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After the success of their superb Seven Men from Now (1956), star Randolph Scott, writer Burt Kennedy and director Budd Boetticher immediately set out to make another western in the same vein. Seven Men had been produced by John Wayne's company Batjac and distributed by Warner Brothers, but for this one Scott wanted to produce through his own company at Columbia, Scott-Brown Productions. The star introduced Boetticher and Kennedy to Harry Joe Brown, one of the most respected producers in Hollywood, and a new partnership was born. Kennedy would adapt a new screenplay from Elmore Leonard's story The Captives (the first Leonard story to be brought to the screen), and Boetticher would again direct Scott on a low budget and a short, three-week shooting schedule. The result, The Tall T (1957), was another raging success, and five more Boetticher-Scott films followed (some, but not all, written by Kennedy).
The Tall T is the quintessential Boetticher western, with a stark story playing out in a rugged, rocky landscape, and the hero and villain spending the film sizing each other up and down, taunting each other, before finally having it out in a showdown. Boetticher was a trained bullfighter -- he truly loved the sport -- and his westerns visually and rhythmically embody the ritual of bullfighting. Boetticher always denied he consciously thought about the parallel, but the effect is there on a consistent basis in his westerns, and surely the way he presented his hero and villain -- essentially circling and studying each other in a big, empty arena -- owes something to his bullfighting experience.
All of the Boetticher-Scott films contain much humor. Seven Men from Now offers moments of comedy punctuating an otherwise serious, suspenseful drama. Ride Lonesome (1959) flows between comedy and tension all the way through. Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) is arguably more of a comedy than a western altogether. But The Tall T is a little different in that it begins almost as a straight comedy (even a satire), and then at a certain, specific point, turns sharply into tense drama, with nuggets of darker humor still to come. The comedic opening, in fact, effectively makes the later tension all the more shocking and dramatic. It's essentially a long buildup for maximum effect and, in its way, quite a brilliant bit of audience manipulation.
All these Boetticher westerns have exceptionally characterized and acted villains, and Richard Boone's performance here as Frank Usher is one of the series' best. Boone was playing a doctor in the TV series Medic at the time; Boetticher caught the show and knew Boone would be perfect for Usher. Harry Joe Brown and the Columbia executives weren't so sure, however, questioning whether Boone had the requisite sense of humor to pull off the role. Boetticher called Boone and told him of the concerns. Boone replied, "Well, Budd, you've got to admit those heart operations are pretty f---in' funny." Boetticher burst into laughter and told Boone, "You've got the job."
Boetticher once described The Tall T as a "love story" between the Randolph Scott and Richard Boone characters, by which he meant Boone wanted to "be" Scott. Boone is fascinated by Scott throughout the story. He constantly asks him questions, tells him to "talk" about his life and so forth. He sees Scott as a mirror image of himself, the man Boone would be if he weren't on the wrong side of the law. In all these westerns, Boetticher said, he felt he "could have traded Randy's part for the villain's." One can easily imagine the hero and villain in these films riding together as partners and friends. (The end of Ride Lonesome actually comes close to this scenario.)
The rest of the cast is small and superb. Cast as Boone's henchmen are Henry Silva and Skip Homeier, and playing Scott's friend Rintoon (one of the great movie character names) is the wonderful, cantankerous Arthur Hunnicutt. Finally, Maureen O'Sullivan plays the leading lady, Doretta Mims, who with her new husband (John Hubbard) is kidnapped by Boone and his goons. Scott happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the bad guys hold Scott and O'Sullivan hostage while demanding ransom for O'Sullivan. Meanwhile, Scott and O'Sullivan start to fall for each other and plan an escape.
This was a rare feature film for O'Sullivan at this point in her career. Since 1954 she had turned primarily to television work; following The Tall T, her big-screen appearances would be very few indeed. She had a growing family with her husband, director John Farrow, and she wanted to be able to focus on her kids. (They had seven, including daughter Mia Farrow.)
The Tall T was one of several Boetticher westerns to be shot in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, a beautiful valley of eerie rock formations with the majestic Sierra Mountains in the background. Boetticher loved the stark beauty of this arid landscape. It's tough and forbidding in its emptiness; a character can only survive in such a landscape -- and hence such a movie -- by being especially strong, rugged and smart. The spareness of the location and the story proved a major influence on the future westerns of Sergio Leone.
While the film was known as The Captives through production, before release it was retitled The Tall T, a puzzling choice. Boetticher later wrote: "It took Burt and me five months to discover why and what the 'T' stood for. There was another picture registered as The Captives, and rather than go to court over the title, some young executive in New York thought of The Tall T. We finally discovered the 'T' came from the first letter in 'Tenvoorde,' the owner of the ranch where Randy goes to buy the Brahma bull."
Producer: Harry Joe Brown
Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Burt Kennedy (screenplay); Elmore Leonard (story)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: George Brooks
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Film Editing: Al Clark
Cast: Randolph Scott (Pat Brennan), Richard Boone (Frank Usher), Maureen O'Sullivan (Doretta Mims), Arthur Hunnicutt (Ed Rintoon), Skip Homeier (Billy Jack), Henry Silva (Chink), John Hubbard (Willard Mims), Robert Burton (Tenvoorde), Fred E. Sherman (Hank Parker), Chris Olsen (Jeff).
by Jeremy Arnold
Jeremy Arnold, 1998 Moviemaker Magazine article and private interview with Mr. Boetticher
Budd Boetticher, When in Disgrace
Danny Peary, Cult Movies
Eric Sherman, The Director's Event