starring Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O'Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt
screenplay by Burt Kennedy
directed by Budd Boetticher
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover The Tall T is, on the surface, a fairly unassuming western from the '50s: individualistic loner fights bad guys while standing up for the pioneer spirit. Why, then, did it leave me with such an awful sadness? The reason is that the filmmakers have thought about what loner individuals and bad guys and the pioneer spirit represent, and the conclusions they reach are quietly devastating. Instead of displaying knee-jerk expressions of stock responses, director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy truly meditate on why someone would want to embody the cowboy ideal--and realize it's an alienation so great that social life becomes all but unbearable. It's not even a critique of the American dream, but a lament for an alternative that might lead someone out of isolation; The Tall T ultimately finds that a life of productive solitude is better than becoming gnarled in the risks of the outside world.
The protagonist, Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott), is trying to opt out of society even as the movie begins. Despite a ranch-owner's attempts to rope him onto his staff list, he's simply planning to retire to his land, raise goats, and let the time pass blissfully by. Boetticher and Kennedy give him ample reason to desire this: Everywhere he goes, Brennan's hermit paradise is offset by the brutality of the world around him, from a ranch-hand's foolhardy attempt to pick a fight to the aforementioned owner's conniving to get his man--or at least his horse. And after losing that horse, he happens upon even more trouble: Having been picked up by a coach carrying heiress Doretta Mims and her new husband (Maureen O'Sullivan and John Hubbard), he finds that the kindly stationmaster and his son have been murdered by a gang--and that the gang now threatens the coach and its passengers. The risk involved in life past the property line is large, and trouble brews for those who cross it.
The lesson doesn't end there. The gangsters aren't completely evil, just disenfranchised: they have no real place to call their own and so they take whatever passes by. The leader, named Usher (Richard Boone), is almost sympathetic in his desire for someone to talk to, and his craving for social life creates both an opposite pole for Brennan's estrangement and a tragic dimension for a lost character. Usher's yearning for meaningful friendship makes him pathetic and vulnerable, even when he's doing dastardly things--he seems on a higher level than the loathsome Mr. Mims, a gold-digging ex-accountant who thinks nothing of trading on his wife's fortune to save his own skin. But as the villains wait for the ransom on the valuable if plain Mrs. Mims, Brennan must strengthen his resolve. He must show parasites on either side of the law what it means to take life and property from the innocent.
All of this is rendered in a matter-of-fact style by Boetticher and Kennedy, which only seems to make The Tall T that much harder to take. A film that revelled in the ripe melodrama of the situation might affirm the horror of the situation, and thus have given us an outlet to vent our frustrations. Here, there is merely acceptance of the grim facts, leaving us in the dust as the characters careen to their fates. To an extent, this is a weakness: the filmmakers not only support isolationism but also refuse to find the sources of pain and thus end them. Even a pessimist like Douglas Sirk believed in the existence of happiness, if only through the evidence of its destruction; Boetticher and Kennedy deny its absence and in so doing place limits on what they can depict. But The Tall T sticks with you; the juxtaposition of bleak testimony with cheerful delivery creates an appalling melancholy that lifts it out of the genre doldrums. If it's something less than major, it's something more than minor, too. Originally published: June 19, 2002.