Friday, January 29, 2010

IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE




Burt Kennedy (screenplay), based on a story by Elmore Leonard, Budd Boetticher (director), The Tall T / 1957

On his way into town to buy a bull, homesteader Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) stops by the stagecoach waystation to visit his friend Hank Parker and his young son. In this early scene we already sense the dangers and tension in director Budd Boetticher’s vision of the frontier, as, observing someone riding his way, Parker immediately grabs his rifle. The boy, however, has better eyes than his father and recognizes the man immediately as their friend, ignoring the calls of his father warning him to remain still, instead running forward with anticipation. As Parker soon after tells Brennan, living “stuck out in the middle of nowhere, all by yourself, knowin’ nobody but stage drivers and shotguns,” “ain’t no fit life at all"; certainly it is not a life he wishes for his son.

The child asks Brennan to bring him some candy back from town, a task to which the laconic and kindly farmer readily agrees. But once in town he is tricked by his former employer—a man who would like Brennan to return to work with him—to bet his horse against his ability to break the bull, which if he succeeds he will receive for free. Tossed into a nearby watering trough, Brennan comically loses, forfeiting his horse. After a quick visit to the candy shop, he is forced to walk the several miles back to his farm. While on route, however, the stage, driven by his friend Ed Rintoon, passes him, and he hails a ride—over the protests of the couple who have hired it—back to his stead.

Within the coach sits a cowardly bookkeeper, Willard Mims, and his new bride, a severely plain woman (Maureen O’Sullivan) who is the daughter of a wealthy copper miner. Clearly, the bookkeeper has married for money, and although the daughter may look plain, we see her through the eyes of Brennan as a quietly beautiful woman (she is after all Tarzan’s beloved Jane). Thus far, accordingly, Boetticher has set up the structure of a seemingly typical Western. We know love will blossom between the lonely Brennan and the miner’s daughter; it is just a question of when or how.

But Boetticher’s Westerns are not usually what they seem, and a few seconds later we enter an entirely different world, where simple black and white values suddenly disappear. When the stage reaches Parker’s station house, we see it has been taken over by three men, Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his quick-to-draw partners Chink and Billy Jack. Parker and his son are nowhere to be seen, and we suddenly perceive that what we are about to witness in the next hour is a terribly dark vision of western life when Chink shoots the coach driver dead and, upon Brennan’s inquiry into the whereabouts of Parker and his son, he is told that their bodies have been tossed into the well where a few hours earlier Brennan had watered his horse.

Before we can even catch our breath from this horrific announcement, Usher orders Mims’s wife to the house to cook, while Mims quickly strikes a bargain to leave his wife behind while he goes back to demand a ransom payment from her father. Accompanied by Usher, Mims speeds away, while the nearly speechless Brennan—the only one of the group who recognizes it may be best to hold his tongue—and Doretta Mims are cornered into a small cave-like shack from which any attempt to exit is met with gunshots.

Mims and Usher return with the news that the miner will be sending ransom by the next day; but if there is question of possible salvation in that fact, one of Usher’s men quickly shoots Mims dead. While Brennan has hidden the fact from the wife that Mims has offered her up for ransom, Usher and his boys now make it clear just how disgusting his role has been, and Doretta beaks down into fearful sobs. Later, Brennan, trying to help her regain her equilibrium, discusses the ridiculousness of her marriage:

Pat Brennan: Did you love him?
Doretta Mims: I married him.
Brennan: That’s not what I asked.
Doretta: Yes! Yes, I did.
Brennan: Mrs. Mims, you’re a liar. You didn’t love him, and never for
one minute thought he loved you. That’s true, isn’t it?
Doretta: Do you know what it’s like to be alone in a camp full of
roughneck miners, and a father who holds a quiet hatred
for you because you’re not the son he’s always wanted?
Yes, I married Willard Mims because I couldn’t stand being
alone anymore. I knew all the time he didn’t love me, but
I didn’t care. I thought I’d make him love me….by the time
he asked me to marry him, I’d told myself inside for so long
that I believed it was me he cared for and not the money.


Such language seems to belong more to the psychological stage dramas of the day—works by William Inge and Tennessee Williams—than the adventure genre of Western movies.

Soon after, moreover, Boetticher’s screenplay writer, Burt Kennedy, takes the drama even further into new territory as the cruel murderer Usher reveals in a conversation with Brennan that he hopes one day to get himself a place, “something to belong to,” and settle down. Usher goes so far as to insult the two men with whom he rides as “nothin’ but animals.” Brennan sees through the murderer’s self-delusions, however, reminding Usher, “You run with ‘em.” “Nothin’ you can do with ‘em,” Usher replies. “Nobody ever tried,” rejoins Brennan.

Indeed, there is something almost homoerotic about Usher’s controlling and manipulative relationship with the two younger villains. And in this fact, there is also a quality in Usher—in his inability to control his own apparent instincts despite his ideals—that makes him oddly likeable, as if given half a chance he might have turned into a man more like Brennan.

We know however, despite Brennan’s absurd assurances to Mrs. Mims, (“Come on now. It’s gonna be a nice day”) that if he does not act quickly they too will be destroyed. As Usher rides off to collect the ransom, Brennan tricks Chink into believing that Usher intends to leave without them, and the young man quickly rides after Usher. Suggesting to Billy Jack that he “look in on the woman,” he captures the boy’s gun and kills him. When Usher and Chink return, Brennan shoots them dead, walking off into the sunset with Doretta Mims. He will no longer be alone in “the middle of nowhere.”

There is something so dark and grandly absurd about this work that one recognizes its influence upon the work of a contemporary, postmodern dramatist such as Sam Shepard.

Los Angeles, October 17, 2008

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