In 1957, just eight months after the first collaboration between Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott, Seven Men From Now, the same team came together once again to create The Tall T. Scott starred in the film, but he also co-produced it with Harry Joe Brown. It’s their collaboration that gives these films in the cycle their name (RAN for Randolph, OWN for Brown). Screenwriter Burt Kennedy based his script on a short story written by Elmore Leonard, and the American-turned-Mexican-bullfighter Budd Boetticher returned to the director’s chair.
The Tall T takes its name from a ranch that we see at the beginning of the film, Tenvoorde ranch, which serves as the jumping off point for our story. The ranch is operated by a man and his young son, who Scott comes to visit. The film begins with an innocent tone; the first 20 minutes or so seem to be taking us nowhere at all as Scott goes into town, has conversations with various folks, and even tries to break an angry bull. It makes the audience wonder where it’s going, what the movie is about, and why we’re spending so much time covering things that seem to have nothing to do with the story.
Because Scott’s character wasn’t captured alone, we get three distinct reactions and personalities as the story unfolds. The newlywed husband is slickly played by John Hubbard (The Mummy’s Tomb), who thinks he can talk his way out of the crisis. His wife is played by Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane in the early (and best) Tarzan movies from MGM, opposite Johnny Weissmuller. O’Sullivan was 45 at the time and considered to be too old for this kind of a leading role, and The Tall T finds her on her way down the ladder of fame. It makes it clear that she’s considered to be over-the-hill and plain to look at, but it also spends the better part of the running time subverting our expectations about her character and showing us an unexpected strength and practicality. Also making an appearance in the film is western-stalwart Arthur Hunnicut. If you don’t recognize the name, you’re sure to recognize the face.
Our outlaws are just as interesting as their captives, and are led by stone-faced Richard Boone, who plays a crook in possession of a warped sense of honor and dignity. His two henchmen are the homicidal Chink, played by a young Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate and the Steven Seagal film Above the Law) and Billy Jack, played by Skip Homeier, who I know mostly from a couple of classic Star Trek episodes.
Just as with Seven Men from Now, the movie was filmed among the smooth, round rocks of Lone Pines, California, though the landscape seems to have a different feel in this film than it did in the one that came eight months earlier. Boetticher certainly knew how to capture beauty, and cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. captures that beauty and the harshness of the desert while framing his subjects with interesting shot compositions. The Tall T may be a low-budget B-movie, but the production value is through the roof. Also, because there’s such a weighty, human story, it’s easy to forget the limitations it was created under.
My DVD copy of the film has a special video feature with Martin Scorsese, in which he discusses how this, as well as the other Boetticher films of the Ranown Cycle, influenced his tastes. He highlights the ideas hidden within the film, and reveals the depth of the story and what was actually going on. Scorsese has long been a champion of the B-film for the way it can sneak huge ideas into unsuspecting packages, and he does the same here.