A Pistol For My Partner: The Tall T (1957)
Updated: 7 days ago
He arrives through a landscape of rock. Boulders, outcroppings, mountains in the distance -- all devoid of life, not even a blade of grass in sight. Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) rides towards a valley, green and lush, the Sierra Nevadas just beyond it. It’s an oasis in the unforgiving desert, and a familiar spot for Brennan. He’s stopping at the station house run by his old friend Hank. Before he can recognize the aged buster, Hank pulls his rifle. Station houses, stopping points for stagecoaches, are dangerous places and easy targets, stuck as they are in the middle of nowhere. But Hank’s young son, Jeff, recognizes Brennan and runs up to greet him. After taking a drink of water for himself and his horse, Brennan makes his way to the town of Contention to try and buy a seed bull for a ranch he’s setting up.
That’s how The Tall T starts. The 1957 Western, directed by Budd Boetticher and adapted for the screen by Burt Kennedy from a story by Elmore Leonard, would see"The Captives" become the famed pulp master’s first work adapted for the screen (followed by 3:10 to Yuma  just two months later). Leonard’s original, and Kennedy’s adaptation, follow each other closely, differing only slightly in minor details. The core is a love story between two men who inhabit the same soul, only in different bodies. One, Brennan, the would-be rancher, and the other, Frank Usher (Richard Boone), an outlaw who uses violence to get what he wants (or, at least, directs underlings to use violence on his behalf). It’s not a love story in the romantic sense, but in the aspirational sense. Usher sees himself as Brennan in a different life, and wants to convince Brennan of the same.
Usher comes into the story -- both Leonard’s and Kennedy’s -- after Brennan loses his horse in a gamble to get stock for his ranch. Not having enough money, he takes a wager: ride a bull without being thrown and get the bull in return. Get thrown, and the rancher, Tenvoorde*, gets Brennan's horse. Not a bad bet, until Brennan gets thrown and heads back to the station house, saddle in hand. Along the way, he hitches a ride on a rented stagecoach, driven by his friend, Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt), and occupied by newlyweds Willard and Doretta Mims (John Hubbard and Maureen O’Hara).
When they arrive at Hank’s station house, it’s empty and the party soon discovers why; three men have killed Hank and his son, Jeff, and plan on robbing the mail coach. They mistake the rented newlyweds' coach for their target and murder Rintoon. The men are led by Usher, who orders his two partners, Billy Jack (Skip Homeier) and Chink (Henry Silva), to hold the Mims and Brennan until he can figure out what to do. Before he can come up with a scheme of his own, Willard helps Frank concoct a pretty ruthless plan: ransom his rich wife for profit.
It is here that the story becomes something quite different. Ostensibly moving through the mechanics of captives fighting to stay alive, it simultaneously becomes a study in lives gone awry -- of intentions and goals leading similar people to drastically different positions. Both Willard and Doretta married for selfish reasons; he for her money, and she for her pride. Where Willard's a greedy dolt, Doretta was getting older and did not want to spend her twilight years a spinster. Across the dark cave that doubles as a holding cell, Brennan and Usher both simply desired a ranch of their own, but have taken morally divergent paths to reach a seemingly shared destination.
Of course, that destination is arrived at far earlier than anyone predicted, and turns out to be a place none of them knew they were going. The station house, and the lifeless rocky terrain surrounding it, are the crossroads where none of these folks expected to meet. When Willard happily agrees to go get the money from Doretta’s father, Chink shoots him on Usher’s orders. He was never going to return anyway and, being a selfish coward, Usher knew he’d never even go to the authorities. But he killed him anyway because here was a man abandoning his wife to save his own pathetic self.
When Doretta falls to the ground in disbelief and confused grief, Usher seems genuinely perplexed. He actually asks Brennan, a man he now speaks to as if they’re equals, “what do you suppose is the matter with her?” He then nudges her with his boot, asking her directly, “Hey lady, don’t you realize what you just got out of?”
Brennan agrees with Usher that Willard was no good, yet insists the yellow husband didn’t need to die. He wonders how Usher can think he’s any better for killing him, to which Usher expresses disbelief, “If you can’t see the difference, I ain’t gonna explain it to you.”
Frank Usher is a man who will kill for personal gain but still, somehow, draws a moral line at treating a lady like chattel. He’ll have that same lady killed to cover his tracks, but the difference for him is that there’s no betrayal involved. Had Frank Usher inhabited The Godfather universe, he would’ve surely explained to her that what he does isn’t personal, it’s strictly business. What Willard did; that was personal and required punishment.
But Brennan still doesn’t find himself standing too far from Usher, and attempts to relay the same moral code to Doretta in his own way. Though the language is altered, the central notion is clear: alone with the newly minted widow, he tells her in so many words that she didn’t lose a damn thing with Willard’s death.“You're alive and he’s dead and that’s the difference!” he says to her. Finally, she admits as much herself: "I saw him killed just now and I couldn’t even feel sorry for him. All I could do was think that he didn’t love me.”
The reckonings of Pat Brennan, Frank Usher, and Doretta Mims comprise one of the strangest and most powerful love triangles in all of cinema. In this case, it’s not two men pining over one woman, but rather one man and one woman pining over another man. Usher wants to be the kind of stalwart "man’s man" that Brennan clearly is, and Doretta longs for a stud with the kind of strength and moral clarity that Brennan possesses.
Yet Brennan also longs for something more, complaining early on to Hank about being alone. He sees something in both Usher and Doretta. In Usher, he sees a wilder side of himself, a partner in crime, as it were, that could challenge him and keep him ever vigilant. In Doretta, he envisions a much-needed nurturer, someone to care for him and give him love.
Making all this apparent without becoming obvious, was the work of Elmore Leonard and Burt Kennedy -- one considered the greatest writer of the western canon (as opposed to the Western canon) and the other considered the best movie Western writer ever (at least according to Budd Boetticher).
Boetticher ought to know, being one of the best directors of Westerns ever. Choosing his favorite location, the Alabama Hills of California near the Sierra Nevadas, lent rocky manifestation to the inner workings of the characters. And those characters could not have been drawn more sharply by any other actors. Richard Boone and Maureen O’Sullivan do a delicate dance of fighting against who they are and who they want to be. Meanwhile, Randolph Scott continues to do the performative Lord's work he began with Boetticher and Scott on Seven Men From Now (1956). With his 59-year-old frame and weathered face, Scott personifies nothing less than grizzled resolve itself, standing in staunch resistance to anyone trying to change his fate except for him. If they’d written Unforgiven (1992) back in '57, Scott would have undoubtedly been the man to cast.
Boetticher, who had studied bullfighting for years, said later that in many of his movies, the villain and hero roles could have been switched without much trouble. Just as in the bullring, the matador and bull are not hero and villain but adversaries, matching off, walking the ring. A ring where one, whether matador or bull, can circle the other, looking for their strengths, exploiting their weaknesses. It’s unclear even after multiple viewings who is the matador and who is the bull in The Tall T. I suppose it depends on which one the viewer thinks has the edge. In a bullfight, the bull is on the defense most of the time, trying to survive against a killer armed with spears. But the bull has his own spears built in. Usher has the guns, and the men, but Brennan has the fight, and the will to live.
Boetticher and Scott would make more movies together, a collection of classics now known as The Ranown Cycle, a portmanteau for the production company Scott ran with producer Harry Joe Brown. Every one of them is a classic, without question, and speak strongly to the notion that big budgets and lavish productions are not necessary to make a masterpiece. But of all of them, The Tall T is perhaps the best. At the very least, it remains one of the damnedest love triangles the “western” canon ever produced.
*The title of the film baffled even Boetticher until months later when he discovered that since "The Captives" had already been registered by another production company, a producer named it The Tall T after the Tenvoorde ranch Brennan first visits.
Greg Ferrara has written for Turner Classic Movies, Mondo Cult, Rebeller, Movies Unlimited, Cinema Fusion, Filmstruck, Criterion, and other places, both here and there.