Directed by Budd Boetticher
The United States of America
The Tall T is a film that many will probably never see. It’s not because it isn’t a great film or a particularly rare one. The reason that many will probably never see it is because everything about it seems like a stereotypical Western. In a genre that has been milked as dry as the Western, some would argue even to the point that it is impossible to say anything new with it, few would probably want to take the time to watch such an unassuming film. It stars one of the great cowboys of the silver screen, Randolph Scott, in the lead role. But he doesn’t have the star power that actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Henry Fonda maintain to this day. To many, Scott’s image on the movie poster or DVD case for The Tall T probably wouldn’t seem any different than any other B-movie actor that inundated the Western genre. The story seems too familiar. Scott must save the damsel in distress being held for ransom from a gang of outlaws. How many times have we encountered that story? And finally, the name itself, The Tall T, doesn’t really do anything to grab a potential viewer’s imagination. It doesn’t have any nostalgic romanticism that titles like High Noon or Stagecoach. But perhaps all of these things are what makes The Tall T such a good film. It doesn’t insist upon itself. It knows the rules of the game and is content to play by them. By doing so, The Tall T transforms itself into one of the purest concentrations of Western cinema ever committed to celluloid.
It’s starts of simply enough. Pat Brennan (Randolph), a tough old cowboy, rides into a stagecoach way station to get some water for his journey into town. It’s obvious that he knows the station manager and his young son. The boy can hardly wait to see him and begs him to let him water his horse. Brennan and the station manager pass jokes good naturedly and the boy asks him to bring him some candy from town. The old cowpoke agrees. Despite his tough-as-leather exterior, he has a soft spot in his heart for the boy. He promises to bring him some on his way back.
After he gets into town, he loses his horse in a bet. Forced to return back to the station in foot, we get a comical scene of him walking down a desert road wearing the very saddle that he rode into town on. In fact, the entire film so far has a friendly tone, much like John Ford’s Stagecoach(1939) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). It’s clear that he would rather not wear the saddle, but he takes it in stride. Just another day as a cowboy…
Thankfully, he isn’t forced to walk the whole way back to the station. He is picked up by his friend Rintoon, a stagecoach driver, who was transporting newlyweds Willard and Doretta Mims. Willard initially refuses to let him on board, but Doretta convinces him to change his mind. As Brennan joins Rintoon at the front of the stage coach, he jokes that this would be the first time he’d been on a honeymoon.
But the jokes end as soon as they return to the station. They are held up by a band of thieves led by Frank Usher. One of them, a heartless killer named Chink, kills Rintoon. It turns out that they were trying to ambush another coach. Nevertheless, they get ready to kill Brennan and the Mims. It’s obvious that they mean business seeing as how they murdered the station manager and his son and threw their bodies down the same well that the boy had used to water Brennan’s horse.
But perhaps I am telling too much about the plot. The rest of the movie transpires in a predictable fashion. The husband cowardly offers his wife for a ransom, is killed after delivering their demands to her father, Brennan and Doretta fall in love, and they manage to outsmart and kill the three bandits. As I said, the plot is pretty standard Western fare. It’s how the director, Budd Boetticher, commands all the different elements of the story and characters together that makes The Tall T such a powerful film. In the incredible three part documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), Scorsese explains, “Budd Boetticher explored the bare essentials of the genre. His style was as simple as his impassive heroes; deceptively simple. The archetypes of the genre were distilled to the point of abstraction…The choreography of basic human passions was his forte. In the seven Westerns he made with Randolph Scott, Boetticher always gave precedence to character over action.”
To truly understand what Scorsese means, one need only to examine the most important relationship in the film. It is not the one between Brennan and Doretta, but between Usher and Brennan. Scorsese explains, “In the power play, the hero and the villain were complimentary figures. They shared the same loneliness, the same dreams, and the same ethical code. Somehow, the gentleman and the desperado were fascinated by each other.” The scene where they talk over a campfire about their hopes and aspirations brings to mind the famous coffee shop scene with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro from Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). Both men are obviously impressed by each other. They admire each others’ skills and abilities. Usher obviously respects Brennan more than his own trigger happy men. Brennan realizes that not only is Usher not a simple criminal, but he is someone who may have turned out like him if life hadn’t dealt him harder breaks. But they leave with the knowledge that they could not be partners or friends and that they will eventually have to destroy each other.
Under Boetticher’s direction, even simple cliché’s take on deeper meanings. One of the great unspoken rules of the West is that you never shoot a man in the back. As an undiluted Western, the characters comply with the rule. Well, at least Brennan does. While Chink is content to shoot Mr. Mims in the back when he flees back to town, Brennan warns him before shooting him so that he has a chance to turn around and fire back. This code is so important to Brennan and so intrinsic to his character that he even lets Usher go after killing his two men because it would mean shooting him as he fled. It was only after Usher returns for the ransom money that Brennan can kill him and ride into the sun with Doretta. Instead of merely pertaining to cinematic traditions, the act of not shooting Usher in the back proves the integrity of Brennan’s character.
While some Westerns play to the balconies with epic gun battles, over the top villains, and fantastic set pieces, The Tall T is content with remaining a simple film. It is a story of tough men and an even tougher environment. It is a story where the villains are as honorable as the heroes, at least in their own way. It is a story that has been told since the first cowboy drove his first herd of cattle. While it is an old story, The Tall T is one of its best incarnations. Where other Westerns would run ahead and burn out, The Tall T just keeps rolling on from one town to the next, happy to enjoy the scenery and wondering what is behind that sunset after all.