I’ve always had an affinity for Westerns. Maybe it’s because one of the first movies I remember watching was a Western (“Mackenna’s Gold”). Or maybe it’s because they’re movies in which you get to see men doing what a man’s got to do, usually when his back is up against a wall.

Westerns are usually seen as an American art form, but there’s something universal about them – the good guys against the good guys, pioneers trying to conquer new frontiers and tame new lands, the art of surviving on your wits and your bravery. Whatever. Or maybe it’s just that, as someone who loves action movies, I know I will get my payback with the obligatory big showdown at the end of a Western.

A few years ago, I read numerous articles about Budd Boetticher, a director of some long-unseen Westerns from the 1950s who was being cited as an inspiration by folks like Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino. Boetticher had quite a reputation – he was a maverick, a star athlete whose first love was bullfighting, and spent many years away from Hollywood just to make a movie about his favourite bullfighter.

Budd Boetticher

The problem was getting to watch his movies. The Star satellite television network in Asia aired some of his Westerns in the 1990s but the pan-and-scan prints of his widescreen movies were so poor that I couldn’t sit through any of them. I finally snapped up the five-disc “The Films of Budd Boetticher” when a web retailer had it on discount last year and was blown away by the five films in the box set that were lovingly restored by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation and Sony.

This post focuses on the first film in the set – “The Tall T” (1957) – which like the rest, features Scott Randolph as the protagonist. The ageing star and Boetticher made six Westerns that were known as the “Ranown Cycle”, a name derived from the names of RANdolph Scott and producer Harry Joe BrOWN.

The movie starts in a deceptive folksy manner that has everyone all smiles and talking about a better life. Homesteader Pat Brennan (Scott), who is on his way to town to buy a breeding bull, stops at a stagecoach way station to water his horse. As he rides out, he promises to buy the station manager’s son some candy.
In town, Brennan loses his horse in a bet with his former boss and just as it seems he’ll have to walk all the way to the stagecoach way station to borrow a horse, he manages to hitch a lift in a coach transporting oily bookkeeper Willard Mims (John Hubbard) and his new bride Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan, the Jane from 1932’s “Tarzan The Ape Man”).

Twenty-five minutes into the movie, the tone changes dramatically. On reaching the way station, Brennan finds the station manager and his son have been killed in a particularly nasty fashion by outlaw Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his henchmen. (Remember this was just four years after the success of “Shane”, when kids were almost never killed off in the movies.)

The outlaws are at the station to hold up a stagecoach but soon change their plans after the cowardly Mims informs them that his bride is the daughter of one of the richest men in the region and would be willing to pay a handsome ransom for her.

The rest of the taut little film plays out like a cat-and-mouse game as Brennan uses just about everything available to him – including the use of Doretta as sexual bait to lure one of the outlaws – to keep himself and the woman alive.

Since this is a 1950s Western, it’s a foregone conclusion that Brennan will triumph but it’s a fun ride getting through the rest of the movie because Boetticher and his crew throw in several interesting twists. The key character here, for me, is Usher, who isn’t a one-dimensional bad guy. Under normal circumstances, he and Brennan could have been friends. Usher treats his uneducated henchmen with contempt while engaging in meaningful conversation with Brennan about his dreams of having a ranch of his own. As played by the charismatic Boone, Usher comes off a sympathetic and even likeable villain, something of an oddity in a Hollywood film of that era.

Despite the limited budget and tiny cast given to Boetticher, everything about “The Tall T” exudes class. The script by Burt Kennedy is based on the short story “The Captives” by veteran crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard and Charles Lawton Jr’s economic cinematography soaks up the rugged beauty of the Lone Pine locations so favoured by the director. In some of the scenes, one can almost feel the heat coming off the screen while looking at Randolph Scott’s sweat-soaked shirt.

Randolph Scott in "The Tall T"

“The Tall T” is what was known as a B-movie, a second rung production by a major studio that would never be promoted like a bigger production. But it never overstays its welcome at a lean and mean 78 minutes, with Boetticher using every minute on screen to flesh out his characters and draw out the tension in Brennan’s predicament. Do yourself a favour and watch it, and then the other movies in the Ranown Cycle.

Suggested reading: More interesting information about “The Tall T” in this interview with the film’s scriptwriter Burt Kennedy, including how he wrote the movie with John Wayne in mind. Two good reviews of “The Tall T” here and here. More on Budd Boetticher here.