In the late 1950s the prolific duo of director Budd Boetticher and star Randolph Scott made a number of Westerns that would influence filmmakers from the French New Wave, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone and more. 'The Tall T', with its minimalist aesthetic, masterfully distills the Western genre down to its core as a claustrophobic actioner of the highest order.
The Tall T(1957) dir. Budd Boetticher
Starring: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, John Hubbard
By Alan Bacchus
Randolph Scott plays Brennan, a typical Western genre protagonist – an unattached, aged journeyman labourer who specializes in cattle wrangling. 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 by 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. He 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.
Here, characters are not so much confined as 'isolated'. And for two thirds of the film it’s the relationship between Brennan and his foe, Frank Usher, that 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 reminds us 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 wide shot is uncannily reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s arrival in the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West.
A Sony box set released a few years ago 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 Boetticher.