Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Tall T

The Tall T, 1957
Dir: Budd Boetticher
January 20, 2010

While looking around for something to do after I finish Murnau (only 2 films left!), I realized that for at least one of the "series" that I do, I don't want it to be just one director. I like that, and thinking about things that they continually use in their films is interesting, but I want to change it a little bit. The Hawks and Truffaut series will continue, if anyone cares, so don't worry about that. So, since I've been doing a few, I'm going to start a Western series. I'm not sure if this makes anyone else excited, but I am. In my search for a place to start, I was looking through "best Western" lists, and I found some stuff that looks semi-interesting. Budd Boetticher made a series of "B" Westerns in the 50s with Randolph Scott, which many people classify as "psychological" Westerns. So right there, it's looking good. This particular film caught my eye because it is based on a short story by a famous author. Yup, the author is Elmore Leonard, and the short story is "The Captives".

(Boone not really being with the others)

The Tall T is a lean (77 minutes), taut, and remarkable film because it really expresses a lot of the thoughts that I've been having about film in general lately, and particularly the Westerns that I've watched recently. It's a subtle, character driven film that really throws any kind of driving narrative in the wind, to the point that near the beginning of the film, where it starts wandering a little, I was like, "Where the fuck is this going?" Don't worry though. It goes to the most awesome place ever, way more awesome than even The Big Sky (1952). As an ex-"ramrod", Brennan (Scott) is living a rather lonely life working his own homestead. There are a few episodes in the beginning setting up the the film that may seem hokey and annoying, but seriously, there is no bullshit involved (explained later), and it sets up an important aspect of Brennan's character. It's the calm before the proverbial storm, setting up "normal" Western cliches that will be shattered later. Once he loses his "ride" and meets up with the stagecoach, the film kicks into gear.

(The landscape is it's own character)

The stagecoach party gets to the Way Station, visited earlier before, to drop off Brennan. Things aren't the same though. Three villains are waiting, plotting...well a heist, I guess, but just fucking mayhem seems like a better term. Right away, all the characters are sorted. Richard Boone's turn as the "brains of the operation" has to been one of the greatest villains in any Western I've seen, given that his sympathies lie more in becoming a man like Brennan, rather than the wayward youths whom he rides with. Scott does not want to kill Boone, but stoically acknowledges what is certainly forthcoming. Henry Silva as "Chink" is absolutely awesome. A pure sociopath with no moral compass, Chink is the trigger-finger and impatient whirlwind who doesn't mind any killing. Just watch his face in any background, or his body language. It's incredible. Then there's Skip Homeier as Billy Jack, a naive, impressionable lost soul who eventually gets his by trying too hard to be a "good 'ol boy" outlaw. Even these henchmen reveal added, fascinating dimensions to their characterizations. Their desperate dreams and goals are revealed, only for them to remind us later that they killed an innocent old man, a young boy and they plan to kill again. On the other side we have Brennan, the passive, calm Cowboy who is what every Western leading man should be. Along with him is Arthur Honnicutt as the grizzled sidekick who can never be, and the couple in the stagecoach, Maureen O'Sullivan and John Hubbard. Hubbard's character is, surprisingly, a standard stock coward, and not really developed as perfectly as everyone else in the film, but his performance is key for O'Sullivan, who must overcome the fact that a man married her for money and not for love. The sexual tension between O’Sullivan and Scott inexorably builds as they are forced to sleep together in the ramshackle hut while planning their survival.

("I'm for shootin' 'em now.")

As inevitable as the ending is, it still rings true, not only for the emotional dread that pervades the scene, but the fact that it never really has to happen (I mean in the film it has to happen, but something about the strange, "lost brothers" relationship that Boone and Scott have makes you think that it could have happened a different way). Randolph Scott, I must say, is the Western star I've been looking for.

(Mortal enemies or kindred spirits?)

Boetticher plays with many things the whole film: he gives you things that you now are going to happen, but doesn't necessarily show them to you or give them to you the way you think they should play out in a Western. The deaths at the Way Station, for example, are never shown, and one particular death, which can only be grisly, is only hinted at. Heinz Roemheld’s music is particularly useful in supporting this activity. The music is ambiguous, playful and not interested in cueing the viewer to emotion, mood, or impending events. Reading an article on the series of Westerns Boetticher made in the 50s known as "Ranown", it's hard to pick up some of the things that the director wants you to, especially if you don't know what to look for. Rick Thompson, in an article for Senses of Cinema, had this to say on Boetticher and this film (reading this helped me a lot): "The Tall T, along with the others in the cycle, it must be said, are films for connoisseurs, for viewers interested in Westerns and familiar with the genre’s history, traditions, iconography, themes, plots and gestures. The Tall T is not parodic, or ironic in the current sense, or self-referential, or self-conscious, or subverting, or postmodern (nor pretentious or sentimental, either), but everything in it is conscious, considered, thought out, condensed and precise. The filmmakers (including the actors) are creative minimalists: they spin more out of very limited resources – simple plot, few characters, few locations, few events, with the only spectacle being the bleak, grand desert and mountains of Lone Pine (and only one interior – a cave)." Maybe this film is not for a Western beginner, as stupid as that sounds, but it is sure worth the viewing for the great craftsmanship and thought that went into making it. Even with all that academic stuff, I still had a great time while not being entirely sure what I was looking for.


(The lonesome man of the West)

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