There's a man riding up to the swing station out in the middle of nowhere which is tended by Hank (Fred Sherman) and his young son Jeff (Christopher Olsen), and Hank is immediately on edge, grabbing his rifle. But Jeff runs out to meet the rider, recognising him as Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott), an old friend. Hank is apologetic, but even with civilisation encroaching in the Old West, it doesn't hurt to be too careful. After taking water from the well, Brennan takes a request from the boy for a bag of cherry-striped candy and rides off in the direction of town, not realising this is the last time he will ever see the pair...
Based by Burt Kennedy on an Elmore Leonard story, and generally regarded as the best of the Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher westerns, The Tall T was a deceptively simple tale of hostages and ransom that had hidden, psychological depths. For the first twenty minutes you'll be wondering where the excitement is meant to stem from as Brennan goes about his daily life, setting up his new ranch alone. When he reaches town he encounters old friend Ed Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicut), a stage driver who is being hassled by a newlywed couple who want to use his services for a private journey.
The couple are the Mims, husband Willard (John Hubbard) and wife Doretta (Maureen O'Sullivan), and their story is that he has not married her for love, but because he stands to get his hands on her mine-owning father's fortune, while she is worried that she will die a spinster as she approaches middle age and has seized the oppportunity to wed rather than be left on the shelf. Brennan doesn't know it, but their paths are destined to cross later on, as they represent the new life of stability that he is trying to buy into with his new ranch.
However, the West can still be a dangerous place. Watch the candy that Brennan buys - he carries it with him, all through an attempt to win his own bull, a bet he loses along with his horse. That candy is a symbol of decency, so when he persuades Rintoon to allow him to ride on the stagecoach and save him a walk, they end up back at the swing station and the tone changes abruptly. The candy is snatched from Brennan by one of the three villains they meet there, and ends up in the dust. Hank and Jeff have been murdered, and now Rintoon is gunned down as he makes to defend himself. The ringleader of this gang? One Frank Usher (Richard Boone), an outlaw who has more in common with Brennan than either care to admit.
Willard Mims makes a deal with the killers: he will set up a deal with his wife's father to secure a ransom from him, if he will spare their lives. Usher despises him for this, but being somewhat despicable himself agrees when there's so much money at stake. So Willard rides off, leaving Doretta behind with Brennan as hostages; Usher's psychopathic henchmen, Billy Jack (Skip Homeier) and Chink (Henry Silva) are itching to gun down Brennan, but their boss recognises something of himself in him and keeps him alive. However, he cannot do so forever and the tension, which is considerable, is all about how Brennan can get out of this seemingly hopeless situation. As they wait, it grows clear that he is a much worthier partner for Doretta than her new husband, but more death awaits - this is a surprisingly violent film for its time. And violence is one of the themes, along with how excusable society's expectations of punishment and justice can be, but really this is simply a first rate western which has undercurrents of commentary that only enhance the excellent story. Music by Heinz Roemheld.
I didn't know this was an Elmore Leonard novel! You're right - this is the best Boetticher/Scott western, although I have a fondness for Commanche Station and Buchanan Rides Alone (if only for the title).