The Tall Stranger


Thematically, what is the western all about? That’s a big question, bearing in mind the breadth and endurance of the genre. So many themes have been encompassed over the decades and plots have woven all types of ideas into the fabric of the genre. I frequently return to the notion of redemption and it naturally crops up time and again, but I’m inclined to think the western is all about searching. Sure John Ford made one of the greatest movies of all time with that word and idea helping to form its title, but the concept of groups and individuals forever ranging towards a mythical west in search of something is at the root of so many stories. Even that is a nebulous comment and open to all kinds of interpretations so I’ll try to nail it down a bit. I reckon the western is primarily about seeking out a place of one’s own, either a spiritual or physical promised land, somewhere for characters to fulfill themselves, to add that last elusive piece to the puzzle of their own existence. For one reason or another, I found myself mulling this over the other day as I watched The Tall Stranger (1957), a decidedly modest western and one which I doubt the filmmakers actively thought of in those terms. Still, just because a theme may not have been foremost in the minds of those making a movie does not mean it is not there, or that is any less relevant as a consequence.

From feuds and fights to romance and reputations, The Tall Stranger has no shortage of ideas to bulk out its 80 minute running time. The opening image is a staple of the genre, with a lone rider making his way across the wilderness, his eyes probing the horizon and beyond, searching for something. Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea)  chances upon a group of men riding herd on some cattle and, out of curiosity, pauses to take a better look. That proves to be a mistake, costing him his horse and almost his own life at the hands of an unseen sniper. As he lies on the ground seriously wounded and at the edge of consciousness, he glimpses the gold-plated rifle and fancy spurs sported by his assailant. However, Bannon is a lucky man and is rescued and nursed back to health by a wagon train of former Confederates heading west and hoping for a fresh start in California. In among those is Ellen (Virginia Mayo), a woman bringing up a little boy on her own. These two people find themselves drawn to each other, perhaps as a result of their shared status as outsiders, Bannon’s having been a Union officer adding to his otherness next to the Southerners. A few of those plot elements are therefore seeded quite early, but the depths of the feuding and conflict are mined later. We first learn that Bannon is headed back to the ranch run by his half-brother, a man who has sworn revenge on him for the death of his only son during the war, then there is another layer of conflict to come as the settlers, under the influence of a manipulative opportunist, make their minds up to stake out a piece of the sprawling ranch for themselves. As such, everything is set up for a showdown between these competing forces and personalities, all of them looking to carve out and lay claim to a little corner of the world to call their own.

While The Tall Stranger is not a particularly ambitious movie, or certainly not one which sets out its stall to deal head on with big themes, it manages to incorporate some of those core ingredients of the genre into its compact form and structure. The concept of competing factions in conflict over the land itself is timeless, one that underpins not just the western but so much human drama. That the events on screen take place in the immediate aftermath of a war over control of the country emphasizes the never ending nature of this struggle among men for mastery of the land, of the hunger to make it theirs. Yet it is the more personal need to achieve a sense of belonging and permanence that is of greater interest. Bannon is a man made rootless by his personal feuds and the scars of battle. He is, however, an optimist in the best western tradition, forever looking ahead to greener pastures and better times. In Ellen he discovers someone else cast adrift in the world, a self-confessed fugitive from tutting puritanism. The need of these two lonely people for something as simple as a home, a place to lay down their own roots and tend to them quietly, provides the heart of the story, and in its own way is an unpretentious reflection of the perennial appeal of the western.

Joel McCrea was one of the linchpin actors of the western, as essential to its development as John Wayne, James Stewart, Randolph Scott or Gary Cooper. All the great western actors brought something unique and special to the table, and in McCrea’s case it was that sense of dignified and courtly decency. He shares some fine moments with Virginia Mayo, not least an early scene where he rides off, perhaps never to return as far as the two of them are concerned at that stage, and the unspoken regret and hurt of both is palpable. Later, there is the scene outside the ranch house, where Mayo tells of her past with raw frankness and McCrea perfectly encapsulates the innocent bewilderment of his character. Both Mayo and McCrea had starred in Raoul Walsh’s marvelous Colorado Territory almost  a decade earlier and The Tall Stranger reunited them. While the relationship in this movie may not have the hot and tragic passion of that in Walsh’s work, their quiet, understated yearning is every bit as powerful and compelling.

The supporting cast is deep and strong, with Leo Gordon and Michael Pate in rare sympathetic roles and Barry Kelley providing plenty of meaty bluster as McCrea’s hardheaded half-brother. The villains of the piece are a flashily dangerous Michael Ansara and George Neise as the chief pot stirrer. Ray Teal and Whit Bissell have small parts and their presence is as welcome as ever.

With a script by Christopher Knopf (Hell Bent for Leather) from a Louis L’Amour novel, The Tall Stranger packs a lot into its relatively brief running time. Director Thomas Carr has it looking reasonably good and uses the ‘Scope frame well, but there is, in my opinion anyway, an over-reliance on day-for-night filters. I don’t believe the movie has had a release on disc anywhere which respects the aspect ratio. However, it can usually be viewed in the correct ‘Scope format online, and in very good quality too.

Sometimes the least likely places harbor the clearest truths, pared down modesty serving to draw attention to the essentials where intricacy and ambition can perhaps end up obscuring them – Sir Isaac Newton once made a similar point in much more elegant terms when he said: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” So, to finish up, The Tall Stranger will never make anyone’s list of top westerns yet it contains within it, and maybe even in spite of itself, a lot of what makes the genre work.

34 thoughts on “The Tall Stranger

  1. “THE TALL STRANGER” is VERY much my kind of western. As a kid I discovered a love of the genre from comic books, TV showings of old B-westerns and then early TV series like “The Range Rider”. I was lucky enough to have a Mum who took me to see new releases of the westerns of Fred MacMurray and Joel McCrea in particular. I can, even now, remember the scene of the star’s ambush at the start of this film and the spurs and rifle of his attacker, as described so well by Colin.

    I have never lost my love of westerns and Joel McCrea, to me, epitomises the best aspects of the western hero. I think a film that makes an early impression in your life maybe keeps a special place in your heart. This one surely did.

    Not a classic, as Colin says, but the kind of ‘bread-and-butter’ western so important to the genre.

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    • It’s wonderful that that you have such happy memories associated with the movie, Jerry, and I appreciate your sharing those reminiscences here.

      As for the movie itself, it’s a really enjoyable example of those “bread and butter” efforts that form the backbone of the western.

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  2. A fair review of a minor western boosted by the stars appeal of Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. This was one of my weekend matinees a long time ago.

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  3. For the last several posts, both here and at Laura’s, we have been badly missing the always-interesting input of our good posse member, Walter! Hope all is well with you, Walter, and that you will be back on board very soon.

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  4. Colin
    Nicely done write-up of a better than expected duster. LOL, I found it a bit hard to take Leo Gordon and Michael Pate without their usual black hats. George Neise shows that he should have been given larger roles more often. He makes an excellent low-life. Director Carr I recall from many diff western series like Rawhide. All in all the film is a workman like production, with the whole cast and crew performing well..
    Again, well done.

    Gord

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    • It’s good to see Pate and Gordon on the side of the angels for a change. I’d say it’s better than workmanlike overall with solid and professional performances from an attractive cast.

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  5. “The Calgary Stampede” July 8-17. 10 days of rodeo and outdoor action with a million plus visitors over those 10 days. This year leading the opening parade is Kevin Costner. The parade goes right past my place with plenty of horses and lots of noise.
    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In the UK THE TALL STRANGER was intended to be the support feature to THE GOLDEN DISC a weak low budget effort to cash in on the then popularity of Brit Rocker Terry Dene. As THE GOLDEN DISC was also in black & white and a very bad movie the distributors decided to switch the billing-especially as the McCrea film had the advantage of ‘scope and color. To meet the the family entertainment double bill standards the nude bathing scene with Virginia Mayo had to go;by nude bathing scene I mean a (very) long shot of a body double possibly wearing a body stocking. This was seen by the UK censor as too much to inflame Britain’s increasingly wayward youth so the scene had to go. I’ve seen the film several times at UK cinemas and wondered why a shot of Mayo by the lake fully clothed suddenly cuts to McCrea and Ansara grappling on the ground. The censor’s scissors were extremely clumsy that day. THE TALL STRANGER is no COLORADO TERRITORY but it moves at a fast clip has a good supporting cast and is crammed with action. Sadly THE TALL STRANGER is one of several good Allied Artists Westerns now owned by Paramount so a DVD/Blu Ray release seems unlikely. A whole chunk of the Allied Artists/Monogram library were purchased by Republic decades ago and Paramount now own the entire Republic catalogue.

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    • There is a positive side to the ownership of some of these movies, John. Those which have surfaced online and elsewhere recently have been looking very good and have clearly been spruced up for syndication, HD broadcast or whatever.

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  7. All
    A nice triple bill is coming up one one of my cable movie channels. THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAM 1957, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS 1956 and the 1982 remake of THE THING.
    Later in the week I get the Randy Scott RIDE LONESOME 1949.

    Jerry, A film you have mentioned you are looking for, SWORD IN THE DESERT 1947 is coming up here on TCM. Does TCM in the UK show the same films? TCM is also showing a Victor Mature film I have never seen, THE SHARKFIGHTERS from 1956. Then the great low budget film noir, HIGH TIDE 1947,makes its first appearance on TCM.

    Gordon

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    • I think TCM UK does not follow its parent channel, Gord, but having said that some of those films might make it through down the line.
      I did manage to source a copy of “SWORD IN THE DESERT” a while back but the print quality is pretty poor. I was glad to be able to catch the film at last but a pristine showing is something I am going to be on the lookout for on TCM UK. Fingers crossed! Thanks for the heads-up.

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  8. Colin
    Saw HIGH TIDE in a ratty vhs tape 15 or so years ago. Loved the movie but sure would love to see a nice print.

    Jerry
    Glad to give you the heads up.
    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

  9. As a B Movie Junkie who considers restorations of two obscure Monogram pictures “essential” I’m more than happy
    to pay whatever Flicker Alley are asking for THE GUILTY and HIGH TIDE.
    I don’t have TCM and have no intention of getting it,sucker I may be but I’m more than happy to splash the cash especially where wonderful restorations of B Movie gems are concerned. Besides I want to OWN these films-I don’t even have the means to
    record stuff let alone download. Even suckers can get an even break because what TCM cannot provide (as far as I know) are superb extras in Flicker Alley’s package.
    There’s a lowdown on Cornell Woolrich for starters as well as a most informative piece on Lee Tracy by Imogen Sara Smith.
    Eddie Muller considers Smith the finest writer on film anywhere today, who am I to argue. Best of all is a profile of power couple Jack Wrather and Bonita Granville.
    Texas oil tycoon Wrather married Granville and as a team they ventured into movie production and later much more successfully TV production (The Lone Ranger, Lassie and so on) The two Monogram pictures got the ball rolling alongside a couple of other obscure titles STRIKE IT RICH a “Wildcatter” Western starring Granville, Rod Cameron and Don Castle. STRIKE IT RICH was directed by Lesley Selander and I understand Warners own the rights to this one. What was so interesting to me was the relationship between the Wrathers and the Ladd’s (as in Alan.) I was always intrigued by Jack Wrather Jr and Don Castle’s appearance in THE BIG LAND not to mention the wonderful Julie Bishop so good in HIGH TIDE. THE BIG LAND was Julie’s last picture.
    It appears the Ladds and the Wrathers were very close and THE BIG LAND is a tough watch for me as both Ladd and Castle died far too young (50 & 48 ) both from an overdose within a couple of years of each other. Don Castle is great in this Monogram double bill he certainly had the looks and the talent to go further but sadly,as with Ladd he could not shake off his demons despite continued support from The Wrathers.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Here’s an interesting snippet…………..
    Studio Canal UK will release Compton Bennet’s THE FLYING SCOT on Blu Ray early August from a 4K restoration. There are some interesting extras to bolster this Brit B Movie. Studio Canal normally lease their B Movies to Network and release more prestige titles themselves so this is a change of tack for them. THE FLYING SCOT is certainly a comedown for director Bennett considering the gems he made in his A List days but never mind that, for many of us this is B Movie bliss. I think THE FLYING SCOT is from the Anglo Amalgamated library and heaven knows they made plenty of B Movies,so here’s hoping.
    The restorations that I’ve seen from Studio Canal lately have been splendid so THE FLYING SCOT should look sensational.
    For our American Friends the £ has never sunk so low so it’s a great time to buy British. I might add that all Studio Canal’s Blu Ray’s are Region B Locked.

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  11. Colin, I really enjoyed reading your good write-up of THE TALL STRANGER(1957). First of all, I really like this Western Movie. I’m in the same wagon with Vienna and Jerry Entract where it comes to this movie. I didn’t first view THE TALL STRANGER as a youngster, but I did finally catch up with it in 1986 on the CHRISTIAN BROADCASTING NETWORK(CBN), which showed a lot of Western Movies and tv shows in the 1980’s.

    I like your idea here, “I’m inclined to think the western is all about searching.” This is a rather good point and you continue with, “the concept of groups and individuals forever ranging towards a mythical west in search of something is at the root of so many stories.” Yes, I think it is also and you go on with, “the western is primarily about seeking out a place of one’s own, either a spiritual or physical promised land, somewhere for characters to fulfill themselves, to add that last elusive piece to the puzzle of their own existence.” That is some good thinking and I think it goes along with many life stories involving the human condition as we know it. We all search for something. In THE TALL STRANGER the people of the wagon train are in search of a new life and they believe that it can be found in California. This is a quintessential storyline of the American westward movement.

    Did the moviemakers actively think in these terms? I think some of them did, but basically most were professionals looking for a good story, which would enable them to make a living in the business. Now, we as an audience, bring something to the table, also. As individuals we may view things that the writer/director/producer/photographer/editor may have not necessarily intended, but that is part of the audience participation in the movie and that is what we enjoy, isn’t it?

    I think THE TALL STRANGER is a solid made bread and butter Western, which is what I enjoy seeing ride down my lane. What a good cast we have lead by Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. They all do a first rate job, right down to Tom London and John Mitchum. There is a lot packed into this 82 minute movie and it isn’t dull by any means. There is some skulduggery afoot and plenty of action to keep things rolling along. When the climax arrives, we are psychologically ready for the gun battle that erupts all over the place. In the house, barn, bunkhouse, yard, and everywhere.

    I really like THE TALL STRANGER and think it is well worth viewing.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to read and reply, Walter. This film just seemed to sum up neatly that point about the end result, or the result we as viewers can take away from it, sometimes amounting to more than the filmmakers originally intended.

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