Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Tall T by Elmore Leonard and Burt Kennedy

I know, I know, it's not like me to be writing about Westerns... 

But I love a good Western as much as any other genre, especially when it's as well written and well directed as this little low-budget gem from cult film maker Budd Boetticher (pronounced "Betticker").

Budd Boetticher did an excellent job directing The Tall T but the movie's crucial strengths lie in a skilful screenplay by Burt Kennedy based on a strong and efficient little short story by Elmore Leonard.

Yes, that Elmore Leonard. Before he moved on to crime fiction he made a respectable career writing memorable Westerns.

In this case, a story called The Captives. The interesting names in the movie — Rintoon, Tenvoorde — originate with Leonard. Indeed Burt Kennedy is gratifyingly faithful to Leonard's material.

Basically The Tall T is the story of some bad men — very bad men — who want to rob a stage coach. But they get the wrong stage coach. 

Instead of the regular vehicle, which is set to be carrying a large sum in payroll cash, they accidentally swoop on an unscheduled coach, specially commissioned by a honeymoon couple. 

Also hitching a ride on the stage coach is hardbitten loner Brennan (Randolph Scott) and the doomed bad guys take him prisoner along with the honeymooners.

They're doomed because Brennan is a classic Elmore Leonard hero — intelligent, practical and ruthless.  

Having blown their chance at the payroll robbery, the gang of thieves led by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) come up with the scheme of ransoming the honeymoon bride Doretta (Maureen O'Sullivan), who is the daughter of a rich man.

So they take Doretta and Brennan as their captives, hence the title of Leonard's story. Doretta's cowardly heel of a husband Willard (John Hubbard) has only married her for her money and is only too pleased to act as a cooperative  bag man between the kidnappers and his wealthy father in law. (Much good it does him.)

The Tall T came out in 1957. In an interview many years later Elmore Leonard said it was his favourite among his Western movies. "Richard Boone recited the lines just the way I heard them when I wrote the story." 

He was, however, quite dismissive of the material that Burt Kennedy added to the screenplay, padding his original story: "it takes about 20 minutes to get going."

But in fact these early sequences add enormously to the power of the film. Because it begins with Brennan riding into an isolated stage coach station out in the wilderness. 

Here he knows the station master and the man's young son, a typical cute freckle faced little Hollywood urchin. Brennan promises to buy the kid some candy.

But when he gets back on that ill fated stage coach he finds that Usher's gang have murdered the station master and his little boy and put their bodies "down the well".

This sort of horrific offhand cruelty is almost unprecedented in a Hollywood movie of the period. The Tall T has a succinct savagery which gives it real stature.

The original Elmore Leonard tale builds up a powerful feeling of dread as we wait for Usher's gang to execute Brennan and Doretta — they're going to kill them even if they get the ransom. 

The story exerted an almost sickening suspense even though I knew how it turned out because I've seen the movie (and, let's face it, because I know Elmore Leonard).

Of course, Brennan manages to turn the table on their captors, and in a surprisingly ferocious fashion. He gets a shotgun under the chin of one and pulls the trigger... "Don't look at him," he tells Doretta.

The Tall T is hard hitting, vivid, and years ahead of its time. Apart from the quality of the writing, directing and acting (Richard Boone is particularly fine), there's memorably beautiful photography by Charles Lawton which is pin-sharp on the Blu-ray.

This is one of half a dozen Budd Boetticher Westerns that are said to be classics. If any of the others are as good as this, I'll report back to you. 

(Image credits: All from IMDB.)

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