Friday 18 September 2020

On Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming - THE TALL T (Budd Boetticher, USA, 1957) - The second instalment of Tom Ryan's series devoted to the legendary cycle of Westerns starring Randolph Scott and (mostly) produced by Harry Joe Brown


The Ranown Cycle, Part 2 

“I felt that Boone really loved Randy in the picture, to the point of being very attracted to him physically. He would like to have been Randy. There’s no reason that a man can’t love another man. It doesn’t have to be a homosexual thing. I think only weak people are afraid of that.”

                                                (Budd Boetticher, November 1968) (1)


Budd Boetticher’s taut masterwork is based on another deftly cryptic Burt Kennedy script laced with existentialist overtones. Adapted from a 1955 short story by Elmore Leonard (2), it plays nuanced what-if variations on characters and themes established in Seven Men from Now(3). As in, what if this time…?


This time, the hero, Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott, above), is a rancher living a solitary existence after the death of his wife. The couple he encounters on the road – approximate equivalents to the Greers in Seven Men from Now – are Willard Mims (John Hubbard) and his wife, Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan), who’ve rented a stagecoach to take them to Bisbee, in southeast Arizona. They’re recently married, and it’s established early on – in an exchange between Pat and gossipy old-timer Ned Rintoon, a stagecoach driver (Arthur Hunnicutt, who was 12 years younger than Scott) – that she’s the daughter of a wealthy rancher and that her husband is with her only because he’s a gold digger. A further suggestion, although it’s hardly borne out by the casting, is that she’s not the kind of woman likely to attract any man on her own merits.


The money stakes are higher here than in Seven Men from Now: $50,000, the ransom that’s to be paid by Doretta’s father after she and her husband, along with Pat, are seized and held hostage by three would-be bandits. Their leader is Frank Usher (Richard Boone, below) and it’s clear from the start that he doesn’t look favourably on the company he’s keeping: the psychopathic Chink (Henry Silva) and the eager but dumb Billy Jack (Skip Homeier). The idea for the ransom isn’t theirs; it comes from the oily Willard, who, interested only in saving his own skin, has alerted them to his wife’s lineage.


Frank is a dangerous killer, but he’s nothing like Seven Men from Now’s Masters. He’s not a thug and he’s intriguingly charismatic rather than grotesque, although he’s no less dangerous. For him, Doretta is a means to an end rather than a sex object, although that becomes complicated during the course of the film. His treatment of her is generally disdainful, but then there’s a scene in the latter stages of the film where he seems to see her for the first time as something more than a pawn in his scheme, pulling a rug over her as she sleeps. As John Knight points out, “it’s a scene of a longing for a domestic existence that Frank has never had”. (4)

Henry Silva, Skip Homeier, The Tall T

To this reading of Frank’s implicit acknowledgement of her humanity, Robin Wood adds a further aspect. “When Boone brings Mrs. Mims food and coffee and treats with gentle courtesy the woman he has earlier brutally ridiculed,” Wood writes in his astute short essay on Boetticher, “the actions express his growing identification with Scott – or, at least, his capacity for learning from him...” (5) 


Indeed, the film is enriched by the ways in which it differs from the short story’s depiction of Frank, fleshing out how, when they confront each other, it’s as if he and Pat are both peering curiously at a mirror, each instinctively asking of the reflection he sees, “Could that be me?”


The Tall T begins with Pat riding through a rocky wilderness on the way to the town of Contention for supplies. Lone Pine, in Inyo County in California, plays the setting (as it does in the rest of the Ranown cycle, and in countless other Westerns). At first, we don’t see him, but then, suddenly, he’s there, appearing astride his horse from behind a rock. It’s as if the arid locale has given birth to him. He is a man of the West. This is not an unusual introduction to the hero of a Western, but here it quietly acquires a special resonance. 


En route, in a scene that’s not in Leonard’s source story, Pat drops in at a swing station (a stage-coach stopover) to visit his friend, the bespectacled Hank (Fred Sherman), who lives there with his son, Jeff (Christopher Olsen), who’s aged about 10. Accompanied by the tinkling of a hammer striking an anvil, Pat’s arrival echoes the opening scene of Shane (1954), as Jeff watches the intruder’s approach. Alerted by his son, Hank emerges with a rifle: this is a world in which you can’t be too careful. But then he relaxes when he recognizes his friend. Jeff runs forward to greet him, his hand comfortably, affectionately, on Pat’s stirrup as he rides gently towards Hank.


The two men make genial conversation, establishing the bond between them, the fact that they’re both widowers lending a plaintive edge to their talk. “Man shouldn’t be stuck off by himself in this kind of country, Pat,” Hank says. “It ain’t natural.” He’s talking about his own circumstances, but Pat recognizes its relevance to him too. Pat leaves, having agreed to buy some cherry-striped candy in Contention for Jeff, accepting money from the boy to do so. This is also a world in which young’uns need to appreciate that nothing comes for free.


The father and son watch as Pat rides away, the sense of their isolation underlined when Jeff asks his father, “Pa, what’s it like in Contention?” And by Hank’s reply: “There’s people there, Jeff. Lots of people.” It’s the last time we see them; by the time Pat returns, as a passenger in the stagecoach with the Mims, they’re dead, murdered by Frank and his men, their bodies callously tossed into a well on the property. The domestic warmth embodied in their existence had provided a sharp contrast to their cruel, unwelcoming surroundings, and its absence brings a sense of loss.


Pat’s arrival in Contention leads to a continuation of the air of genial conversation as he encounters Rintoon, their exchange dealing with the changing face of the town, which is on the brink of a telling transformation. Rintoon refers to the railroad that is soon to arrive – “in about a month” – a development that’s going to force everyone to rethink the way they live. A use-by date seems to be hanging over Contention and the way of life it represents. Although the talk is relaxed and the mood sociable, there are serpents lurking: like the future that’s being built by the settling of the West, and like the greedy Willard, Rintoon filling Pat in on the moral failings that make him civilization’s equivalent to Frank’s henchmen.


Pat’s visit to the ranch owned by his former employer, Tenvoorde (Robert Burton), introduces a knockabout element as Pat wagers his horse that he can ride a bull tethered there. He can’t, taking his defeat with a good grace, and that’s why, carrying his saddle, he finds himself on the road when Rintoon’s coach with the Mims aboard clatters by. 


The mood changes abruptly when they arrive at Hank’s: Chink shoots and kills Rintoon after he’s reached for a rifle, and Pat and the Mims become captives. What ensues is a series of sharply written dialogue scenes with the threat of death ever present. Early on, Pat is content to be a silent observer, biding his time – he’s the kind of character who needs to work out the rules of a game before he participates – but well aware that Frank intends to kill them when their usefulness runs out.


Shot by Hollywood veteran Charles Lawton Jr., the film’s imagery also evokes a sense of danger. As is common in the films of the Ranown cycle, the craggy landscape immediately suggests an uninviting wilderness, but alongside that is the visual motif that has orderly, sometimes even lyrical, compositions being disrupted by shadowy figures intruding into the foreground or stepping from the edge of the frame into the light. It’s a strategy introduced in Seven Men from Now and sustained here.


Also as in Seven Men from Now, the showdown (part of the final stage is pictured above)  between the Scott character and the chief villain is of the slow-burn kind, stretched out across the film from the moment they meet, evoked by the way they look at each other, their verbal jousting and the general strategies that underlie their interactions. Frank’s obvious motive for sparing Pat’s life is because he welcomes his company, appreciating what they have in common that he and his henchmen don’t. Just as he holds Willard in contempt as “a talker”, he is wearied of Chink and Billy Jack’s incessant chatter about women. “Nothin’ but animals. Nobody can help their kind,” he confides to Pat, “A man gets tired o’ that. A man gets awful tired.”


By contrast, his exchanges with Pat suggest two men who understand exactly where the other is coming from, instinctively bonding, even if they’re officially antagonists. He dreams of owning land, as Pat does. “A man should have something of his own, something to belong to, to be proud of,” he tells him, approving of the life Pat is leading. “You figure you’ll get it this way?” Pat asks by way of reply. “Well, sometimes you don’t have a choice,” Frank explains, referring to his tough Wyoming upbringing. But Pat is having none of this: “Don’t you?” he asks, as much a comment as it is a question. Kennedy’s laconic dialogue is full of nuanced exchanges like this one.


Having Pat around reassures Frank about himself: “Plain-faced truth is: I like you, Brennan,” he tells Pat. “Ain’t many men I can say that about.” But Pat rejects the not unreasonable idea that he and Frank might have anything solid in common. He understands the difference between right and wrong and recognizes that Frank is rationalising his criminality. Just as Doretta has deceived herself into believing that Willard loved her “because (she) couldn’t stand being alone any more”, so does Frank refuse to take responsibility for his moral ugliness. 


Pat sees through the protective facades that both Doretta and Frank have fabricated around themselves and, when the time comes, he calls them both on it. “There’s some things a man can’t ride around,” he says by way of response to Doretta’s request that they just leave and avoid a confrontation with Frank. Translation: a man can’t live with himself if he’s not true to what he knows he is and what he stands for. It’s his philosophy of life.


Maureen O'Sullivan, Randolph Scott

The same courtliness that has Stride calling Annie “Mrs Greer” throughout Seven Men from Now has Pat calling Doretta “Mrs. Mims” here. He makes her see how she’s been deceiving herself and the scene in which he confronts her is one of Scott’s few exchanges with women that carry an emotional urgency. Elsewhere, they’re mostly to do with the convention that requires a couple to come together at the end. Here, however, her recognition of his moral strength and his understanding of her are unexpectedly moving. And when, after Frank’s death, he responds to her anguished tears by reassuring her – “C’mon, it’s gonna be a nice day” – there is a rightness to his embrace of her and her readiness for it. 


This is not to do with the suggestion that she will somehow fill the gap left by his late wife, but with the poignant realisation of a human closeness, an intimacy that they’ve achieved over the course of the violent events that have brought them together. Pat’s probably incapable of anything more than that, which makes it a deeply affecting step forward.


(1) Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, The Director’s Event, Signet, USA, 1969,      p. 58

(2) Elmore Leonard, “The Captives” in The Tonto Woman and other Western 

Stories, Delacorte Press, New York, 1998, pp. 16 – 53. 

The story is also included in a later Leonard collection, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, William Morrow, New York, 2004, pp. 323 – 355. 

The film was originally to be known as The Captives, with The Tall Rider looming as an alternative. The final title refers, apparently, to the Tenvoorde ranch.



(5) Robin Wood, “Budd Boetticher”, in Richard Roud, ed., Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Volume One, pp. 134 –135 


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