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.