Directed by Budd Boetticher
Produced by Harry Joe Brown
Screen play by Burt Kennedy
Based on a story by Elmore Leonard
Director Of Photography: Charles Lawton, Jr., ASC
Music composed and conducted by Heinz Roemheld
Film Editor: Al Clark, ACE
Cast: Randolph Scott (Pat Brennan), Richard Boone (Frank Usher), Maureen O’Sullivan (Doretta Mims), Arthur Hunnicutt (Ed Rintoon), Skip Homeier (Billy Jack), Henry Silva (Chink), John Hubbard (Willard Mims), Robert Burton (Tenvoorde), Fred E. Sherman (Hank Parker), Chris Olsen (Jeff).
This is part of The Blogathon For Randolph Scott. It contains spoilers. This is purely because most of Toby’s regulars will already have seen this film.
The premise of The Tall T is pretty basic. A trio of stagecoach robbers discover the stage they intend to rob is carrying the daughter of a wealthy copper mine owner; they decide to go for a ransom demand instead. Above anything else, however, a central theme of the film is isolation and indeed loneliness. The central character Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) lives a solitary existence. He has a small spread, but at this time cannot afford any hired help. He lives alone in a remote place.
Visiting his friends at a stagecoach relay station father (Fred Sherman) and son (Chris Olsen) are also isolated. The wife/mother has passed on. The young boy has never visited a town — he is full of wonder about what such a place is like. In a very touching moment, the boy gives Scott the few pennies he has saved so Scott can bring him back some cherry stripe candy. Scott takes the boy’s money, not out of meanness but because he knows this is a big deal for the child — he’s actually able to buy something from town. Ironically, this is a town that he will never live to visit one day.
After a leisurely 20 minutes or so with a more smiley than usual Scott, things take a darker turn. Mrs. Mimms (Maureen O’Sullivan), we discover, only married her weakling (and we later find out, cowardly) husband out of loneliness.
Boetticher and Burt Kennedy knew that the films they were making were generally classed as B Movies. They also knew that they could get a lot more past the censor because of this.
With the O’Sullivan character, we get none of the innuendo directed at Gail Russell in Seven Men From Now (1956). Furthermore, there are none of the more explicit references that were directed at Karen Steel in Ride Lonesome (1959) and Nancy Gates in Comanche Station (1960). Instead, we get lines like “she’s as plain as an adobe wall.” A deglamorized O’Sullivan has the dowdy clothes to match her character. Despite all of this we are left in no doubt that Scott and O’Sullivan will be a “couple” at the end of the picture. This becomes obvious in their first scene alone together.
When the bad guy trio (Richard Boone, Henry Silva, Skip Homeier) things get really dark. After gunning down Scott’s pal (Arthur Hunnicutt), we learn that they have murdered the father and the child. Their bodies have been dumped down a well, before Scott’s return to the way station. They’ve committed that most heinous of crimes – child murder! The audience then realises that as this is a Randolph Scott picture; there is no way this trio will be alive at the end of the film. Furthermore, as this is a Boetticher picture, the trio’s deaths will be presented with as much graphic violence as the censor at that time will allow.
Most filmmakers, certainly from the Spaghetti era onwards, would have presented the Boone-Silva-Homier characters as leering repellent scum. That’s the easy option. Boetticher and Kennedy have no interest in easy options.
Boone’s Frank Usher, we discover, is quite intelligent, he would like to have become what Scott actually is. He could have become what Scott is had he not chosen a life of crime. He actually likes Scott, he at last has found someone he can hold a conversation with. Boone, too, is isolated, saddled with two cohorts that he has nothing in common with whatsoever.
Silva, we learn, killed his first man at age 12: his own father, who was beating his mother with a tequila bottle. He goes by the derogatory nickname “Chink,” obviously a reference to Silva’s Oriental facial features. (Interestingly, Silva was cast as Mr. Moto when Lippert tried to revive the series in the mid-Sixties.) Homeier’s Billy Jack is a rather dumb, child-like character. Note the way he grabs the child’s candy from Scott, to Boone’s obvious annoyance. Silva likes to brag of his many encounters with women to the far more naive Homier. Amusingly, he details how his amorous encounters were curtailed one time because he pulled a leg muscle. Burt Kennedy used this situation again in his later Return Of The Seven (1966). All of Silva’s bragging leaves Boone totally cold and disinterested.
Despite the grim subject matter Boetticher and Kennedy mine the material for dark humour. This is best shown in the scene where Silva waits for the command to kill O’Sullivan’s weak husband (Hubbard). Silva’s facial expressions and body language convey a great sense of frustration and anticipation. Finally, as Hubbard is almost out of shot, Boone utters the command, “Bust him Chink,” a great line from a great scene.
There are tender moments too, especially when Boone takes coffee into a still-sleeping O’Sullivan. He gently covers her with a blanket, it’s a scene of a longing for a domestic existence that Boone has never had, and now never will.
In the prelude to the graphically brutal climax, Boone with his back to Scott, attempts to ride away. He knows Scott will not be able to shoot him in the back.
“Don’t do it, Frank,” pleads Scott; the fact he uses his first name (the only time in the film) emphasises the bond that has developed between the two men.
The four Boetticher-Kennedy-Scott Westerns are among the finest ever made — and now rightly considered true classics. Furthermore, I would state that the Boetticher-Kennedy partnership is the greatest writer/director partnership in the history of the Western.
Boetticher wanted Richard Boone to play Frank Usher from the word go. “I announced to the studio I’d like to cast Richard Boone. It surprised me when Harry Joe and others didn’t exactly agree with me.”
They seriously doubted Mr. Boone had a sense of humour. Boetticher was unable to meet with Boone, as Boone’s wife was undergoing medical tests at the time. Later, on the telephone, Boetticher explained to Boone: “I had a problem with Columbia’s top executives who were of the opinion that he had no sense of humour. There was a moment’s silence then Boone’s wonderful voice said, ‘Well, Budd, you’ve got to admit those heart operations are pretty fuckin’ funny.’ He got the job! My biggest kick was that not one executive remembered not wanting Boone in the picture because he was absolutely marvelous.”
The fact that the Boetticher-Kennedy-Scott pictures were very much collaborative efforts is explained in the oft-told tale regarding the filming of Ride Lonesome. During the filming of Ride Lonesome, we were having dinner when Randy looked up from his steak. “Hey you two, what’s the name of the skinny young fella in the red underwear I played that scene with today?”
“Coburn’s his name,” Burt answered. “James Coburn.”
“Good! He’s all right. So why don’t you two dream up some new lyrics for that boy? I like his style!”
Scott, Boetticher explained, was like that with everyone who deserved it!
John Knight is “a ‘Muswell Hillbilly’ by birth, now retired and living on the Isle Of Wight. A lifelong film fanatic, my ‘education’ on film was mainly gained in the fleapits of London and many visits to the National Film Theatre on London’s Southbank.” For Chris Wicking and Colin McGuigan: mentors past and present.