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The Tall T

(Budd Boetticher, USA, 1957): “Some things a man can’t ride around.” Cowboy codes don’t come much simpler, more apt or eloquent than this, spoken by Randolph Scott’s hostage-held cattleman Pat Brennan at the moment of decision. He’s being held in high desert country by a trio of desperadoes led by the coolly sinister Richard Boone, and when Boone rides off to get the ransom money from the freshly-widowed Maureen O’Sullivan’s father, Brennan makes his move. A lean 78 minutes long, this all-outdoor study in tense power dynamics may be the apex of the multiple-movie collaboration between the quietly imperturbable star Scott and the bullfighter-turned-filmmaker Budd Boetticher, and it’s a miniaturized masterpiece of economy, sublimated menace and exacting composition. Perhaps nobody got more from less than Boetticher, who made his westerns as assembly-line cranked double-bill bottoms for ‘A’ pictures like the Ronald Reagan/Nancy Davis opus Hellcats of the Navy (to which this one was hitched). The bullfight ring his apparent model, Boetticher lets the story unfold with minimal movement, terse dialogue and deceptively simple formality. It’s all about characters circling each other and provoking them to action, which means wits and strategy are the very essence of the drama. Interesting as this is, Elmore Leonard, the author of the short story on which it’s based, didn’t like it much, and he had no idea what the title — changed from ‘The Captives’ referred to. When I interviewed Leonard for CBC Radio in Toronto in 1992, I told him I’d just watched the movie on videotape. This surprised him, as he hadn’t seen it in years and had no idea it was available on VHS. So I sent him a copy. In a letter, he wrote: “My original title of the novelette was ‘The Hostages’; Argosy magazine changed it to ‘The Captives’ and Columbia went with The Tall T, based on a visual of Randolph Scott, arm raised holding a rifle that forms the cross bar, stopping the stage coach. Scott came to town to plug the picture and I asked him where they’d gotten the title. He said, ‘Well, that’s the Tenvoorde brand, isn’t it?’ Tenvoorde (being) the name of the ranch owner who won Scott’s horse in a race and left him to hitch a ride on the stage coach. “I saw the picture the first time with newspaper reviewers who tried to anticipate each scene. ‘Here comes the obligatory fist fight.’ But true to the story, Scott jammed a shotgun under Skip Homier’s jaw and blew his face off. The critics were quiet after that.” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)