Posted by: dougery | March 13, 2012

My Year of Westerns, Part Five: The Tall T (1957)

The Tall T, the shortest western I’ve seen yet, is also one of the finest. Economical is one of those writing buzzwords that gets thrown around a lot, usually in a very imprecise manner. Sometimes it is meant as a kind of Hemingway-est strength in terseness and directness with all the flowery metaphors of more floral prose tilled under or omitted.

An economical western is something of anomaly. To be fair, many western protagonists feature tight-lipped heroes and anti-heroes who say little with their mouths and make do with their guns. Normally the responsibility of verboseness falls to the villains–a bigger tell than a black hat by far. The more a man runs his mouth the less he should be trusted is a fairly accurate piece of western short-hand character development. Yet economy describes more than dialogue, and the epic nature of western themes, from the expansion of civilization to the exploration of notoriously thorny topics like justice and honor, appears antithetical to brevity.

Thus the endless shots of cattle being driven in Red River and the sustained and repetitive quality to the violence in the Wild Bunch.

The Tall T is a different animal, in part because of its budget. Call it an indie western. There are probably some scenes in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma that cost more to shoot than the entirety of this film. There are few characters in the cast, even less who appear on screen for any substantial amount of time. The plot couldn’t be simpler: A man is having a bad day. Through a series of losses and humiliations he finds himself held captive by some men of dubious morals. If he and his fellow captive don’t do anything about it, they will die.

The Tall T manages to burrow into the epic-ness of westerns and hollow out one hell of a dry socket of rot. The result is the film feels far bigger than its 78 minutes. Perhaps that is where the enigmatic ‘tall’ in the title comes from.

The tonal progression of the plot is relentless yet subtle. Randolph Scott is continuously smiling throughout the first third of the film as Pat Brennan, the man just can’t be beaten down no matter how many folks question his life’s worth, his plans for the future, his personal preferences, his aging physical skills. He’s on his own, this point is made over and over again and is of central importance to the philosophy at work here. If our hero has a flaw at the film’s outset its his stubborn refusal to be a part of a community. And perhaps he’s right, at least at first, since two of his first few encounters leave him stripped of his horse and held up at gunpoint. But before we reach the latter, all of Brennan’s losses are smiled off. He is laughed at but laughs along at his misfortune. Maybe because as lazy or greedy or disreputable as the men he trades with are, they aren’t truly villains.

Villains kill children and station managers and drop their corpses into wells. They ransom the daughters of rich merchants, in this case Doretta Mims, a newlywed. They stick up stagecoaches. They rape and doublecross. The trio of Billy Jack, Chink (that name, yikes) and Frank Usher are such men, and the drama of the film, the rising tension that fills the latter half of the plot is a direct result of their malevolence. Suddenly Pat Brennan isn’t smiling anymore. But neither is he afraid. He strikes an odd friendship or at least awkward coexistence with Frank, who can respect a man even if he plans on killing him once he’s no longer useful. In contrast, Willard Mims, the new husband of the woman who is held captive alongside Brennan actually plants the idea of ransom in Frank’s head. As despicable as the outlaws and killers are, the man who would sell out his own wife to save his own skin is quite possibly worse.

There is an extremely powerful moment of moral complexity where Brennan, held alone inside a remote shack with just Doretta, his fear, frustration and rising anger at his captives, his own weaknesses, pride and conduct, with full knowledge of Willard’s character to have run off and left his wife behind, grabs Doretta and says something to the effect of ‘there comes a point where a man has to take what’s rightfully his’ before they kiss. Brennan is simultaneously hardened and activated by his circumstances, becomes a man capable of killing and finally capable of letting someone into his private life. Its a wonderfully complex transition, an insanely rich moment of character development, and one of the best cinematic sequences I’ve watched in recent memory.

The rest of film ain’t bad either.

Grade: 9-High Straight Flush

Up next: Posse (1993)

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Responses

  1. A good analysis. I can never really make up my mind as to which is the better Boetticher/Scott movie. It’s a constant toss up between The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Seven Men from Now, with Comanche Station not far behind. I think sparse is a better word than economical to describe these little gems though.


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