Monday, April 13, 2015

Recommended!: The Tall T (1957)

It's practically a Disney movie for its first reel, as tall, stolid but genial cowboy Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) strolls leisurely into the foreground. He stops at a station on the way to the city, engages in small talk with the station agent, promises to bring some candy back for the agent's son. Upon returning to the station, Brennan finds it overtaken by a trio of thieves, and himself engaged in an increasingly intense battle of wills with their nominal leader Frank (Have Gun Will Travel's Richard Boone).

The Tall T is the second of seven westerns made by Scott and director Budd Boetticher, a group of movies well known both for their solid storytelling and visual elegance. The Tall T is notable for its unusual suspense, trading its widescreen vistas of frontier country for strong closeups and a powerful sense of claustrophobia. The movie is based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, and features many of that writer's tropes, including strong characterizations that add dimension to hero and villain alike, as well as an exploration of a strange duality that emerges between its hero and villain; even as the hostage situation at the station mounts and grows more desperate, a strong respect grows between Brennan and Frank, to the point where Frank becomes suffocated by his inability to embrace the straight, decent life that Brennan increasingly represents. Fans of Leonard's later work, including 3:10 to Yuma (both the original and the remake) and the TV series Justified, will find The Tall T exploring familiar territory, with characters as vivid as anywhere else in Leonard's oeuvre. (Special mention should be made of Henry Silva, who endows his character, the none-too-bright outlaw Chink, with a certain amount of self-awareness, wisdom, and recognition of his own deficiencies.)

Enshrined in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2000, The Tall T is commonly acknowledged as a classic mid-century Western by fans of the genre, and will surprise anyone with preconceptions of the Western as a dated, stale genre. So strongly does it anticipate the revisionist Westerns to come that it feels completely modern, while at the same time working perfectly as a classic Western. If you've never seen a Western it's a great place to start, and is available at a couple of places online.

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