Sunday, January 1, 2023

#2,888. Walking Tall (1973) - Leif Garrett Triple Feature


Between 1964 and 1970, Buford Hayse Pusser served as the sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee. He made it his personal mission to clean up the area, eliminating all moonshine, gambling and prostitution that fell within his jurisdiction.

This made him some powerful enemies, and there were several attempts on Pusser’s life over the years. According to reports, he was stabbed eight times and shot as many as nine, yet always returned, as determined as ever to rid his community of crime.

Released in 1973, Walking Tall is an oft-bloody look at Pusser’s career in law enforcement, from the events that led him to run for sheriff to those that cost him everything he held dear.

At the urging of his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman), Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) retires from professional wrestling and moves back home to Tennessee, where he and his father (Noah Beery Jr) intend to start up a logging business.

Warned by his mother (Lurene Tuttle) that things have changed in McNairy County, Buford gets a glimpse at just how bad it has gotten when he accompanies an old pal to a gambling house. After catching the house cheating, Buford tries to get his friend’s money back, only to be beaten and left for dead by the side of the road.

Committed to driving the criminals out of McNairy, and to making it a better place for his son Mike (Leif Garrett) and daughter Dwana (Dawn Lyn), Buford runs for sheriff. The current Sheriff (Red West), who has been bought by the gambling houses and turns a blind eye, is none too pleased, and harasses Buford every chance he gets. Following a tragedy, Buford is elected, and sets to work carrying through on his campaign promises.

The gamblers and moonshiners do their best to eliminate Buford, who has taken to carrying a 4-foot-long club instead of a gun. Ambushed, beaten, and shot several times, Buford always recovers, and carries on with his life’s work.

That is, until one tragic Easter morning, when he suffers a loss greater than any he ever imagined.

Directed by Phil Karlson, Walking Tall is unrelenting in its depiction of violence, both against Buford and by him. When he recovers from his first beating, Buford returns to the gambling house and knocks everyone around with a baseball bat.

The brutality is often difficult to sit through, yet Baker’s solid, unwavering performance holds our attention throughout, even when it looks as if he’s down for the count (and this happens several times throughout the picture). Also strong are those sequences where we eavesdrop on meetings between the gamblers, pimps, and moonshiners as they come up with a series of plans to eliminate Buford, a few of which damn near succeed.

But it’s those moments where Buford and his deputies are taking the fight to the criminals, frustrating the hell out of them time and again, that are most satisfying. In the film’s most shocking scene, Buford rescues a prostitute who is being tortured because the criminals believe she has been tipping off the cops.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Walking Tall is that, while building Buford Pusser’s reputation as a vigilante, it also delves into his weaknesses and imperfections. After becoming sheriff, Buford and his newest deputy Obra (Felton Perry) raid a moonshine camp and arrest everyone, only to have the case thrown out of court because he didn’t first obtain a search warrant. Buford also lets his temper get the better of him, and sometimes loses his cool. This is especially noticeable in a scene where he confronts a deputy of his who had been tipping off the gamblers.

Yet, for me, the stupidest thing Buford Pusser does in this movie is allow someone to ride along with him to check on an anonymous tip. What happened as a result was as much his fault as anyone's. I was literally screaming at my TV during this sequence, asking what was he thinking?

That said, Walking Tall, with its grindhouse approach to telling its story, is an effective, harrowing look at a lawman who never backed down. It is an unforgettable motion picture.
Rating: 8 out of 10

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