The Tall T
More of the same, but also very different. The Tall T
performs one of the most ruthlessly efficient cinematic bait and switches I know of, with a major tonal shift about half an hour in.
The film begins with a different, far more garrulous and less masterful Randolph Scott. Again, he’s a loner, but this time it’s by choice, and he retains an easy sociability with the folks he used to hang out with – the station master and his son, Rintoon, even his former employer. This stage of the film pushes folksy almost to the point of parody, with the alarmingly perky young lad of the opening scenes lingering as a presence through the incongruous cherry candy Brennan has to carry throughout his modest travails.
Arthur Hunnicutt's Rintoon is permitted to chew all available scenery in another discursive scene, and the first twenty minutes is filled with all manner of potential plot developments – the awkward newlyweds, Brennan’s bull-quest and rash gamble, the candy errand, the travelling to and fro.
Then something weird happens. The comic antics at the ranch end on a sour note and we end up with the very rare and disturbing sight for a western of a cowboy without his horse, saddle on his shoulder. At this point the film goes into the desert and never comes back. Within a few minutes the film will be hijacked and go from an amiably folksy, comic and discursive ‘light’ western to a deadly serious, single-minded, minimalist ‘dark’ one.
All of the optimistic possibilities that were raised in the first section of the film are dashed and the film is brutally reduced to two sets (which are played up with the economy and intensity of a great stage drama – look at the multiple uses and symbolic significance Boetticher and Kennedy get out of the tumbledown shack and the well) and six characters – three on each side, though that will change.
Now, finally, the film gets into Seven Men from Now
territory, with the same dramatization of the tension between talking and not talking, the same austere and eloquent mise-en-scene, the same amplification of small movements. What gives the film its abrupt change of tone and increase in intensity is that suddenly a new, overwhelming motivation is introduced for the protagonists. Before they had aims (enjoy your honeymoon, enjoy your fortune, buy a bull, deliver some candy) and destinations (Bisby, the station, the ranch); now they’re only concerned with survival.
And The Tall T
is unusual for just how seriously it takes the threat to life (which I suppose is where domino saw the similarity to Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker
, but I’ll let him speak to that). It’s hardly unusual for the threat of violence and death to be the motor for suspense – just look at any Hitchcock film – but the violence and the threat is rarely so present. The deaths are truly appalling (even – especially? – when they’re off-screen) and violence is sickening even when it’s directed at the villains
(one gets shot in the face at point-blank range; another has his corpse dragged through the dirt for the completely practical reason that the body needs to be transported; Frank is blasted with buckshot in the eyes).
But in no case are these deaths presented as ‘cool’ or ‘badass’ or whatever dumb formulation kids today might crave. Brennan’s strategies are basic and desperate but sound, and he factors Mrs Mims into those strategies not out of some Hawksian cross-gender comradeship, but out of stark necessity: using her is the only way they both (but also, the filmmakers won’t let us forget, he alone) can survive. There’s no sentimentality whatsoever in the ‘dark and dry’ part of the film (even its single kiss is breathtakingly to-the-point, something that was heartily approved of by the two women with whom I watched the film), and it makes pointed, ironic use of the conventions of fair play – the ‘western code’ – in its final minutes.
I actually find it refreshing that this film gives extreme violence the same weight it has for most people: it’s not an everyday occurrence or fact of life, and when it intrudes, everything changes drastically.
The minimalism of the post-hijack part of the film practically defines the received notion of the Boetticher / Scott westerns, and it’s quite extraordinary, both in the ways it is realized and in the contrast it offers with the first act. The two ‘sets’ – the station and the hideout – are very clearly defined, with the latter even having a clear demarcation for ‘off-stage’ space – the cleft in the rocks through which characters disappear and reappear, or where they meet their fate in long shot. At the centre of the stage is a rude structure within or in front of which all the meaningful interactions take place – basic stagecraft going back centuries. That ramshackle structure is key to the staging of the three villains’ deaths, and it’s used in different ways for each one.
In general, Boetticher is even more resourceful with his landscapes this time around, and they’re very striking indeed – all rocks, which reinforces the stark minimalism of the action – and his mise en scene also seems to have matured and attained a wiry potency. From time to time he makes strong use of asymmetry (or apparent asymmetry – as when the characters are receding on the right hand side of the frame while the left is filled with the brooding well) and striking silhouettes (e.g. Brennan standing atop the wagon), along with the foreground / background tension he employed so effectively in Seven Men from Now
(e.g. Brennan skinning the deer, framing the entrance to the shack).
So apart from dramatic tension – and plenty of it – what do Boetticher and Kennedy use to fill the space created by everything they’ve stripped out of the film? Character. These characters are beautifully written and beautifully played, with Richard Boone’s Frank being on my short list for the greatest film villain of all time.
As with Lee Marvin in Seven Men
, Boone is so interesting because he’s a complex and somewhat likeable character, without – and here’s the trick – losing any of his nastiness and threat. It’s not as simple as being ‘the man you love to hate’, or ‘the charming rogue’: Frank’s appeal is that he’s smart, feels revulsion at his men (as do we), and is somewhat neurotic. You could claim he has a kind of man-crush on Brennan, but this seems to me more a factor of being starved for adult male company. The only glimmer of humour in the second half of the film is a brilliantly dumb conversation between Billy and Chink about what they did or didn’t get up to in Sonora that perfectly encapsulates just what Frank finds so exasperating and stultifying about their company.
The character of Frank is pretty well-written, but Boone adds so many memorable colours and shades. I mentioned his amazingly articulate hands before, used for ordering his goons around in semaphore, gesturing with his gun, or batting projectiles away, but he also gives so many brilliant inflections to the dialogue. Just look at the way he says “sure” twice to the departing Mims, then turns like a rattlesnake on the follow-up line to Chink.
Boone’s exchanges with Scott are great examples of screen acting, with the tension and threat amplifying every pause and shift of tone. If you want to see just how much a great actor can wring out of the simplest exchange, look no further than when Frank asks Brennan: “You scared?” and Scott packs a ton of meaning into his one-and-a-half syllable response: “Ye-ah.”
Maureen O’Sullivan does a great job in the thankless but increasingly complex role of Mrs Doretta “Plain as an Adobe Wall” Mims. Again, she’s interesting because she’s smart – smart enough to be able to analyse her own complicated feelings about her husband and smart and resourceful enough to assist Brennan in his strategy for survival. Her life might have been defined by men up to this point, but she’s self-aware enough that this fact rankles.
Even the figures in the film closest to stock characters are given unexpected depth. Mims, after all, is simply doing exactly the same thing as Brennan – trying desperately to survive – it’s just that he’s not as smart about doing so. However, Mims self-serving cowardice is an integral part of the plan that allows Brennan to survive: without his ignoble blurt, none of the three would have lasted more than an hour. Even though Brennan despises what Mims did, he nevertheless takes advantage of it. Billy Jack gets very little to do, but his key actions are plausibly driven by youth and sexual insecurity, and Chink is a reasonably fleshed-out psychopath: a cold rather than crazed killer. Even though he's outmanoeuvred by Brennan, it’s not because he’s dumb or rash, it’s because, in this harsh landscape where everyone’s clawing for survival, being outnumbered really matters.