Review: The Tall T (1957)

1957's The Tall T is one of my all-time favorite westerns for many reasons. It's part of the highly-regarded Ranown Cycle of films that were directed by Budd Boetticher, produced by Harry Joe Brown, and starring Randolph Scott. It's based on the 1955 story "The Captives" by Elmore Leonard, one of my favorite writers whose work continues to be adapted for film and television (3:10 to Yuma, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, Justified, etc). It's also a study in economy, with every line of dialogue and every scene in service of the whole. There is no fat on this lean--and often mean--B-picture from Columbia. 

The picture is essentially a hostage story that unfolds almost in real time. Randolph Scott plays Pat Brennan, a kind-hearted loner who lives a solitary life in the hills. When we first meet him, he's visiting a stagecoach way station in the middle of the desert on his way into town. His friendly interactions with the attendant and his young son inform us that he's a good man with a kind heart. Later, on his way back from town, he stops at a ranch called "The Tall T" where we learn that some people think he's grown soft and gentle and that he's lost his edge. Both of these short scenes exist to tell us all that we need to know about Brennan: he's kind and friendly, but his reputation is that of a has-been. However, when Brennan ends up in the middle of a stagecoach robbery gone wrong and taken captive alongside a wealthy couple that has just been married, we see what he's really made of. 

Randolph Scott slips into the role like a comfortable pair of cowboy boots. The lines on his face speak to years and experience, but the crinkles around his eyes add a twinkle of humor that softens his sun-weathered exterior. Scott was very near the end of his career at the time of this film; the only movie he made after the Ranown westerns is his swan song, Ride the High Country. The character he plays feels lived in and familiar, though the actor only played Pat Brennan once, he might as well be every western hero the man ever portrayed. 

The outlaws of the story are brought to life by by Richard Boone (Have Gun - Will Travel), Henry Silva, and Skip Homeier. Each of them represents a different threat: Silva is the crack shot psychopath who seems to get off on killing. Homeier is the youngest of the group and the least experienced, which means he's eager to get his hands dirty. The most interesting character of the trio is Boone as the boss. He's smart, experienced, and has a sense of what's right and wrong--but chooses wrong. Some of the best scenes of the film are those that allow Scott to go one-on-one with Boone. 

Maureen O'Sullivan plays the wealthy heiress who has just been married to a gold-digging coward. O'Sullivan was one of the bigger stars of the 1930s and played Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan from 1932 to 1942; she's a beautiful movie star, but here--some 15 years after she hung up her jungle-print swimsuit--she plays a plain woman in her mid-forties who has no self-confidence and who believes that life has passed her by. It's remarkable how many character arcs the screenplay is able successfully service in just 78 short minutes. 

There is much that can (and has) been said about The Tall T and the spate of films that Randolph Scott made with Budd Boetticher in the latter part of the 1950s. Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Taylor Hackford, Martin Scorsese and scores of others have praised them. The films are studied, championed, and celebrated over and over again. All of this makes the idea of writing a review for the picture more than a little daunting; after all, what is left to say about a movie that has been hailed by the best and brightest of film criticism? Maybe not much, other than I hope my enthusiasm may reach those who haven't yet seen this picture or the other Ranown westerns that followed. As new generations enter movie fandom, the older films are sometimes left to aging fans in favor of whatever seems to be in the zeitgeist on any given day, month, or year. After all, new movies come out every week, but older movies just keep getting older. 

Someone may be reading this who isn't sure if westerns are their thing; after all, it's mostly a dead genre, right? How can a 75-year-old B-movie from one of the smaller studios compete with a $300 million spectacle that plays at the multiplex today? My answer is that movies which are built around character and humanity rather than spectacle will always resonate with us. We can all relate to the pathos of people who are just like us but are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Think Die Hard, which remains timeless. When you strip away everything that's unnecessary, you're left with nothing but the characters and a challenge that defeat or define them. That's the strength of storytelling. That's the strength of The Tall T, and that's why people still praise The Ranown Westerns as compelling cinema, all these years later. 


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