Wednesday Western: ‘The Tall T’ (1957)

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After an injury wrecked his promising football career, a young Budd Boetticher hopped in his shiny new yellow LaSalle and drove to Austin to meet a friend.

The two began what was meant to be an epic tour of South America. But they never made it past their first stop, Mexico City.

It was there that Boetticher witnessed his first bullfight. In the colosseum dirt, just ten rows away from the future director, Don “El Magnifico” Lorenzo Garza killed six bulls.

Boetticher was hooked. As he later recalled in his autobiography: “Never had any single event made such an impression. Perhaps it was because the art of the bullring was so dangerous. Or perhaps it was because it was so medieval.”

A bullfighter’s education

That night, Boetticher, a muscular, red-headed American, went to a party and told a fellow guest that he wanted to be a bullfighter.

He did not, in fact, want to be a bullfighter. But the next morning, Don Lorenzo Garza arrived at his hotel.

“This must be a joke,” Boetticher said into the phone. It was not a joke. It turns out that the man who Boetticher had spoken with at the party was General Maximilian Camacho, brother of the Mexican president.

Boetticher trained for five weeks and began a short career as a bullfighter

Eventually he made his way to Los Angeles to work for Hal Roach, a friend from prep school who’d founded his own production company. Boetticher’s no-nonsense bravado quickly earned him the respect of various bigwigs.

When Harry Cohn insulted him, Boetticher threatened to “knock him on his ass,” prompting the abrasive mogul to take him under his wing. “I’m going to make something out of you,” Cohn told him

Around the same time, Boetticher recounted his bullfighting adventure to a screenwriter in Hollywood, who translated it into a script.

The script caught the attention of John Wayne. He didn’t believe that Boetticher had been a torero. So Boetticher took him to Mexico and proved his craft.

The Duke showed the script to John Ford, who thought it was too long. According to Boetticher, Wayne and Ford cut “42 minutes out so that it would be less than 90 minutes, a ‘B’ picture. It took me forty years to get it back the way I wanted it. It was a helluva blow, I tell you.”

The disappointment moved Boetticher to write and direct his first film, “The Bullfighter and the Lady” (1951). Featuring Rita Hayworth, and originally titled “Torero,” the picture earned Boetticher his only Oscar nod. One of the stuntmen died during production.

Bullfighters are called “toreros.” The torero is the star, decked in his garish traje de luces.

And long after that first encounter with bullfighting, Boetticher wove the three stages of a bullfight into his art.

One: eruption and dance.

Two: disaster.

Three: the “tercio del momento supremo,” the final stage of the fight, characterized by humiliation, confusion, death, betrayal, then the coronation of the torero.

At the start of a bullfight, the bull’s gaze is aimed downward, but as the bullfight progresses, the bull’s vision sharpens so that, by the end, he’s locking eyes with the torero. Then, finally, it’s nothing but clotted dirt.

If, at the end of the fight, the torero has killed the bull, he becomes a matador — “matar” is the infinitive for “to kill,” and the suffix “-dor” signifies membership to an occupation, so “matador” is Spanish for “killer.”

The Ranown Cycle

In 1943, Boetticher met Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown on the set of “The Desperadoes.” Brown, a one-time poet who was friends with confessional Boston maniac Robert Lowell, had been a director in the 1920s. This trio would go on to make some gritty masterpieces.

Then scriptwriters Burt Kennedy and Charles Lang joined the team — Boetticher once hailed Kennedy “the best Western writer ever.” Directors of photography Charles Lawton Jr. and Lucien Ballard handled cinematography, capturing a perfect and beautiful bareness of nature, contrasted by the pace of action and commotion.

Between 1956 and 1960, this squad of gifted creatives knocked out the six-movie “Ranown Cycle.” (“Westbound” isn’t included in the cycle, for several reasons.) Ranown, Randolph and Brown’s production company, is a portmanteau of Randolph and Brown. All of the films are Technicolor, B-movie budget, quickly made. None of them are longer than 80 minutes.

The films also share a location: Lone Pine, California, all dust and sky.

In this four-year period, Western film saw a revolutionary advancement in style, vision, depth, and creativity. These low-budget endeavors serve as a bridge between the valiant Westerns of the early days and everything that followed.

Of these six films, “The Tall T” best exemplifies Boetticher’s director-as-bullfighter approach.

‘The Captives’

The “Tall T” is based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “The Captives” (1955), his first to be adapted for the big screen. While the film was originally titled “The Captives,” it shifted to “The Tall Rider,” then “The Tall T,” a reference to the Tenvoorde Ranch location, where a number of scenes were filmed. Other versions hold that Pat Brennan (Scott) is the image of a Tall T, bold, strong, physically imposing.

Elmore Leonard, king of literary grit and action. He’s so natural, so easy, yet so enjoyable to read. Good writing has the confident pace of a river, carrying you along, so swiftly that you almost don’t realize you’re moving.

Like Boetticher, he transforms lowbrow into something cool.

Leonard opens with his focus on Pat Brennan, who has ”the easy, hip-shot slouch of a rider” as he slumps with his saddle and grips a Henry rifle in his right hand, a Colt holstered to his right leg, under Joshua trees that remind him of spiders.

Leonard’s dialogue is fantastic, little stuff like the interjection in the following sentence: “Then when you was going he said, ‘Patrick’ — you know how he talks — ‘I’ll give you a chance to get your yearlings free.’”

Brennan’s innermost voice emerges throughout the narrative arc. The story is deeply psychological.

Perhaps most of all, Leonard delivers a subtle, lovely sort of humor.

Screenwriter Kennedy proved more than adept at translating Leonard’s genius to the screen.

You’d do it for Randolph Scott

There’s an ongoing discussion about the differences between Randolph Scott and John Wayne as iconic leading men in the Western genre.

The general understanding is that the Duke usually portrays clear-cut heroes, while Scott plays characters who allow for ambiguity. In both cases, there are a ton of exceptions.

When fury is needed, Wayne elevates to indignation or moral courage, where Scott often reacts with stoicism or calmness, even a smile. The Duke often excels when hurled into the mud or toppled sideways drunk, while Scott more likely occupies a moralist role, a soft-voiced man of action who remains bold without sacrificing his gentleman’s code, until “Ride the High Country,” his last film, where he plays an at-times silly character.

Both men drew the love of women and the admiration of their fellow men, allies, and enemies. As Boetticher put it, Randolph Scott “had something very few people have today: he had class.” Which isn’t to say that the Duke wasn’t classy — and cool.

Another popular mechanism is to describe Wayne as an extrovert, while Scott is more introverted.

In any case, Scott is well suited to play Brennan, a former ranch foreman who gets mixed up with an heiress held for ransom by three ruthless outlaws.

‘A man gets tired of that’

This is a deeply philosophical film. The dialogue. The pacing. The nonstop paradoxes and conundrums. It fits perfectly within the American mythology of crime, full of gritty and real moments, like the conversation about how Doretta and her shady new husband “aren’t much.” The husband’s character as a whole is despicable. But not despicable enough to warrant a shot to the spine by a punk eager to accrue murders.

Part of Boetticher’s genius in “The Tall T” is that he begins with scenery and and a soundtrack that are upbeat, even playful. This adds complexity to a story that hides a psychological, even anthropological, sophistication behind its minimalism.

Perfect example: Arthur Hunnicutt, who played Bull Harris in “El Dorado,” as magical here as always. He shows courage, but not prudence, and it lands him at the bottom of a well.

Then there’s the excellent Richard Boone, who later played Frank Usher, the primary villain in “Big Jake. ” Here he leads a three-man gang. At first we assume he’s like the sociopathic degenerates he bosses around. But he proves to be more complex.

He offers these moments of graceful masculinity. When he and Brennan get a moment alone, he opens up, complaining that he doesn’t actually like his outlaw underlings: “Sometimes I get the feeling they ain’t even along. Always talking the same words. Women, drinking, and the such. I ain’t narrow-thinking, but a man gets tired of that all the time.A man gets awful tired of that.”

You won’t find many other villains willing to admit to these sorts of vulnerabilities and apprehensions.

Then he asks Brennan about his ranch: “I’m gonna have me a place someday. I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot. A man should have something of his own, something to belong to. To be proud of.”

The repeated line “I’ve thought about it a lot,” especially voiced in that tone, is not typical banter from a villain.

The humor underneath all of it is almost too subtle. Like the idea that the villainous Usher should be so eager to surprise his hostages with his moral courage.

Of course, these moments simply emphasize Brennan’s true goodness, as he works to save himself and heiress Doretta Mims, played by Maureen O’Sullivan. As Brennan’s love interest, O’Sullivan (who was 45 at the time) brings to the role a certain weariness that complements Scott’s lived-in masculinity (he was 59).

Much of Leonard’s original story takes place within Brennan, whose determination mingles with a certain melancholy heartache. Somehow Scott manages to convey this with his performance.

Something about Scott’s expressive warmth is comforting. He makes for a charming hero, with none of the irony-layered hardness to get in the way.

We first see this in the film’s opening scene. Seeking to buy a bull from the ranch where he used to work, Brennan gets talked into gambling for it. If he succeeds in riding the bull, it’s his. If he fails, he must give up his horse.

When asked, “Do you know what’s going to happen to you?” Pat says, “I think so.”

“Are you scared?”

Without shrinking, “Yeah.”

He loses and walks away, not realizing he will soon face a test with much higher stakes. In helping Doretta find her strengt,h he recovers his own. Together, they just might survive Boetticher’s colosseum of bullfighters and beasts.

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