Shot in a mere twelve days, The Tall T is one of the most remarkable westerns in a decade that unquestionably belonged to the western genre. Burt Kennedy scripted a pure, taut, and crisp script from an Elmore Leonard short story.The Tall T is an actor’s film. The first surprise lies in Maureen O’Sullivan’s performance as homely, whimpering Doretta Mims; a performance that can almost be seen as a bookend to her far different, equally superb performance as the independent, strong-willed, sensual Jane of Tarzan and his Mate (1934). Here, she is the newly married, timid wife of unsympathetic louse John Hubbard. By film’s end she emerges from self-pity’s well, dress coming off shoulder, hair loosed down and radiating a fire akin to Prometheus unbound as she is pressed up against the pure, granite-hard, phallic form of Randolph Scott.
Scott’s character is one of his most interesting and fully developed in the Boetticher cannon. The film opens with Scott visiting friends at the Way Station. Upon Scott’s departure, the young , amiable, grandson of the station manager gives the laconic cowboy a penny for some rock hard candy from the town store. Naturally, the good-natured Scott promises to do so. However, on the way back to the station, Scott, more animated than normal, loses his horse in a bet in a scene evoking archetypal good old boy western humor. The calm before the proverbial storm.
Taking a stagecoach on the way back to the station, Scott has a bit of camaraderie with old buddy and stagecoach driver Arthur Hunnicutt (a character favorite in dozens of westerns, he typified the grizzled sidekick) who is transporting newlyweds O’ Sullivan and her louse husband;,John Hubbard (surprisingly, a standard stock coward, nowhere near as developed as Walter Reed’s similar character in Seven Men From Now ).
Waiting at the Way are three villains in the form of Richard Boone, Skip Homeier and Henry Silva, plotting mayhem. After the trio kills Hunnicutt, Scott discovers they have butchered the grandfather and grandson,disposing of them in the well. The killings, wisely, are never seen and the interplay of dialogue between Scott and Silva is deftly handled, seething in angst; ” And where is the boy?”, ‘In the well!”.
Hubbard is disposed of after displaying an all too eager willingness to ransom off his wife. There is honor even among the likes of these. Boone’s character, fully capable of committing vicious, cold blooded murder, begins to seep through the mask and facade, revealing a character that Scott empathizes with. Boone is tired of his two young comrades, and, likewise, he identifies with and admires Scott, despite the knowledge that he will have to kill both him and the woman.
The sexual tension between O’ Sullivan and Scott inexorably builds as they are forced to sleep together while planning their survival. Scott does not want to kill Boone, but stoically acknowledges what is certainly forthcoming. Even henchmen Homeier and Silva reveal added, fascinating dimensions to their characterizations. Their desperate dreams and goals are revealed, only to be reminded later that they killed an innocent old man, a young boy and they plan to kill again.
The Tall T , like Seven Men From Now, consistently surprises and magnetically draws the viewer into these characters and it’s compellingly rich bleakness, so much so that the finale, as inevitable as it is, evokes true, emotionally heightened dread.
The Tall T is sculpted by the hands of a master craftsman.
Next week; Ride Lonesome.