WALKING TALL (1973)
***/**** Image B- Sound C
starring Joe Don Baker, Noah Beery, Jr., Elizabeth Hartman, Rosemary Murphy
screenplay by Mort Briskin
directed by Phil Karlson
WALKING TALL PART 2 (1975)
*/**** Image B Sound C- Extras B
starring Bo Svenson, Richard Jaeckel, Bruce Glover, Robert Doqui
screenplay by Howard B. Kreitsek
directed by Earl Bellamy
FINAL CHAPTER WALKING TALL (1977)
***½/**** Image B- Sound C- Extras D
starring Bo Svenson, Margaret Blye, Forrest Tucker, Morgan Woodward
screenplay by Howard B. Kreitsek
directed by Jack Starrett
by Walter Chaw A hicksploitation flick that can hold its head up high among its blaxploitation contemporaries, Phil Karlson's combustible, if risible, Walking Tall features a moment where a small-town judge (Douglas Fowley) warns vigilante Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) to cut out his foolishness, and another where the hero's folksy grandpa Carl (Noah Beery, Jr.) declares that there's a "ragin' social disease" out there called "black equality." Yet the Pussers are the good guys, or should I say good ol' boys, and when I stumbled upon Walking Tall on late-night television as a kid, it instantly lodged itself against my red-white-and-blue heart. Watching the Coens' Raising Arizona and True Grit years later, I hear and see echoes of Walking Tall's high-dudgeon. Of course it's right there on the surface of Quentin Tarantino's films, too, and right there in any serious conversation about the transfiguration (metastasis?) of noir--Walking Tall is a remake, as Glenn Erickson aptly notes, of director Karlson's own tough-minded The Phenix City Story. More proximately, Walking Tall is the common-man's Straw Dogs. Both begin with the appearance of our hero in the middle of a rural environment, and both involve the eruption of the Natural through the thin scrim of civilization. All three films--Phenix, Walking Tall, and Straw Dogs--identify with a noir idea that the hero's morality, regardless of the laws of country and state, is the only, possibly last, light in the world.
There's something in the water in that early part of the '70s, what with the finest era in filmmaking coiling on the shoulders of Bonnie & Clyde and The Wild Bunch in the mainstream and here in the grindhouse as well. But for every handsomely-appointed The Godfather, there was a Walking Tall carving out a place with, given its massive box-office take, much of the same audience. The lines blurred. Watch as this variety of Southern-fried cornpone emerges in the middle-class as Deliverance (written by a poet, directed by a Brit), horror (The Exorcist), adult erotica (Last Tango in Paris), and vigilantism again (Dirty Harry, Death Wish)--each announcing that stepping into the moviehouse meant abandoning any agreement to blinders and safety nets. We've never lost our appetite for movies like this--abandon hope as you scan the faces of the audience assembled for Niels Opley's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (not David Fincher's savvy excoriation of the same): three generations of respectable ladies, living out some strange fantasy of insufferable woe and disquieting vengeance, enjoyed with tea and a nice Royal Dansk cookie tin. Made for the lowest common denominator, films emerging from the grindhouse in the Seventies--the porn, the ultraviolent knock-offs, the slasher flicks, the kung-fu imports, the race ragers--forced themselves into the larger cultural conversation. They're American foreign films, and they had as much impact on the way we look at the medium as the foreign-foreign films did at the end of the Sixties.
In Walking Tall, professional wrestler Pusser, disgusted by the dishonesty of the sport, returns to his hometown Tennessee backwater to put down roots with his moppets and Sissy Spacek-ian wife, Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman). Lo, he finds his Eden has turned to Sodom at the hands of small-time hustlers, moonshiners, whores, all manner of vermin. The incumbent sheriff (Gene Evans) is a corrupt thug and Pusser's favourite childhood haunts have been converted into myriad dens of iniquity. What's a man of principle to do but carve a four-foot beatin'-stick out of hickory, win an election for local sheriff (so far it's true), and go about retaking his memories of green. Yeah, but shit doesn't get real until the cartoon baddies up and murder Buford's wife (an oft-repeated trope, sure, but always effective and the one I thought of when Marie got potted in The Bourne Supremacy), leading to a flat-brilliant scene where Buford's eldest, 12-year-old Mike Pusser (Leif Garrett!), sits at his father's hospital bedside, squirrel gun propped across his prepubescent, soon-to-be-legendary lap. A nurse nods in silent approval--we all did. And we all wanted desperately for li'l Mike to shoot some hillbilly right in the mouth.
Such is the effectiveness of Walking Tall that its broad strokes leave no room for anything so pussified or liberal as a moral compass. It's not about race, because outrage knows no colour; it's not about class, because they're all sons of the soil; it's not about sentiment, either. Walking Tall's not about anything, really, save the law of the jungle: eat or be eaten. And that's enough. More than enough, when by the end our hero has his voice taken from him (prefiguring mute Michael Myers in Carpenter's Halloween), but not his monstrous tenacity or unquenchable bloodlust. In hindsight, watching a white mob turn a honkytonk casino into a bonfire is scary-similar to watching that white mob from Night of the Living Dead turn a farmhouse into a metaphor ending in the same cleansing/obfuscating flames. There's a skeeviness to Walking Tall that translates somehow as purity; as a film, it shares the same doggedness and twisted idealism as its hero. There's a "Paul Bunyan" folk-hero quality to it all (something a baddie on-the-noses in the film's first sequel)--and though this first pass doesn't quite get to it, by the time we're through with the three-film Walking Tall saga, it's shaped up into something like a bona fide hagiography.
Arriving two years later, Walking Tall Part 2 picks up at almost the exact moment its predecessor leaves off, though that doesn't, of course, explain why it is that Buford's kids are suddenly older and, in the case of Mike, a good six inches taller. No matter (really no matter, as this will be explained by the third film in one of the more surprising moments in a surprising decade of American cinema), as Buford is now played by Bo Svenson, his changed appearance justified in part by the facial injury Pusser suffered at the end of the last one, and his own growth spurt similarly explained away. For now, once Buford's mended from the eighth or ninth highly-lethal attempt on his life (well, lethal for a normal man, anyway), he continues on his swath of violent redemption, trusty Deputy Obra (Robert DoQui this time, Felton Perry previously) by his side. It's a lot slicker this time through--veteran television director Earl Bellamy was gifted with a healthy budget following the unexpected blockbuster success of the original--and a lot more overt in its desire to mollycoddle issues of race and class. As with most attempts to be socially relevant, however, this sequel merely manages to seem awkward and bloated with exposition.
The crux of it is that evil Boston crimelords are peeved that Buford has busted up their gambling, moonshining, and whoring and so send waves of evil Yankees into God's country to paint the hills of Tennessee flannel red. This leads to inevitable scenes of Buford busting up expensive, Northerner-owned racecars with his stick without addressing the irony that NASCAR was essentially born in this neck of the woods as part of the moonshine tradition. No matter: Walking Tall Part 2 is mainly interested in predicting "The Dukes of Hazzard" and Smokey and the Bandit with its TV pacing and episodic storytelling. What it does port over from the previous film is its delight in humiliating its baddies ("You made me wet my pants," declares the beautiful Ruby Ann (Brooke Mills)) and its celebration of the essential virtue of its southern plebes. It rings hollow, alas--a retread that misunderstands the appeal of the first instalment as having everything to do with not particularly giving a shit if it offended with its exploitive nudity, violence, and general subject matter. This one is aimed squarely at the middle-class and thus becomes something that is neither fish nor fowl. It's a movie that will hold no appeal for fans of the original and certainly holds no delights for the curious newcomer. It's inauthentic.
Inauthenticity is the operating principle of Final Chapter Walking Tall, a film that begins with a giant, stylized, Alexander Nevsky title card and a Johnny Cash-sounding intro before seguing directly into the scene from Walking Tall where Buford Pusser's wife is killed by the baddies. But it's not Joe Don Baker and Elizabeth Hartman, it's Bo Svenson and someone else. Someone else plays his father in this one, too, and the kids look weird, though it's still Leif Garrett and his kid sister Dawn Lyn. While at lunch early on, Pusser displays confusion at who these people are, sitting around him on the one-year anniversary of his wife's death. It's a remarkable moment, breathtaking in its implication that this character who's been elevated into a folk hero (the film acknowledges) is suddenly aware of his status as a collective fiction. This one has Pusser walking through the woods along the Tennessee-Mississippi border in a fugue state for most of the picture; a scene where he discovers a bootlegger and his young son, pulls down the bootlegger's pants, and spanks him with a switch to exact a promise from him not to beat his boy any more is, genuinely, one of the goddamnedest things I've ever seen.
Better yet, Final Chapter Walking Tall deals with an aging hero not unlike Frank Miller does in The Dark Knight Returns--more to the point, not unlike Clint Eastwood has with stuff like Unforgiven and Gran Torino. It portrays Pusser on the verge of a nervous breakdown, going broke, and ousted from his position of power. He's reached the period most legends suffer between the peak of popularity and dying penniless and alone. With the violence scaled way back and its biggest worries now joyriding kids and vandalism, the picture has the feel about it of The Dark Knight Rises and a world where crime has been largely extinguished, though the method was lies and state-sanctioned lawlessness. A hero needs escalation in the same way a god needs believers, after all, so it makes total sense that Hollywood comes knocking in this film, offering Pusser immortality through celebrity. It's all the more fascinating to learn the real Pusser had signed on to play himself in this final go-round before dying, some say mysteriously, in a one-person car accident on the eve of shooting. I wonder whether the script progressed as is or was flavored by Pusser's sudden, and recent, passing. I wonder, in other words, whether a rather ugly scene involving the sexual torture and murder of a hooker/love interest was inserted to feed the nihilism of the piece, or if the piece was just this nihilistic already.
Anyway, Pusser answers Hollywood's call, and at a local youth benefit, in the back row, Buford, as played by Bo Svenson in place of Pusser himself, has a hard time watching the celluloid reanimation of his murdered wife in there among his friends and neighbours. (Svenson's reactions to the violence we don't see again on screen are sublime.) It's hard to think of a better representation of media and its ability to both dislocate and suture audiences, or a better conversation about what it means to buy and sell an image or the psychic toll of art and the creation of it. There's a scene in Final Chapter Walking Tall I love where Pusser lets his kids ride dirtbikes on their property; more lost, haunted moments at a carnival at night; and then an epilogue that recreates Pusser's death and his daughter's almost-immediate discovery of his body. It's a film that's broken the fourth wall, so to speak, in a way that's as Pirandellic, as deeply discomfiting, as any Theatre of the Absurd masterpiece. It's draggy, sure, and it doesn't quite coalesce, but you could fairly say it works in much the same fashion the original worked: unconsciously. Pusser's death haunts the piece, gives it a soul and a brain. A true film of the Seventies and as wrought and surprising as any picture from that deepest well of masterpieces, Final Chapter Walking Tall would make a wonderful double-bill with Richard Rush's The Stunt Man.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
All three films come to Blu-ray in the form of a Shout! Factory box set, in 1080p transfers at 1.78:1. Walking Tall looks as good as it ever has, but there's no question as to its age--modern Paramount logo notwithstanding--and low-budget source. That said, the image is impressively sharp, and the colours are bright and vibrant. Someone's taken a lot of care with this one, if not in restoring it, then at least remastering it. Though the sequels were not studio releases, AIP titles are historically well-preserved, and the newer, more expensive second film looks markedly "better" in a conventional sense--smoother (although a scratch mars a few long seconds), with pitch blacks and superior shadow detail. That being said, note the Brownian noise in the backgrounds of the third film to realize that maybe only the first instalment was afforded much attention by the techies. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono tracks sport low volume in a soundfield that emerges as a kind of dull, hissing wall. The sequels sound slightly better than the original, but the trilogy is uniformly tinny to my ear. Frankly, I can't imagine watching them with fuller sound or out-and-out remixes, but still and all, it doesn't appear that much attention was paid to the audio portion of the program.
A new documentary, "The Buford Pusser Story" (30 mins., HD) assembles surviving cast members as well as Pusser's daughter to reflect on the man behind the legend in glowing terms. Lyn recalls Pusser visiting the set and striking everyone speechless; Baker, also narrating the piece, talks about how much of an honour it was (and he means it, I think) to play someone he considered the best person he ever met; and Garrett seems confused and incoherent. Historians and real-life buddies discuss Pusser's impact on his little hamlet and someone almost but not completely succeeds in not throwing out the idea that Pusser was murdered and that nobody bothered to figure out who the culprit was. Five TV spots plus two trailers (for the second and third entries) decorate the two discs in the set (yes, two--the first two films and doc are squeezed onto the first platter) along with three Photo Galleries that feature production stills and art. A 9-minute "Vintage Featurette" (SD) is interesting for the insight you get into how the real townsfolk felt about their portrayal in the film. All good! Hopefully somewhere, the angry ones got their moments on stage as well. A paper insert duplicates the original poster art for the three films in addition to vintage ad copy.