Friday, January 15, 2010

Film Review: THE TALL T (1957, Budd Boetticher)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 78 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Randolph Scott (RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW), Richard Boone (HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL; THE SHOOTIST), Maureen O' Sullivan (Jane in TARZAN AND HIS MATE), Henry Silva (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, BULLETPROOF, ALLIGATOR, ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX, GHOST DOG), Arthur Hunnicutt (THE BIG SKY, THE LUSTY MEN, HARRY AND TONTO). Story by Elmore Leonard (52 PICK-UP, LONESOME DOVE, CAT CHASER), screenplay by George Kennedy (SEVEN MEN FROM NOW).
Tag-line: "Taut! Torrid! Tremendous! T Is for Terror!"
Best one-liner: "Come on, it's going to be a nice day!"

To what does that title refer? "Taut! Torrid! Tremendous! T Is for Terror!," exclaims the tag-line. Well, let's not dwell on it- it was imposed by the studio, and no one involved knew what the hell it meant. But it doesn't matter, because THE TALL T is a masterpiece. Based on an Elmore Leonard story, it begins as a simple, languid tale of pastoral living, gentle slapstick, and formidable landscapes. But when it wants to be, it's lean and mean and absolutely brutal (the film will not hesitate to shoot someone in the face at point-blank range- and this is 1957!). Despite a set-up that involves gunslingers and hostages, the material is never sensationalized: a certain realism emerges, and it becomes something of a 'chamber-piece thriller.'

As Pat Brennan, Randolph Scott is our perfect hero- at once weary, cheerful, and rugged, he's somehow the exact median between Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne.

He's a sweet old guy who'll buy a kid stick candy, but he'll put you in a headlock if he needs to, dammit. He's a man who'll admit when he's scared, but, by gum, he'll DO something about it.

Randolph Scott helps Maureen O' Sullivan work out some self-esteem issues.

Brennan and some traveling companions (which include Maureen O' Sullivan as a wealthy, recently married, ex-old maid and John Hubbard as her gold-diggin' new husband) become the victims of a trio of brigands (who include a steely Richard Boone and a vicious Henry Silva).

[I also have to point out that the gold-diggin' douche is one of the great unsung western stereotypes. You always hear about the "honest rancher," "the old maid," "the hooker with a heart of gold," and "the black hat-wearin' outlaw," but "the gold-diggin', douchey guy" rarely gets his due, despite appearing in more movies and TV episodes than you can shake a stick at.]

Anyway, Richard Boone, as "Frank," is fuckin' fantastic. I always enjoyed him (and his high-brow antics) in HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL, but I didn't start thinking of him as one of the greats until I saw his performances in THE TALL T and THE SHOOTIST.

Frank's actions are villainous, to be sure, but he's not some bloodthirsty, mad-dog killer.

He's rational, intellectual, and incredibly complex- a huge influence on Sergio Leone's antagonists from Lee van Cleef's "Angel Eyes" to Henry Fonda's "Frank" (and this film as a whole clearly inspired great swaths of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST).

Frank is drawn to Brennan and yet repulsed by him- he's the sort of man he wishes he could be, which leads to an odd combination of self-loathing and hero worship, followed by general misanthropy.

Silva's a deliciously vile punk ("I never shot me a woman before- have I, Frank?") who seems to be- unnervingly- borderline mentally disabled.

Silva. Here, he's kind of a shortbus blend of young, vigorous Marlon Brando and young, diabolical Clu Gulager.


Silva (as 'Chink') struggles to construct a coherent thought as Skip Homeier (as 'Billy Jack') looks on.

His semi-coherent, sluggardly ramblings about his background are juxtaposed with his single-minded, serpentine, six-shooter virtuousity, and the result is downright chilling.

In all, THE TALL T is one of the great American Westerns, and Budd Boetticher stands tall alongside Ford, Ray, Hawks, and the like. And it's the kind of Western that clearly helped pave the way for subsequent masterpieces by Peckinpah and Leone.

Five stars.

-Sean Gill

8 comments:

Shorty Calhoun said...

Randolph Scott helps Maureen O' Sullivan work out some self-esteem issues.

Classic!

Just watched The Tall T for a second time. That is some uncompromising Western individualism right there!

In those days, you got shot in the face, and you liked it!

Sean Gill said...

Well said, Shorty. I've been on something of a Boetticher kick, and haven't caught one yet that I didn't adore. Expect some more appreciations in the future.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say this, but it was Billy Jack (Skip Homeier) who gave the line about not having shot a woman before, not Chink (Henry Silva.)

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say this, but I was wrong about who said "I never shot me a woman....." Apologies.

Sean Gill said...

Anon,

With your first comment, I was worried that perhaps I was wrong; so I'm happy to see that Henry Silva remains every bit the utter madman that I initially took him for!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyable, with modest charm, incredibly clumsy
in numerous ways, richard boone is always fun but maureen o'sullivan as an old maid ...?
Classic, ok, a masterpiece ... not by a long shot.

Anonymous said...

The female should have been excluded from the film. I enjoyed "Tall T" as the homosexual masterpiece that it is, the budding, tender love of 2 men between Randolph Scott and Richard Boone...and then this hysterical vagina ruined every scene! I hated the final shoot-out, too. Why couldn't Randy and Dick just ride along into the sunset together? They were such a perfect couple!

Sean Gill said...

Anon.,

Ha! Very nice. Always plenty of complex homoeroticism in a Randolph Scott picture.