The Tall T (1957) dir. Budd Boetticher
Starring: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, John Hubbard
One of the most influential actor/director collaborations in the history of film are the films of Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher. In the late 1950’s the duo made a number of Westerns which would influence filmmakers from the French New Wave to Martin Scorsese. Admittedly I wasn’t aware of this significance until Sony released its reverent Boetticher Box Set. The first film in this series is “The Tall T”.
Randolph Scott plays Brennan, a typical western genre protagonist – an unattached aged journeyman labourer who specializes in cattle rangling. After years traveling the countryside doing other people’s work, he’s finally bought his ranch and is ready to settle down.
While hitching a ride to his ranch with a pair of upper class newlyweds, their wagon is ambushed a trio of thieves. The cowardly passenger Willard makes a deal with the wily leader of the bunch Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and offers the men a ransom to be paid by his rich father-in-law. This buys Brennan and Willard’s wife Doretta enough time to stage a coup before they become Usher’s next victims.
“The Tall T” exemplifies the aesthetic and allure of the Boetticher/Scott pictures. Boetticher strips down the genre to its bare essentials of character and theme. Boetticher puts his characters in the arena reserved for low budget filmmakers – minimal actors, in a confined space where character conflict and dialogue move the story forward.
In the “The Tall T” characters are not so much confined as 'isolated'. And for two thirds of the film it’s the relationship Brennan and his foe Frank Usher which drives the story. The film was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, coincidentally made the same year as his original “3:10 to Yuma”. Like “Yuma”, Boetticher establishes a charismatic bad guy – not a prototypical gunslinger, dressed in black, killing without reason. Boetticher takes time to get to know Usher and although we never sympathize with him, we admire him. Richard Boone’s characterization reminded me of Alan Rickman’s nuanced and admirable Hans Gruber in “Die Hard”.
Without showing off Boetticher creates a slow burning, quiet but palpable tension. Look closely and you can see the influence of Boetticher’s framing, pacing and editing in Sergio Leone’s stylish westerns. Watch the introduction of the trio of hombres at the train station. As Brennan’s coach approaches, Usher and his men slowly emerge from the shadows. Boetticher’s high angle wideshot is uncannily reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s arrival in the opening of “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
The new Sony Box Set features a comprehensive feature length documentary on the life and career of Budd Boetticher. Since Leone is dead, we can only imply his influence, but heavy-hitters such as Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Taylor Hackford all pay humble reverence to the man Boetticher. Enjoy.
“The Tall T” and the Budd Boetticher Collection are available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment