Directed By: Budd Boetticher
Starring: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O'Sullivan
Tag line: "Taut! Torrid! Tremendous! T Is for Terror!"
Trivia: During filming, this movie's title was The Captives
The Tall T was the 2nd of seven Budd Boetticher westerns to star Randolph Scott, and, with all due respect to Seven Men from Now (1956) and Ride Lonesome (1959), it’s also my favorite.
After losing his horse in a bet, frontiersman Pat Brennan (Scott) hitches a ride on a stagecoach that’s been hired out by newlyweds Willard (John Hubbard) and Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan), who are heading to Bisbee on their honeymoon. Things take a turn for the worse when the stage makes a stop at a local station, which has been commandeered by a trio of outlaws; Frank (Richard Boone), Chink (Henry Silva), and Billy Jack (Skip Homeier). The stagecoach driver (Arthur Hunnicutt) is shot dead, and Willard, in an attempt to save his own skin, tells Frank that his new wife’s father is a millionaire, and is sure to pay a handsome reward for her return. Agreeing it’s a good idea, Frank sends Willard and Billy Jack ahead with a ransom note. But even though they’re safe for the time being, Brennan knows his life and the lives of the Mims’ remain in great danger.
What makes The Tall T such a noteworthy motion picture is the relationship that develops between Brennan and Frank, a couple of guys who, despite their situation, have a lot in common, perhaps more than either of them care to admit. It’s clear from the outset that Frank isn’t as volatile as his companions, Chink and Billy Jack, both of whom usually handle the rough stuff (we don’t actually see them kill the station manager or his son, whose bodies they dumped into a nearby well, but because we’d gotten to know the two victims when Brennan visited them earlier, the very revelation that they’re dead is The Tall T’s most heartbreaking scene). As for Frank, he does have a mean streak (at one point, he laughs when Doretta burns her hands on a coffee pot), yet he’s definitely the most reasonable of the trio; after writing out the ransom note for $50,000, Brennan asks why Frank settled on such a small amount (Doretta’s father is, after all, a millionaire). Frank’s simple, coarse reply is “I ain’t greedy”. In fact, Frank’s ultimate goal is simply to obtain a parcel of land, one on which he can settle down and live out the rest of his days in peace, which is exactly what Brennan himself is after.
The westerns of the 1950s tended to drift into darker territory than their predecessors, often shying away from the "good vs. bad" mentality. The films of Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur), and even John Ford (The Searchers) blurred the line between decency and dishonor, with heroes sometimes acting like criminals and villains saddled with a backstory to explain why they strayed from the straight and narrow. The Tall T is one of the better westerns to emerge from this period, taking full advantage of a new and more realistic approach to relating the history of the American West.