Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Tall T (1957)


Budd Boetticher's cinema is unlike most other filmmakers' who travailed against the severity of the western genre's singularly stark mien. Boetticher's westerns were different from any other man's. Less sentimental than John Ford's markedly more familial focus, quirkier and a little less obsessed with the nature of man's violence like Anthony Mann, Boetticher looks at the western as the ideal genre in which to comment on the archetypes that populate it, with critical respect. The Man From the Alamo, starring Glenn Ford, was a picture in which a good man is publicly tarred as a coward—the most abominable bete noire of Boetticher's canon, easily surpassing in moral wretchedness the often complexly-rendered “villains”—receiving ample vituperation from almost everyone he encountered. And yet, Ford's “strong, silent” hero found a communal bond of sorts with people already consigned to the unenviable position of being societal outcasts: women, “cripples,” and the elderly and, albeit very fleetingly, the outlaws with whom he finds temporary shelter and sanctuary. In Seven Men From Now, Boetticher's famed revenge saga, the template from which Boetticher and screenwriter partner Burt Kennedy (who wrote Seven Men From Now and adapted Elmore Leonard's story for The Tall T) would draw the four primary characters: The Hero (in each case played to stoic but ardent perfection by Randolph Scott), The Lady (Gail Russel in Seven Men From Now, Maureen O'Sullivan in The Tall T), The Bad Man (a truly vicious Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now, an empathetically humorous and lonely Richard Boone in The Tall T) and the husband of The Lady, in each case for the story's purposes, The Coward (Walter Reed in Seven Men From Now, John Hubbard in The Tall T).

Seven Men From Now's tone was far more unremittingly dark—with Scott's character personally avenging a horrible wrong—than The Tall T. The latter film is in some ways just as forward-looking as it is inspired by the previous Boetticher-Scott collaboration—The Tall T somewhat looks ahead to Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, with their more emphatic visualizations of the protagonist making a definite connection to a woman he is charged with protecting. The Tall T's shifting tonality befits the film, which strikes sublimely even-handed treatments of its own themes, settings, characters and conflicts. These attributes enhance The Tall T, and make it the most watchable, easily revisited western Boetticher and Scott made together. The film is simply a seventy-eight-minute epos of prodigious made up of empyreal components, apropros to the cerulean blue sky that often serves as the top framing apparatus for veteran cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr.'s striking Technicolor compositions.

The first major stretch of the film is leisurely paced and amusingly humorous for the most part, etching a jocular personality in the form of Scott's Pat Brennan. Pat is laconic, but unlike most other Boetticher-Scott heroic characters, he is not haunted by an unspeakable trauma to his very soul. (This is, again, especially true of Seven Men From Now and Ride Lonesome.) In The Tall T, Scott's character, Pat, is a genial man and the film tweaks the image of the western hero as an unexpectedly gelastic personality. Indeed, Pat's very predicament hinges on a comedic premise: he loses his horse in a bet, which hurtles him into the unforeseeable torment that awaits when, after having hitched a ride with a stagecoach carrying newlyweds, Willard and Doretta Mims (The Coward and The Lady played by Hubbard and O'Sullivan respectively), the stagecoach travelers are held up and taken captive by a trio of outlaws. This gives The Tall T a peculiarly puissant portraiture of predetermination that in a thematically scrupulous way gifts this most efficiently crafted western thriller with a protruding tint of elemental doom.

As the narrative significantly expands with the introduction of Boone's complicated outlaw, Frank, and his two simpleminded partners, the icily callous killer Chink (Henry Silva) and dimly foolish perpetual adolescent Billy Jack (Skip Homeier), Boetticher pushes the corresponding tension to increasingly steep heights. Boetticher and Lawton, Jr. make the more easygoing first third of the film pay off handsomely, as it allows them to compellingly augment the story's subsequent tautness without merely resorting to numbing action that would undermine the psychological richness of the scenario and go against Boetticher's more low-key techniques. Rather, Boetticher visually transmits the symbiotic pertinence that defines the characters' relationship with one another by framing them in diametrically opposing configurations. Thus, the valance of Lawton, Jr.'s cinematography comments on the exteriority the outdoor setting and the characters' gulf-like separations from one another. Lawton, Jr.'s fluidity balances Boetticher's painterly shapeliness—the director's seemingly preternatural talent for appropriating the 1950s Technicolor widescreen for immaculately daedal multi-figured compositions is enhanced by the photographer's nimble usage of light, shadow and framing. The picture's cognitively vital mise-en-scene describes the “arc” of the characters: as the small gang of outlaws begin turning on one another, slowly, but surely, Boetticher captures at them in separated, isolated and lonely one-person shots. Lawton, Jr.'s camera is steadied, but ever slightly erratic, as though it has been unnerved by what it has witnessed. The atmosphere conjured is fearlessly independent of any other western, Boetticher-authored or otherwise: in The Tall T, the genre specialist grips the harness and boils the artistic classification to its essence: a solitary figure is held captive by those inferior to he in all of the areas that matter most to Boetticher—morally, mindfully and masculinely—as he confronts the fraudulence at the heart of the relationship between the meek coward and self-deluded woman.

Displaying a nuanced and layered appreciation for the three main characters—Scott's Hero, Boone's Bad Man and O'Sullivan's Lady—Boetticher most assuredly plums the depths of each. Perhaps some can quibble about the unevenly shallow application of Hubbard's Coward, Willard, and Frank's two underlings. Having offered Reed's Coward a chance for redemption in Seven Men From Now, Boetticher is in many ways more merciless here, finding practically nothing worth celebrating in Willard Mims, whose craven deceitfulness actually make him the most protrusive “villain” of the film. And that is because Boone's Frank is rewardingly complicated and challenging. Boetticher and screenwriter Kennedy bathe Boone's Frank in a sensitivity that exceeds the normal-for-late-'50s-westerns trait of endowing the baddie with considerable complexity and charm. Frank is in actuality a sad, lonely figure in his own right—he is neither ruthless nor dumb like his confederates and he longs for meaningful companionship, seeing a possibility of such in the flustered Doretta—and he loathes her newlywed husband, Willard, for his timorousness and greed. As solid and perfectly at ease with himself as Scott is, it is Boone who shines the most brightly, partly due to the marvelous depth of the role.

One scene describes the duel between thespians—which is so friendly in reality that the off-screen relationship beautifully bleeds into the performances, enriching the irony of Frank's better qualities against Scott's more straightforwardly über-noble masculinity—as well as the legerdemain employed by Boetticher to release some of the tension through the tested valve of humor. Scott's Pat hits his head on a stoop at a moment that seemed to be escalating in tension; Scott hits his mark flawlessly, giving the scene the properly defusing impact, but it is Boone the viewer follows most tirelessly, as he laughs in uncontrollable hysteria. Boetticher's musical partner, composer Heinz Roemheld, orchestrally aggrandizes the scene's waxing tension before snappily giving way to Boone's rollicking chortles. This scene serves as a microcosm for the entire film; scenes like this acknowledge the early stretch of the film, which was lightly funny. In Boetticher films, the über-masculine hero, usually played by Scott, is vulnerably kindhearted behind the slightly coarse exterior; here, he is the recurring source of laughter—from the Bad Man and the viewer alike. Just as Boetticher's geographical mastery finds points with which to complement itself and its visually intoxicating and crisply abstract sinew, the film's tonal inconsistencies enable the film's hilly rhythm to completely blossom. This also gives Boetticher enough laxness with which to create an all the more extraordinarily intense, vicious and bluntly graphic denouement. More seriously considered than this welcome comic relief, however, are the intelligently quiet conversational scenes between the two. A fine moment to consider is Frank telling Pat that he wishes he were in better company, and that Chink and Billy Jack are no better than animals—they cannot help who and what they are. Pat's reaction speaks volumes, as he measures up the somewhat serpentine abductor: he listens, but he knows that Frank's words are just so much self-apologia and self-excusing. As Frank says he honestly wishes for a life similar to Pat's, Boetticher's message crystallizes. Frank could have Pat's life, if he shared Pat's ethical code. Without it, he may know exactly how unlawful and base his actions are, but he is in a particular way all the worse for it, continually dogged by a conscience he has mostly disabled, left to lazily leap for what he should be ingenuously striving to achieve. These extraordinarily well-barracked dramatic rudiments make The Tall T more fecund than many movies twice this picture's length.

21 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

I have seen a few Bottichers, but not this one, oddly. But I do have the new DVD set of his films, (as does Allan), which is rather a godsend. You did a very fine job with this particular film of framing the narrative in the wider picture of Bottticher's concept of the western as "the ideal genre in which to comment onj the archetypes that populate it." It is certainly the most definitive an dexhaustive review of this film that anyone will find anywhere.

Now THAT'S definitive.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam. I hope you enjoy this film whenever you have an opportunity to give it a look.

ben said...

I just saw this one a few weeks ago! I loved it and your review highlights many of the key factors to understanding what makes this a must-see western masterpiece. IMHO.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Ben, for the very kind comment. It's a terrific film.

mc said...

A Fine review of a fine western classic. Randolph Scott is his usual great, solid self. Richard Boone steals the show as the rightly celebrated complicated villain. I've always thought Maureen O'Sullivan was very convincing in this picture as the 'self-deluded newlywed wife,' as you say. Terrific review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the very kind comments, mc.

Sam Juliano said...

Although I still have not seen this film (odd for sure, since it's probably the one that should be seen first)but I did see DECISION AT SUNDOWN and RIDE LONESOME, which mirror some of the observations in this all-encompassing essay. i quite agree that Boetticher is "less sentimental than "John Ford's markedly more familial focus: quirkier and less obsessed with the nature of man's violence (Anthony Mann).
I liked the comment on the 'archetypes and those who populate it' as well as the explanation of The hero--The Lady--The Bad Man and The Coward.
And it is definitive in that it is "the most watchable, easily revisited western Boetticher and Scott ever made."

And I like this:

"TALL T's shifting tonality befits the film, which strikes sublimely even-handed treatments of its own themes, settings, characters and conflicts."

Likewise, had I seen the film I surely would have embraced Charles Lawton Jr.'s 'striking technicolor compositions" and that exhaustive exploration of the characters which dominated two lengthy paragraphs near the conclusion of this extraordinary essay.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the comments, Sam, and the very kind words. Now go see this one! :)

Maria said...

Wow you write alot. I haven't read any reviews except The Reader but I see you have a huge archive. And your so cute. You look like a cross between a NFL linebacker and Jon Voight in Coming Home. :=)

Alexander Coleman said...

Hi, Maria! Great to see you here, even though you have chosen to embarrass me. Ugh, I don't do "cute" well! :)

Laura said...

Ooh he's cute?

I've never seen this one but after reading your piece I definitely wanna see this real soon.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Laura, I hope you see it soon.

Maria said...

But you ARE cute. :)

Alexander Coleman said...

Grr.

Anonymous said...

This review is genius. Awesome job!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the kind remark, Anonymous.

tim watts said...

Never seen this one! But I read your review last night and its very brilliant. Love Randolph Scott.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you kindly, Tim. I hope you enjoy this whenever you have an opportunity to see it.

TonyE said...

This is one of the very best westerns a man (or woman) could wish for. I shan't try to equal or surpass the learned discourse of your review. What I noted about this magnificent movie- apart from the many valid points you make- was the depiction of teenage, juvenile depravity and nihilism presented by rhe characterisations of Chink and Billy Jack. Chink looks like someone who can't quite work out whether he's Marlon Brando in Wild One or pre army Elvis. He slurs his words and peers at the world through half closed hostile eyes.
His violence is both gratuitous and meaningless- it's "kicks". He appears as the ultimate 50's parent's teenage nightmare. Billy Jack is the emotionally immature, damaged half-wit. Watch how his eyes constantly seek to devour Sullivan. You expect him to spit before kissing her while roughly holding her down. Wondeful stuff. Glad to find folks who enjoy these filmas as much as myself.

Alexander Coleman said...

TonyE, thank you so very much for that thoroughly remarkable comment! I'm happy to see you here and I hope to see more of you.

Yes, all of those moments and characterizations help to make for an exceptionally wrought motion picture. The Tall T is a wonderful, sublime film, and it has that tremendous rawness about which you write in your comment that seems altogether different from any other western. Boetticher was a master of his craft, of that there is no question.

I love your descriptions of Chink and Billy Jack. Spot-on in every way. The performances are very memorable. Billy Jack does look like he will devour Sullivan at any time, as you note. A harrowing film.

Rodney said...

Thank you for your article, really helpful material.
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