Monday, January 19, 2015

The Tall T (1957)

Director: Budd Boetticher                            Writer: Burt Kennedy
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                       Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Starring: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maurine O’Sullivan and Arthur Hunnicutt

Another of the mid-fifties westerns that Randolph Scott made for Columbia, The Tall T is notable for the simple fact that the title is never explained, though one presumes this is the brand that Scott uses for his cattle. In actuality, the film had been called The Captives throughout production, but executives discovered that there was another film by that name and changed it. The intent of the new title was that it was the brand of the ranch where Scott intends to by a bull for his ranch. The film also has the distinction of being the first of Elmore Leonard’s works to be adapted for the screen. Primarily known as a writer of humorous crime fiction in later life, Leonard had also written western stories early in his career, including the story that 3:10 to Yuma was based on. This was the second of several films Scott made with director Budd Boetticher, the first of which, Seven Men from Now, being such a commercial success that it led to a total of seven collaborations. The film was also one of Maurine O’Sullivan’s final film performances, after she had moved almost exclusively to television in the fifties.

Randolph Scott plays an Arizona rancher, going into Contention to buy a seed bull for his new ranch. Along the way he stops at a stage depot to water his horse. The place is run by a friend of his, Fred Sherman, and his young son Christopher Olsen. Once in town he meets Arthur Hunnicutt who drives a stagecoach and talks about the train taking over. Meanwhile Maurine O’Sullivan and her husband John Hubbard are going to be chartering Hunnicutt’s stage to Bisbee, and Hunnicutt is convinced that Hubbard only married her to get his hands on her father’s copper mining business. Instead of getting a bull, Scott loses his horse in a bet and winds up walking home with his saddle, flagging down Hunnicutt’s stagecoach. But when they get to the station Sherman and Olsen have been killed, and Richard Boone and his men have taken over the place waiting to rob the regular stagecoach. The weak-willed Hubbard instantly tries to give up O’Sullivan as a hostage to get ransom from her father, so Boone sends a ransom note back to Contention with him and heads toward Scott’s place with O’Sullivan to wait for the money. The bulk of the story takes place a few miles from Scott’s ranch as they wait for the ransom money, giving time for Scott and O’Sullivan to bond and figure out a way to stay alive.

These westerns are little more than stripped down morality tales. Boone becomes sickened by the fact that Hubbard sold out his wife in order to safe himself, and he also talks about how he wants to have a place of his own, a ranch like Scott’s. Scott has a difficult time understanding this. He doesn’t see how killing and robbing to get those things is any different that what Hubbard did, but Boone tells him, “If you can’t see the difference, I ain’t gonna explain it to you.” Boone’s partners are Skip Homeier, a young kid with no family, and Henry Silva, a Chinese killer, and he doesn’t like either one of them. In fact, Boone has never killed a man in his life, though Scott isn’t buying the distinction considering that he consents to allow them to do his dirty work for him. What is so fascinating is that the film almost begins as a comedy, with Scott betting his previous boss, Robert Burton, that he can ride a bull and loses his horse to him after diving in a water trough to escape the bull when he’s thrown off. Then he has to walk fifteen miles back to his ranch with his saddle over his shoulder.

But even during the tense moments waiting for the money there is a bit of comedy relief. When Scott comes out of the opening to the mineshaft where he and O’Sullivan have been sleeping, he hits his head on the beam and sends Boone into a riot of laughter. The relationship between Boone and Scott is the real focal point of the film. Boone is fascinated by this man who tells the truth, even admitting that he’s afraid, and keeps his dignity no matter what happens. This is in stark contrast to Hubbard, a man who cares more about his own life than his wife’s, and it probably bothers Boone so much because he reminds him too much of himself. In fact, at the end of the picture Boone knows Scott so well that he actually walks away from him while Scott holds a gun on him, so sure he is that Scott would never shoot him in the back. The Tall T may be a simple story, but it is told extremely well and acted to perfection. It is one of the better of the Scott-Boetticher films and is as entertaining as westerns get.

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