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The Tall Men

18 Apr

The Tall Men — directed by Raoul Walsh. Western. A couple of hold-up men get hired by a victim to lead a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, along with the victim’s lady friend.  122 minutes Color 1955.

★★★★

What do we see Westerns for anyhow? Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men answers part of this this question most satisfactorily. He directed one of the five greatest Westerns ever made, The Big Trail, a wagon train story which brought young John Wayne in pale deerskin to the screen. It’s a better movie than this because it is about driving people and this is about driving livestock. But livestock are still very interesting, and there are 5,000 cattle here, in huge sweeps and runs and stampedes and herds, and there seem to be almost as many horses. Vast gangs appear to stop this drive and a whole tribe of Sioux Indians in full feather attempt to trap and destroy it. And all of this is set against the most spectacular mountains and deserts and valleys of the West, places you’d never get to see unless you were in a Western itself (in this case Durango, Mexico, 600 miles south of the border). And all these places giant and miniaturize the herds, the gangs and tribes, and the drivers themselves, and to these places none of the characters pay the slightest attention. But we do. Because we love to see Westerns for just such things. And because director Raoul Walsh has a singular eye for them. We also see Westerns because there is a hero: “He’s a man who you always wanted to become when you grew up, and when you were old were sad because you didn’t,” as Robert Ryan describes Clark Gable, and, boy, is he on the money. There is never a doubt about Gable’s leadership, authority, practicality, experience, or common sense about people. He has tremendous dignity and care for others, which gives him an underlying sweetness. He also has a deeply ingrained confidence in himself as an actor — lovely to see. As with all Walsh’s films the picture is grounded in a romance, in this case with Jane Russell. Jane Russell was a person directors loved to work with because she was down to earth, such a good sport and so easy to get along with, but she was not much of an actress, or, rather really not an actress at all. She was kept in a cage by Howard Hughes who owned her contract on the understanding he would support her her whole life if she allowed him to. To say that he seldom let her out to learn her craft is perhaps ingenuous, when the truth is that she was probably not inherently an actor at all. She mugs, she grimaces, she cannot say a single line convincingly. She is frightened. And therefore defensive. She had a wonderful smile, which radiates all through Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but is not on view here, although her justly famous figure is. Everything she does comes out broad, and thus she misses the humor inherent in the lines. She sings good though. The picture is one of the most beautiful color films ever made, but Leo Tover who filmed it, and Walsh, keep all color out of it, save the shades of red associated with Russell, a blanket, a pink blouse, a gaudy red party dress, a dark red cape. It’s a brilliant stroke and is the kind of spectacle only the vast, cattle-colored landscape of the West can make telling. There are long sequences of Gable and Cameron Mitchell, his unruly brother, riding in deep snow, and they are unforgettable because there is no other color but snow. The film is somewhat defeated by its costumes, a trait of color film after 1950, so Gable’s hat is store-bought-new as is his midnight blue shirt. His hair is never out of place. But he is a superb actor; he takes every scene at full value and makes it real and right, while other actors (except for Robert Ryan) founder with the improbabilities of the script. To say there is a plot or story here would be to detour your expectations. Cows are taken from one place to the next; certain episodes stall them; that is all. But that is almost all that is needed to make an heroic and engrossing Western for you.

 
 
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