld score is understated and builds tension nicely.

The Tall T is a tough, gritty little Western which, like all the Boetticher/Kennedy pictures, deserves more fame and credit that it has received.

Next in the series was Decision at Sundown.

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