The Tall T
Cast & Crew
Pat Brennan, a struggling rancher on his way to purchase a seed bull from his former employer, Tenvoorde, the owner of the Tall T ranch, stops at the stage relay station run by Hank Parker. After promising to buy Hank's young son Jeff a bag of candy, Pat continues to the town of Contention, where the newly married Willard Mims has just hired a private coach to drive him and his bride Doretta to the nearby town of Bixby. Ed Rintoon, the crusty old stage driver, derides the fortune-hunting Willard, who has married his plain-faced bride solely for her wealthy father's money. At the Tall T, Tenvoorde offers to give Pat a bull if he can ride the bucking beast to a standstill. If he loses, Pat must forfeit his horse, however. After Pat is thrown from the bull and ends up face down in a water trough, he trudges away on foot. While stopping along the trail to rub his sore feet, Pat sees Rintoon's coach and hitches a ride. Upon reaching the relay station, they find it eerily deserted and are greeted by an unseen man, who orders them to drop their guns. Three outlaws then appear from out of the barn¿Frank Usher, the ruthless, intelligent leader; the trigger-happy Chink; and the impressionable Billy Jack. When Rintoon reaches for his rifle, Chink coldly shoots him down. After Usher informs the stage's passengers that the bodies of Hank and Jeff have been dumped into the well, Pat grimaces in anger. To save his life, the cowardly Willard suggests demanding a ransom from Doretta's copper magnate father and volunteers to deliver the ransom note himself. After scribbling a demand for $50,000, Usher hands the note to Willard and instructs Billy Jack to accompany him one mile out of town, where Willard will then hand the note to a passerby for delivery. They are then to regroup at the gang's hideout in the hills. After Billy Jack and Willard depart, Usher and Chink lead Doretta and Pat to their hideout, where as Pat seethes in fury, Doretta nervously paces. Sequestered with Pat in a cave after night falls, Doretta, who is unaware that Willard betrayed her, naïvely voices her faith in her husband. In the morning, Usher, hungry for companionship, tries to engage Pat in conversation. As Pat questions Usher's sense of morality, Billy Jack and Willard return and announce that Doretta's father will deliver the money the next morning. Contemptuous of the spineless Willard, Usher grants his request to leave, then orders Chink to shoot him in the back as he hurriedly rides away without even saying goodbye to Doretta. After Usher cruelly informs Doretta that her husband betrayed her, she sobs in humiliation and takes refuge in the cave. That night, Doretta confides to Pat that she married Willard out of loneliness and desperation, knowing that he never loved her. To instill confidence in the long-suffering Doretta, Pat gruffly kisses her and assures her that she is desirable. The next morning, Usher rides out to collect the ransom, leaving a jumpy Chink and Billy Jack behind. Seizing the opportunity to sew seeds of doubts in Usher's conspirators, Pat implies that their boss is planning to double-cross them. After Chink rides out to keep an eye on Usher, Pat tells Doretta to unbutton her dress and lure Billy Jack into the cave. When a distracted Billy Jack roughly grabs Doretta, Pat rushes in and wrestles his gun away. In the ensuing struggle, the weapon fires, killing Billy Jack. The sound of gunfire draws Chink back to camp, where he finds Billy Jack's body in the cave. Taking cover in the rocks, Pat hands Doretta a pistol and tells her to keep firing it until the chamber is empty while he sneaks around to the other side of the cave. After six shots are exhausted, Chink, thinking that the weapon is empty, steps out of the cave. Determined to avenge his friends' deaths, Pat calls to Chink and then guns him down. Soon after, Usher returns with the money and discovers the bodies of Billy Jack and Chink. When Pat orders Usher to drop his gun, Usher, playing on Pat's code of honor, reminds him that he owes Usher a debt of gratitude for sparing his life and then walks away and mounts his horse. Upon reaching the ridge, Usher pulls a rifle from his saddle and gallops back, gun blazing. Shot in the face by Pat, Usher flails around blindly and then collapses, dead. After hurling away his rifle, Pat puts his arm around Doretta and they walk away.
Fred E. Sherman
Harry Joe Brown
Charles Lawton Jr.
Frank A. Tuttle
The Tall T
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
The Tall T
The Films of Budd Boetticher Box Set
Budd Boetticher first directed Randolph Scott on Seven Men From Now, a western made for John Wayne's production company, Batjac, written by first-time screenwriter Burt Kennedy. It was a lean script with sparing but rich dialogue and Boetticher's direction matched the writing. Scott was so impressed with the film and pleased with Boetticher's direction that he approached Boetticher to direct for his own Scott-Brown Productions. For their first production together, Scott acquired a property that screenwriter Burt Kennedy had developed for Batjac, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's short story The Captives. " I had found the short story," Kennedy recalled in an interview. "Duke's company bought it and I was under contract and I wrote the script." It was a perfect match for Scott's persona and the film, renamed The Tall T, was the first of five films Boetticher directed for Scott and partner Harry Joe Brown.
Scott stars as struggling rancher Pat Brennan, a likable fellow in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Richard Boone is his villain counterpart Frank Usher, the charismatic and ruthlessly charming leader of a small gang of homicidal punks who hijack the stage that has picked up the laconic cowboy. It's supposed to be a shipment of silver but instead they find aging newlywed Doretta Mims (Maureen O'Sullivan), the "homely" heir to a mining fortune, and her conniving, cowardly husband John Hubbard, who sells her out to save his own skin. The heist turns into a kidnapping, but Usher unexpectedly lets the unnecessary Brennan live. He likes Brennan; he's a man in contract to his gang members, who are merely boys (and stunted, shallow ones at that), a realist not afraid to admit he's scared yet never showing it in his face, and the one person in Usher's (admittedly limited) social circle he can confide in.
The rest of the picture is a tight character drama of shifting relationships as Brennan uses his wiles and wits to isolate and kill the individual gang members, who have already murdered the stage driver (Arthur Hunnicutt in a small but memorable role) and a stagecoach station manager and his young son. Usher is the greatest of the charming antagonists that Boetticher and Kennedy love so much and Boone is brilliant in the role: quiet in his command, both alert and relaxed, ready to jerk to attention. He expertly, pitilessly runs the show, and his easy body language couldn't be more different from the stiff, self-conscious carriage of Scott, or from the insolent, lazy lean of the punk gunman Henry Silva. The language is equally defining. Scott, true to form, gets all the arch clichés in tough, terse bites and he delivers them in his usual flat tenor, but the two illiterate gunmen played by Silva and Skip Homeier speak in a kind of frontier poetry of simple words and offbeat grammar that communicates immaturity, lack of education, and petty yet impassioned dreams with an unexpected sensitivity. Violent as they are, these boys are full of life and feeling. But they live a violent lifestyle that catches up with them. The violence of The Tall T is not explicit but it is brutal and a little grotesque. There's nothing neat or gentle about dying in this cycle of films.
Shot on location in Lone Pine, a popular location for western productions a few hours north of Los Angeles, it was a low budget production shot on an 18-day schedule. Boetticher shot it sparingly, so that there was only one way to put the film together, a lesson he learned from directing in the studio assembly-line at Universal. "It was cut on the set," he described in a 1989 interview. "(The editor) couldn't eliminate anything because there wasn't anything to eliminate. He just pieced the thing together. And that was the movie." One of the film's most memorable moments was originally an accident that Boetticher incorporated into the film. Scott steps out of the shack in the morning and whacks his head on the low-hanging roof jutting over the doorway, prompting Usher to burst out laughing. "That's the kind of thing that you do," explained Boetticher in an interview. "All the funny stuff, that's not in the script." It also marks one of the defining moments of Scott's character, who is stoic but definitely vulnerable and decidedly human.
Burt Kennedy was still under contract to Batjac so Charles Lang wrote the next couple of films in the Boetticher and Scott collaboration. Decision at Sundown, based on a story by Vernon L. Fluharty, leaves the desert for a town setting, where a bitter Scott arrives to kill the man who ran off with his wife. It's an odd and intriguing little picture and Scott makes one of his most memorable entrances he holds up a coach from the inside, then steps off to let it go its own way but neither Boetticher nor Scott are in their element in the culture of the town setting. In Buchanan Rides Alone, Scott switches from grim to affable and easy-going as a momentarily wealthy cowboy (Scott) who wanders into the corrupt bordertown of Agryville and runs afoul of the amoral, backstabbing Agry family that runs the town. It's a genuine black comedy with a thoroughly mercenary cast of characters who keep double-crossing one another as they scheme to steal Scott's hard-earned money and the ransom charged for a Mexican prisoner, the son of a wealthy rancher across the border. Boetticher was dissatisfied with Lang's script and called Kennedy for an uncredited rewrite, keeping him on the set for the whole shoot as they ad-libbed the production, which was shot in Arizona to capture the parched desert landscape of the Mexican-American border region.
Boetticher became a producer for his last two films for Scott (the production banner was changed from Scott-Brown to Ranown) and Kennedy, whose contract at Batjac had expired, wrote magnificent original scripts that echoed the strengths of Seven Men From Now. Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station are a pair of films with almost identical plots but essential, elegant differences. Scott plays self-imposed outcasts with a past and a mission, and his journeys becomes wound up with a woman he saves/escorts and a collection of mercenary outlaws who invite themselves along as riding companions and competitors: both after the same thing and neither ready to back down. Yet these men that would see each other dead will save each other's lives before the final showdown.
In Ride Lonesome, the men are Boone and Wid (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn, in his film debut), outlaws who want to start fresh. Bringing in wanted man Billy John (James Best at his punk kid best) will give them amnesty, but Scott's driven bounty hunter Brigade has already captured him and he's on a mission of vengeance against Billy John's ruthless criminal brother (Lee Van Cleef, who brings an oily charm to the role). In Comanche Station, Scott's nemesis is Ben Lane (Claude Akins), a smiling snake of a outlaw who wants the reward that Scott's Jefferson Cody is due for rescuing a white woman (Nancy Gates) from Indian captivity.
Ride Lonesome became Boetticher's first widescreen production and he settled into the CinemaScope format by shooting longer takes, often shooting complete traveling scenes in one long take using a dolly car. The films, shot in Boetticher's defining landscape of Lone Pine, chronicle long journeys, with pauses and stops along the way, which begin and end in the wilderness, and again the terrain is used to dramatic effect. Scott makes his entrance into each film walking through a sheer crevice, hemmed in by walls of rock on either side, and this barren image is the defining state of his world: barren deserts, rugged plains where the rocks jut out of the Earth instead of trees, and featureless valleys, all ringed by distant mountains that are as much fences as borders, trapping them in a domain far from civilization. Even when the films leaves the sun-parched desert for the green coolness of the forest, it's merely an oasis in the self-inflicted purgatory. Boetticher carefully paces the rhythm of landscape his parties travel through, which served the crew as well as the film; a stop-off in a shady grove or by a cool river was good for company morale during the shoot.
"A man needs a reason to ride this country. You gotta reason?" invariably Scott asks the men he meets in the nowhereland of the desert. More than a valid query, it's a telling one. These characters are driven by the past and can't stop talking of the future, but the films are viscerally in the moment, in the now, as if neither past nor future exist. When all is said and done, these final films are American frontier odysseys with tragic dimensions and Scott is like a mythic figure doomed to wander the deserts for eternity in his obsessive quests.
The films were very financially successful and largely ignored by critics at the time for the very elements that make them so great. These low budgets films are modest productions, unpretentious westerns pared down to their essentials, lean stories about men on the frontier living a life in a dangerous, inhospitable world. Years later these tight, taut, often savage little pictures were reassessed and recognized as classics of the genre. The five films were branded "the Ranown Cycle," which is technically incorrect but serves its purpose just fine, and the name has a certain frontier color to it.
All five films have been beautifully restored and remastered for DVD. The images are sharp and the color vivid. The film grain is evident in the darker scenes, which is appropriate and part of the film's texture. The earlier three films, which have been shown on TV in full-screen editions (when shown at all), have been mastered in their proper theatrical aspect ratio (adjusted to the 16x9 format of widescreen TVs). The CinemaScope films are beautifully mastered in the correct widescreen format and correct years of bad pan-&-scan TV prints.
Among the film's fans and supporters are Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, both of whom are involved in the DVD release. Martin Scorsese provides a marvelous video introduction to The Tall T (and, by extension, the entire series) and Ride Lonesome with a mixture of historical perspective and cinephile love of the films, but beware that he does include "spoilers." His introductions (and everyone else's) should probably be seen after the films. Clint Eastwood introduces Comanche Station, but an even greater contribution is the documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, a feature-length portrait of the director and his life and career produced by Eastwood and directed by Bruce Ricker. Ed Harris narrates the production, originally made for and shown on Turner Classic Movies, it's an excellent overview with rare interview footage with the director, who had died before the documentary was made. The documentary is on the first disc with The Tall T, accessed through the "Special Features" (a minor design flaw on the rather basic menus). Taylor Hackford provides the introductions to Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone with more enthusiasm than insight and provides commentary on Comanche Station. More informative commentary tracks are offered by film historians Jeanine Basinger on The Tall T and Jeremy Arnold on Ride Lonesome. These film professors have a relaxed approach to their talks and provide both historical background and critical observations. The set is not lavish, but the supplements and the transfers are excellent. This is the presentation that these films deserve: lean, respectful, rich with information.
For more information about The Films of Budd Boetticher, visit Sony Pictures.To order The Films of Budd Boetticher, go to TCM Shopping.
by Sean Axmaker
The Films of Budd Boetticher Box Set
TCM Remembers - Budd Boetticher
When director Budd Boetticher died on November 29th, American film lost another master. Though not a household name, Boetticher made crisp, tightly wound movies with more substance and emotional depth than was apparent at first glance. Instead of a flashy style, Boetticher preferred one imaginatively simple and almost elegant at times. Because of this approach films like The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) and Ride Lonesome (1960) have withstood the test of time while more blatantly ambitious films now seem like period pieces.
Budd was born Oscar Boetticher in Chicago on July 29th, 1916. With a father who sold hardware, Boetticher didn't come from a particularly artistic background. In college he boxed and played football before graduating and heading to Mexico to follow what's surely one of the most unusual ways to enter the film industry: as a professional matador. That's what led an old friend to get Boetticher hired as a bullfighting advisor on the 1941 version of Blood and Sand. Boetticher quickly took other small jobs in Hollywood before becoming an assistant director for films like Cover Girl. In 1944, he directed his first film, the Boston Blackie entry One Mysterious Night. Boetticher made a series of other B-movies, like the underrated film noir Behind Locked Doors (1948), through the rest of the decade.
Boetticher really hit his stride in the 50s when he began to get higher profile assignments, including the semi-autobiographical The Bullfighter and the Lady in 1951 which resulted in Boetticher's only Oscar nomination, for Best Writing. Sam Peckinpah later said he saw the film ten times. Other highlights of this period include Seminole (1953) (one of the first Hollywood films sympathetic to American Indians), the stylishly tight thriller The Killer Is Loose (1956) and the minor classic Horizons West (1952). In the late 50s, Boetticher also started directing TV episodes of series like Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip.
In 1956, Boetticher started a string of films that really established his reputation. These six Westerns starring Randolph Scott are known as the Ranown films after the production company named after Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown. Actually the first, Seven Men from Now (1956), was produced by a different company but all of them fit together, pushing the idea of the lone cowboy seeking revenge into new territory. The sharp Decision at Sundown twists Western cliche into one of the bleakest endings to slip through the Hollywood gates. The Tall T examines the genre's violent tendencies while Ride Lonesome and Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) have titles appropriate to their Beckett-like stories. The final film, Comanche Station, appeared in 1960.
That was the same year Boetticher made one of the best gangster films, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, before watching everything fall apart. He and his wife decided to make a documentary about the famous matador Carlos Arruza and headed to Mexico. There Boetticher saw Arruza and much of the film crew die in an accident, almost died himself from an illness, separated from and divorced his wife (Debra Paget), and then spent time in various jails and even briefly a mental institution. This harrowing experience left him bankrupt but he still managed to complete the film, Arruza (1968), which gathered acclaim from the few who've been able to see it.
Boetticher managed to make just one more film, My Kingdom For... (1985), a self-reflexive documentary about raising Andalusian horses. He also made a cameo appearance in the Mel Gibson-Kurt Russell suspense thriller, Tequila Sunrise (1988). He died from complications from surgery at the age of 85.
By Lang Thompson
TCM Remembers - Budd Boetticher
The working titles of this film were The Captives and The Tall Rider. In his autobiography, director Budd Boetticher stated that the title was changed because another picture had already been registered under the The Captives. According to a July 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, the rights to Elmore Leonard's story were originally acquired by Batjac Productions, Inc. At that time, Robert Morrison was to produce and Andrew McLaglen direct. By December 1955 Hollywood Reporter announced that Robert Fellows was to produce and Boetticher direct for the Batjac logo. The Tall T was Leonard's first work to be made into a film. Although a July 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item places Michael Pate in the cast, he was not in the released film. A July 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that location filming was done in Lone Pine, CA. Boetticher and Scott had previously worked together on the 1956 film Seven Men from Now (see entry above).
Released in United States April 1994
Released in United States Spring April 1957
Shown at USA Film Festival in Dallas April 21-28, 1994.
Selected in 2000 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States Spring April 1957
Released in United States April 1994 (Shown at USA Film Festival in Dallas April 21-28, 1994.)