Monday, February 17, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Tall Stranger (1957)

Having visited the Joel McCrea Ranch this weekend, it's no surprise that put me in the mood to watch a McCrea Western!

That film was THE TALL STRANGER (1957), a movie from the later part of McCrea's career which was brand-new viewing for me. THE TALL STRANGER was based on a book by Louis L'Amour.

McCrea plays Ned Bannon, returning home to the West after the Civil War. He has the misfortunate to stumble across some cattle rustlers during his journey; they shoot him and leave him for dead, but he's found and nursed back to health by the members of a passing wagon train. The wagon train includes the too-slick, calculating Harper (George Neise), a leader who may not have everyone's best interests at heart, and a pretty widow, Ellen (Virginia Mayo), who has a young son (Philip Phillips).

As the wagon caravan nears Bannon's home there is conflict with his angry half-brother (Barry Kelley), a rancher who nurses an old hurt. Bannon must find a way to make peace with his brother, track down the people who shot him, and figure out what's motivating Harper to stir up problems with the settlers. Bannon ultimately finds the answers to all his problems are connected.

This is an absorbing film with a good, well-plotted story. It's also of note that it's a relatively tough Western, with a couple of brutal beatings and the ruthless shooting of a horse.

The film is also surprisingly frank about the widow's true past and reasons for moving west. There's an almost unspoken love story between McCrea and Mayo's characters; I suspect McCrea was becoming reticent about playing love scenes at this point in his career. At a fast 81 minutes, I would have liked a bit more shared screen time for McCrea and Mayo, but that's my only complaint about this enjoyable film.

One of the movie's pleasures is nice supporting roles as "good guys" for perennial Western villains Leo Gordon and Michael Pate. They're both good parts, with Gordon an especially strong screen presence as the patient foreman and counselor for Ned's ornery brother.

Gordon and Pate had in common that they were also Western screenwriters. Pate cowrote the story for William Holden's ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO (1953), and Gordon, who had a longer writing career, cowrote the screenplay for a very likeable Victor Mature Western produced by John Wayne, ESCORT WEST (1958).

The cast also includes Michael Ansara as a truly evil bad guy. Ray Teal, always a welcome presence in Westerns, plays a wagon train leader. The cast also includes Whit Bissell, James Dobson, Adam Kennedy, and Robert Foulk.

THE TALL STRANGER was directed by Thomas Carr and written by Christopher Knopf. It was filmed in CinemaScope by Wilfrid Cline. The location work was all done in Southern California.

THE TALL STRANGER is an Allied Artists film which is not yet available on DVD in the United States. It was released on a Region 2 DVD in Spain.

THE TALL STRANGER has been shown in a surprsingly rough pan and scan version on Turner Classic Movies. I'd love to see it in a better print one day; perhaps, like other Allied Artists films of the '50s, it will be released in the future by the Warner Archive.


Blogger Blake Lucas said...

One of the last ones I watched before I swore off pan and scan. I'd love to see it again if it comes around letterboxed. Hopefully, it will. TCM showed WICHITA pan and scan but the Warner Archive DVD is a beautiful release in which one can fully appreciate it in the proper Scope format.

Laura, if my wife heard you say that Joel McCrea was reluctant at this age to be in romantic scenes with women, she'd laugh. She always says he remained one of the most attractive men on the screen all the way through to RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, in which his age is so much a part of this late great role.

In any event, if you want to see McCrea and Mayo in a satisfying, fully developed relationship as a couple, you'll have your chance when you catch up with COLORADO TERRITORY where they are one of the most memorable and moving couples ever seen in any Western.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake!

I certainly agree with your wife, LOL. I am just guessing it was Joel's own feelings that caused the romantic relationship to be handled a little differently.

That is a very high recommendation for COLORADO TERRITORY. I love both stars and do have the Warner Archive DVD on hand so I will be seeing it!

Thanks and best wishes,

11:48 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

As a 10-year old, my parents took me to the cinema to see "The Tall Stranger" (I suspect nagging or bullying on my part was involved) so my first viewing was on the big screen.
I know this is considered a minor western, particularly by McCrea's standards, but it has always been a favourite of mine. Allied Artists produced it, and I like a lot of their library of films, plus it was directed by Thomas Carr who knew what he was doing when it came to westerns.
Thanks, Laura, for reviewing this special favourite of mine.

Best wishes,

4:03 AM  
Blogger Mike's Take on the Movies said...

I will have to get to this title as I do have a copy. I just haven't watched it yet. I do like the cast for sure as McCrea had such a nice presence in the westerns and Mayo one of my favorite glamor girls. Add Leo Gordon makes it a must see. Thanks for reminding me about this title.

5:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've alway like Tall Stranger . And so interesting, as you mentioned to see Leo Gordon in a sympathetic role. Wonder if it ever happened again.he was so typecast.

7:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked this movie well enough when I saw it on TV when I was home on holiday a few years ago, trimmed down to 1.78:1 I think. I'd love to see it in its proper ratio though.

And can I just say that I wholeheartedly second Blake's recommendation of Colorado Territory - a terrific movie that overshadows High Sierra, and it's no slouch itself.


1:22 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I love hearing from everyone on this film!

Jerry, what a special memory that your parents took you to see this in a theater. I love that! Thanks so much for sharing that. I'm glad I happened to choose it to watch!

Mike, I hope you'll enjoy it. I think all of us Western fans appreciate the multi-talented Leo Gordon, and it's a treat to see him in such an unusually gentle role.

Vienna, I first came to know Leo Gordon as the genial Big Mike, a semiregular role on MAVERICK. (He also wrote for the series.) So it actually was a little bit of a surprise to me getting to know his film work and seeing how mean he usually was! LOL. Just today I turned on the Encore Westerns Channel and there he was in a commercial, dueling Marshal Matt Dillon.

Colin, I would definitely watch this one again if I could see it in a nice print. Thanks for adding your recommendation of COLORADO TERRITORY! I think I've been avoiding it because I'm pretty sure how it ends (grin) but I will definitely be checking it out.

Best wishes,

12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one I haven't seen. I keep avoiding it, waiting to see it the right way.

I'd like to join the Colorado Territory club. It's an great Western, with great performances and chemistry from McCrea and Mayo.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

I was amused by Blake's point to Laura about any reluctance on McCrea's part for romantic scenes. I do think some actors who were aging, and they had longevity in those days, did eventually feel it unseemly to romance a young woman who could pass for their daughter. But in this film's case, I guess it's just what the scipt calls for as 2 years later McCrea starred opposite both Julie Adams AND Nancy Gates in "The Gunfight At Dodge City" and certainly did not hold back on the romantic scenes there, and who could blame him!!

9:08 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I love hearing from my fellow McCrea fans! Toby, thanks for adding your thoughts on COLORADO TERRITORY. I'm bumping it higher in my viewing stack!

Jerry, thanks for the reminder of GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY, that's one I need to revisit.

Best wishes,

6:47 PM  

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