Monday, December 29, 2008
The Tall T
The Tall T is a crisp, economically made and structured Western, director Budd Boetticher's second collaboration with star Randolph Scott. It's a taut thriller for much of its short length, but Boetticher builds up to it slowly. The rambling, laidback introduction establishes Scott's Pat as a real good old boy with an easy smile and a gentle temperament, a former ranch hand who's only recently struck out on his own, buying a small piece of land and a few goats for himself. The Hollywood Western has such a long tradition of stoic, hard-edged heroes that it's almost shocking to see how cheery and charming Pat is, displaying his folksy good humor as he banters with his friends and engages in a bit of good-natured oneupsmanship with his former boss, a ranch owner who wishes he could get back his best employee. One expects a Walter Brennan type to be engaging in these kinds of games: the wizened old-timer sidekick, always quick to spit out a corny joke or stumble into a rough-and-ready physical gag. It's disarming to see the gangly, square-jawed Scott, with his craggy good looks and tough-guy build, putting himself on even ground with the sidekicks and bit players of the Western genre. This is perhaps one of Boetticher's characteristic touches: a few years earlier, the climax to The Man From the Alamo had gathered together all the usual castoffs of the Hollywood Western — women, cripples, and old-timers — to take center stage as heroes for a change. There's a similar logic at work in making Scott the butt of the joke as well as the traditional über-masculine hero.
Scott's predicament doesn't stay funny for long, though. The introduction is just long enough to give a sense of Pat as a quick-witted, easygoing guy who can't resist a challenge, and who nevertheless has a sense of obligation towards making his ranch work. He is proud to own something that's all his. After losing his horse in a bet — and getting all wet in the process — he hitches a ride on a stagecoach that's carrying the shameless gold-digger Willard Mims (John Hubbard) and his new bride Doretta (Maureen O'Sullivan), who he obviously married because her father owns the biggest copper mine in the area. This sets up a situation that should be familiar to anyone who saw the previous Boetticher/Scott collaboration, Seven Men From Now: the cowardly husband, the wife who deserves better, and Scott, who just happens to be providing a counter-example of proud, self-assured masculinity nearby. The film's igniting incident occurs when the stage is hijacked by a trio of thugs, who Mims quickly alerts to the fact that they have a potential ransom on their hands; he sells out his wife to save his own skin. It's a perfectly schematic Western plot, and one that's well-suited for Boetticher to explore the broad outlines of his typical concerns: the definitions of masculinity, cowardice, and bravery.
If that was all the film had to offer, it'd probably be enough: another well-made, reasonably exciting Western actioner from a director who made a long string of similar movies. But in fact, despite the relative simplicity of his plots and the broad strokes of his morality tales, Boetticher is at his best in the smaller touches, working around the edges of the story, infusing personality and an eccentric eye for nuance into these otherwise relatively standard stories of frontier violence. The humor in the film is surprising enough, and even more surprising is that it's not limited to the folksy introduction. At one point, Boetticher interrupts a taut standoff between Pat and the head outlaw Frank (Richard Boone) with a bit of slapstick that sends the villain into hysterics. The soundtrack, sparsely used throughout, here builds tension as though it's leading towards a dramatic break, then abruptly fizzles out into laughter instead.
The outlaws themselves are an interesting trio, particularly Frank, who is in many ways a sympathetic character. He's sick of the immaturity of his two much younger compatriots, the cold-eyed killer Chink (Henry Silva) and the dim-witted man-boy Billy Jack (Skip Homeier). In many ways, Frank keeps Pat around simply to have someone to talk to; Pat isn't really needed for the whole hostage and ransom plot, and Frank's henchmen would just as soon have killed him straight off. But Frank wants to hear about Pat's ranch — he has dreams of having his own place someday, too — and at one point orders his captive to talk at gunpoint. He's a man desperate for real companionship, a subtext that runs through the whole film and through several different characters, including the frontier stationmaster who Frank's gang kills earlier in the film. Pat himself is a lonely man, unmarried and working land that is not yet well-established enough to even have any other ranch hands. The film's most poignant thrust is the necessity of having someone to talk to in the midst of this forlorn, empty country, a terrain that Boetticher emphasizes with gorgeous wide shots of lone riders isolated in the midst of the rocky, expansive open country.
The film dispenses with its discourse on bravery and cowardice relatively quickly, particularly in comparison to Seven Men, where this remains the central dichotomy driving the story. The craven Mims is the film's least developed character, never rising above the level of caricature, and never getting the moment of redemption that Walter Reed's much more fleshed-out variation on the character earned in the earlier film. Boetticher's penchant for recycling basic plot structures can be misleading; in this film, he is far more interested in the relationship between the lead and the outlaws than he is in probing the contrast between the hero and the coward. This interest is reflected in the geometry of Boetticher's shots, the way he weighs Scott against the three bandits in the frame. There's an in-built tension and drama to the way Boetticher uses the widescreen frame, the way he balances figures against one another. They seem to be forming abstracted shapes together, their bodies standing at the corner points of invisible figures traced in space, the lines drawn by the aimed barrels of guns. When Pat learns that the outlaws have killed two of his friends, a stationmaster and his young son, the camera traces the path of Pat's gaze, towards the well where the bodies have been thrown and then back to the outlaws. Nothing is said, and Scott's stony face betrays little overt emotion, but the camerawork in the scene nevertheless conveys the impact this has on the hero.
What this is all leading to is the even more careful geometry of the film's climax, in which Pat faces down the outlaws one by one, culminating in a violent denouement that must have been downright startling at the time it was released, and which still maintains its bracing intensity. The Tall T is a Western masterpiece from Boetticher, a master of the genre who turns his pulpy, low-budget material into an epic morality play with potent, unforgettable imagery.