Tall Man Riding

It’s been a good few months now since I last featured a western on this site, not that the site itself has been all that active of course, so I thought it might be time to return to the genre which has been at the heart of the place over the years. Under the circumstances, what better choice than a Randolph Scott movie from the mid-50s, that time when the star and the genre were at their height. Tall Man Riding (1955) is not in the very front rank of Scott westerns but it’s not what I’d term a weak effort either. We get a director and a lead both working smoothly and professionally and a story which is built around the classic revenge/redemption motif, so there’s plenty to enjoy here.

It opens in what we might refer to as regulation fashion, with a rider coming upon someone in distress. In this case, the rider is  Larry Madden (Randolph Scott) and his travels are interrupted by a horseman going hell for leather across the plains with a handful of trigger-happy types in hot pursuit. While Madden has no idea exactly what he’s witness to, he takes it upon himself to balance the odds a little. With the immediate threat repulsed, he’s both bemused and a little amused to learn that the man he’s just rescued is closely connected to an old adversary. The thing is, Madden is a man with a grudge, and an appetite for a chilled plate of revenge. His back is crisscrossed by the scars of a lash while his mind bears less visible ones, the product of a five-year-old feud that saw his home burned down and his hopes for marriage similarly reduced to ashes. And now he’s unwittingly saved the neck of the man who, to all intents and purposes, stepped into his shoes. Well ain’t that a kick in the head! Anyway, that’s our introduction to the story, but there are a good many twists and turns still ahead: misunderstandings of past and present, alliances and double-crosses, realizations and resolutions to be reached.

The overarching theme of Tall Man Riding is obviously that of revenge, how the desire for it arises, how it affects people and how little it ultimately offers those who dedicate themselves to attaining it. This may not be anything new or startling but it’s a worthwhile point and one which is well made here. All the main characters learn something as they go along, some uncomfortable truths about themselves and others, but generally grow as a result of this. I guess the script could be said to be packed a little too full – there are a range of relationships and associations introduced and only a mere handful of them are explored in any kind of depth. Of course, we don’t need to have everything laid out for us and the glimpses we’re afforded and the allusions consequently drawn could be said to add to the tapestry of the piece as a whole. The screenplay is adapted from a novel by Norman A Fox, which I have an unread copy of somewhere but I can’t seem to lay my hands on it right now, and the complexity of the story most likely stems from that source.

The movie is tightly directed by Lesley Selander, diving straight into the action and, even though there are lulls along the way, ensuring that the tale moves forward at a brisk pace. Selander’s films tend to have an edge to them, sometimes even a frank brutality, but this production mostly confines itself to references to past excesses – the scars of whippings borne by Scott and another character – yet there’s something rather harsh about the blackened and exposed remains of Scott’s former home, suggesting the destruction and consumption of some deeply cherished feelings in the inferno. On a more prosaic level, there is also a pretty tough punch-up which dispenses with music and thus keeps our attention firmly focused on its bruising physicality. In addition, the climax sees an excitingly shot land grab sequence, with men, wagons and horses racing and milling wildly in the charge to lay claim to as much choice real estate as possible.

Randolph Scott had a natural nobility, his easy charm and courtesy slotting in nicely alongside it. Still, his best roles and best movies offset this quality somewhat by blending in some complexity of character, at least a hint of ambiguity. Tall Man Riding follows that pattern by giving him a driven, hardness derived from his hunger for vengeance. And the fact we can see the emotional toll this has been taking on him makes his realization of the futility of his quest, and then the subsequent path towards personal redemption, all the more effective and satisfying. While the attention remains on Scott throughout there is able support from both Peggie Castle and Dorothy Malone. Both women have contrasting roles, the former as a streetwise saloon singer and the latter as Scott’s old flame, but their characters look for common ground and the work done by  the two actresses goes a long way towards building up the emotional substance at the heart of the story. John Dehner is as good as he always was as a lawyer advising Scott, and whose motives are only gradually revealed. The principal villain is played by John Baragrey with a generous coating of slick oiliness. Other significant parts are taken by William Ching, Robert Barrat and Paul Richards.

Tall Man Riding has been out on DVD for ages, on a triple feature disc along with Fort Worth and Colt 45. There’s a bit of print damage on show from time to time but nothing too fatal and color and detail are quite acceptable for the most part. AS I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the film doesn’t sit up there with the very best Scott did but it remains a solid example of filmmaking and, if we’re going to be honest here, there isn’t too much genuinely poor stuff in his credits from the late 40s onward. Professional work from Scott and Selander, supported by Castle and Malone, and attractive photography by Wilfred M Cline, makes for a very entertaining feature in my opinion – worth checking out, if you haven’t already done so.

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41 thoughts on “Tall Man Riding

  1. Hi, Colin – great to see another Western review from you and one that maintains the high quality of all the reviews of yours that I have read. I like the way you characterise the kind of persona Randolph Scott usually projects in his movies. In an older review you used the term “resignation” and in this one “natural nobility”: both descriptions hit the mark for me. I think Joel McCrea injected more warmth in his roles – not saying that Randy was incapable of doing that – but not the nobility. They are two first-rate Western stars and their name in a cast is always a reason for me to watch a movie. I have ‘Tall Man Riding’ in the three-movie set you mention and your review has inspired me to watch it again for the first time in some years.

    • Job done then, if I persuaded you to give the film another look!
      Scott could come across as a little distant or reserved , yt never cold, but in a good way and he used that well – it defined his persona and the way he approached his roles.

      • Hi, Colin – inspired by your review, I re-watched Tall Man Riding yesterday for the first time in years. It’s good entertainment and I agree with your estimation that it’s not one of Scott’s top notch films but it’s still pretty good. What stood out to me was, as you noted, its two strong roles for women and how well the actresses delivered. I was also shocked at the violence that was meted out to one of those female characters. Thank you for pointing me towards this attractive movie and keep those Western reviews coming.

        • I’m glad you felt like watching the movie, Steve, and even more pleased that you took the time to come back and comment on it.
          There’s enough going on to make it enjoyable and good, and I also think it’s important not to expect every film to represent the very pinnacle. A good movie is just that, good.

  2. Looking forward to getting this – it is apparently due out in Italy in a few weeks (it’s like they read your blog too …). And frankly, I’ll watch anything with Dorothy Malone (she was certainly the best thing in BASIC INSTINCT)

  3. A big fan of this one. Solid plot and cast. Love your descriptive phrase,” an appetite for a chilled plate of revenge “!
    Isn’t John Baragrey up there with the smoothest of villains.
    Nice part for Peggy Castle.

    • Thanks. I think the villains and the supporting cast bring a lot to the movie. I haven’t seen Baragrey in many other things, or can’t recall offhand, but I was impressed with that smoothness, very reptilian. And yes, Castle was terrific, neatly sidestepping around all the cliches that her part could easily have dragged her into.

  4. Great to see RTHC gaining pace-and I love the ever changing header – a neat idea and the current ones a doozy and most apt, I might add.
    Pretty much agree with everything that you say and it’s odd that this was Scott’s and Selander’s sole film together. I liked seeing Johnny Cash look a like Paul Richards play “The Peso Kid” and as you say a great roster of supporting players.
    I’d love to see some of the better Scott Warners Westerns on Blu Ray – and TALL MAN RIDING in high definition in it’s original aspect ratio of 1.66 would be very welcome.

    • Glad you like the headers, John, it’s something I’ve been playing around with lately and was wondering how it was going down.
      Richards did give off a bit of a Johnny Cash vibe and added a lot of menace the way he simply slouched around the periphery for most of the first half and said next to nothing, just glowered and threatened.
      It’s good that you mentioned the aspect ratio as I’d neglected to do so myself – the 1.33:1 framing of the DVD is perfectly watchable and doesn’t look too bad but it wouldn’t have been the correct one for a 1955 film.

  5. I’ve always been very fond of this film and its supporting actors and their characters are particularly memorable. Paul Richards was always great. His character was the only gunman (I think) who beat Matt Dillon to the draw in “Gunsmoke”…and, what’s more, did so in the very first episode! And as for John Baragrey’s character “Cibo Pearlo” (what a name!), “reptilian” is a very good description. What’s always stuck in my mind about the character is his turbo-charged level of self-deception. He regards himself as “pure Castilian”…as if he’s some sort of temporarily shunned European aristocrat who’s just waiting ro reclaim his rightful place in high society. And, all the time, it’s perfectly obvious that he’s just a slimy saloon keeper in a western town!
    Great film and a good example of why even ‘ordinary’ 1950s westerns could be highly entertaining and contain characters you remember. Thanks for the review Colin.

    • Hi, Dafydd, glad you enjoyed the piece and that you share a fondness for the movie. Yes, Cibo Pearlo is a terrific name and has just the right shade of grubby grandeur to fit the character perfectly.
      Also, bearing in mind that, while good, this still isn’t one of Scott’s very best, it speaks volumes about the depth of quality in genre filmmaking at this time.

  6. Wonderful to see you reviewing a western once again, Colin, and a very enjoyable one to boot!

    Like John, I also like the changing headers. Adds a lot, I think.

    I remember seeing Dorothy Malone in the lead role of Constance Mackenzie in the TV serial, ‘PEYTON PLACE’. She brought some real class to it. She is a favourite actress of mine and I really enjoyed the ‘zing’ she brought to “SADDLE LEGION” as a frontier doctor with Tim Holt in 1951 when I saw it for the first time in 2015. Seeing her AND the stunning, and underrated, Peggie Castle, in the same film under review here makes it a MUST for me!

    As you say, not top-line Scott but not far below either.

    • Another vote for the header images – so far, so good then!
      We sometimes hear how the western wasn’t a genre which offered a lot to actresses but this one is a good example of how mistaken that line of thinking is. Both Castle and Malone have interesting roles and the two of them are a large part of what makes the movie such an enjoyable one.

    • Yes, do so when you get the chance, Chris. Some films don’t stand up so well to repeat viewings but there’s enough going on in this one to make it satisfying.

  7. Nice one Colin, hope this means you are getting back into the groove again. I don’t think I’ve seen this one, which is entirely my fault as I believe it’s been on television an awful lot, especially while FOTB was at its most active, but I just didn’t get around to it. Unforgivably I suspect I went with believing that the title plus Scott as the star said everything I needed to know about it. Still, I’ll hunt it down following your comments – it does appear the perfect vehicle for playing to RS’s talents.

    • Well you can’t watch everything, Mike, and there are plenty of titles I’ve similarly neglected and keep putting off.
      Give it a go when you next have the opportunity and see what you think, only don’t expect it to be another lost Boetticher or something – maybe approach it like the better films he made with De Toth.

  8. Well said Colin. Hard to go wrong with a Scott duster if you ask me. Selander turned out a very good film in 53 called WAR PAINT that is well worth a look for genre fans. It is up last I looked on You-Tube. Keep them coming Colin.

    Gord

  9. Thought I’d see if this is available on YouTube. Nope … couldn’t even find a trailer. Just a couple of clips. I do wish they’d show some of these old Westerns on TV at times, but these days they don’t. Otherwise it takes some effort – and a few bucks to get ’em.

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