Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, in which Randolph Scott's Pat Brennan and a pair of newlyweds are held hostage by a gang of outlaws following a stagecoach robbery, was based on the story “The Captives” by Elmore Leonard. This was the first screen adaptation of a story by Leonard, who disliked the film’s “slow” opening twenty minutes—and presumably the inexplicable replacement title. In this freewheeling, vaguely comic if completely unfunny prologue, Brennan rides to town to secure a bull for his new ranch, encountering a handful of stock bit characters, most of whom will soon be violently disposed of. But the conspicuous lack of drama in this segment feels necessary to Boetticher’s overall scheme. The film will eventually settle into a stark chamber piece, but not before the hero’s capacity to save everyone or anyone is called into question.

Brennan hitches a ride on a private stagecoach with a pair of newlyweds: the wealthy but “plain as adobe wall” heiress Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan) and her gold-digging cad of a bridegroom (John Hubbard). Mistaken for the mail coach, their stage is held up by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his two thugs, the psychotic Chink (Henry Silva in an early role), who murders the (clearly drunk) driver, and the dimwitted Billy Jack (Skip Homeier), who helps himself to the dead boy’s candy – all three prone to flights of countrified wisdom more poetic than anything Brennan has to say. As Brennan and the Mims’ are about to be executed—”that well’s gonna be chock-full!”—Mims’ husband, the film’s real villain, suggests that his new bride is actually a profitable and fortuitous find for the gang. “You’ve got the daughter of a millionaire! What do you suppose he’d pay to get her back?” While he rides back with Billy Jack to arrange the ransom, Doretta and Brennan are held hostage in a hillside cave, where the final half of the film takes place.

Brennan is clearly no match for Usher, much less the entire gang, but his salvation is that Usher, like everyone else, has a soft spot for him. “Suppose you’re wondering why we keep you around. Plain-face truth is I like you, Brennan.” He can’t say the same about his own minions: “I don’t like them. Always talking the same words: women, drinking and the such.” Boetticher himself described the film as a “love story” between Brennan and Usher, and though he explained this by way of their mutual respect for each other—though if it’s love, it appears to me unrequited—there are intimations that Usher has deeper feelings for Brennan. Beyond despising his gang’s talk of women—”I ain’t narrow-thinking, but a man gets tired of that”—he alludes to his unjustly sullied reputation back home despite having “never tripped a hammer on a man in my life.” Repeatedly inquiring about Brennan’s ranch, it’s almost as if he’s asking if he can come and live with him.

Brennan himself is never so gracious with Doretta, despite the love story that he’s forced to play out with her. As feelings develop between Brennan and his fellow hostage, Brennan’s way with her is brutish and awkward. It’s not clear if he’s seducing her in earnest, as part of an escape plan, or in an effort to shut her up so he can think of one. Finally driven to show some emotion, Brennan snaps at her for wallowing in self-pity, an act that could be interpreted as tough love but which reads more like exasperation. We might wince and wonder if all that loneliness hasn’t gotten the better of our hero.

Past Screenings