Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Domestic Ambiguity: The Tall T

Central to Budd Boetticher's The Tall T is the idea of home, but where exactly women fit into this conception of domesticity is a question on which the film is willfully, fascinatingly ambiguous. The picture begins with a presentation of its only wholly satisfactory domestic arrangement; from there, Boetticher's subsequent catalogue of familial groupings becomes increasingly problematic.

The film's first scene introduces us to a widower station master raising his young son on a ranch, an arrangement significantly marked by the absence of women. But despite the lack of a female presence, the boy's development scarcely seems to be compromised. Instead, Boetticher presents him as a polite and knowledgeable child; the success of his upbringing signified by his expertise in watering a horse and the deference he shows to a visitor. Still, given the film's uneasy insistence on constructing a traditional family structure, the "incomplete" arrangement cannot be allowed to last; the next time we see the ranch, the station master and his son have been murdered by a group of bandits, their bodies rudely dumped into a well.

The film's attention soon shifts to another womanless man, Pat (Randolph Scott), an expert ranch hand who has given up his professional life in favor of a comfortable, but solitary existence on his own recently purchased strip of land. En route to his spread, he's kidnapped, along with a newly married couple, by a party of three bandits, the introduction of the new groups providing the viewer with two more conceptions of familial structuring. The married couple, an opportunistic accountant and an aging heiress, provides the film's only example (at least until the conclusion) of heterosexual union and clearly represents the most degraded form of domestic organization on witness in the picture. The man makes little pretense about the fact that he's only interested in the woman's family fortune, while the woman, a middle-aged spinster whose physical "plainness" is exhaustively discussed by the film's male characters, is desperate for any offer of marriage. That the man is quick to leave his wife in the hands of the bandits at the first chance of escape comes as no surprise; it's merely the expected upshot of such a union.

The organization of the bandits' group is presented as something of an ironic perversion of the station master's family. When we first see the three outlaws, they have assumed control of the dead man's ranch and strike similar positions to those taken by the father and son in the film's first scene. They even mimic that pair's familial structure with the elder bandit, Frank (Richard Boone), standing in as a sort of wayward father figure for the younger two, but without offering any of the filial guidance provided by the station master. In one of the film's more interesting maneuvers, Frank makes an explicit identification with Pat, expressing a specific longing for a similar domestic situation and asserting the importance of owning one's own place, while rejecting any but a professional association with the other bandits whom he dismisses as mere "animals". Frank's disgust for his underlings seems largely predicated on their differing conceptions of womanhood. If the other two men view women as objects of sport (they speak longingly of a town with a population ratio of ten women to every man), then for Frank they're the necessary accompaniment to a complete domestic situation, the longing for which he uses to assert his difference from his despised employees.

In the principal exchange between Pat and Frank, the bandit responds to the hero's assertion that he's unmarried with the unequivocal statement that "a man needs a wife." Although Pat seems untroubled by his single status, the film eventually provides him with a potential mate - in fact the picture's only female character - in the form of Doretta Mims (Maureen O'Sullivan), the heiress, whose husband is conveniently eliminated by the bandits. Doretta is anything but a typical romantic lead; her plainness and her masculinity are repeatedly emphasized both through the conversation of the male characters and through her button-down costuming which hides any hint of feminine sexuality. It's widely agreed among the film's men that Doretta's only appeal is her fortune, but Pat soon discovers the "woman" buried underneath the frumpery when the two are sequestered in a cave at gunpoint. That sequence, played as a sort of parody of domestic life, also serves as a dry-run for a more formalized arrangement that develops between the romantic leads at the film's conclusion, but in it its debased imagery (domestic union as a form of forced confinement), the earlier sequence calls into question the fundamental soundness of such a mode of familial organization and undercuts the final affirmative imagery with which Boetticher concludes his film.

In the end, Pat and Doretta walk off arm in arm and we're left to assume, given the conventionality of the final image, that they will enter into a domestic partnership and take joint possession of the land. In fact, the terms of their continued relationship are nowhere specified and, despite the trial run in the cave, there is nothing to indicate any particular romantic understanding between the two. Exactly where women fit into the film's conception of domesticity remains ambiguous. For Pat, the principal goal remains home. He was happy enough to live by himself and, with the unexpected introduction of Doretta, he seems just as happy to live with her, but her inclusion in the family hardly seems a necessity. Only the demands of the genre dictate the formation of a conventionally conceived household.

The film seems obsessed with trying out all manner of familial arrangements (an obsession mirrored in Boetticher's stagings, consisting largely of three-shots which continually re-configure characters in an exhaustive variety of groupings) hoping to hit on the one that provides the greatest possibility of a workable order. But, by the last scene, all non-traditional possibilities of arrangement have been eliminated; only the central couple remains alive and Boetticher leaves us with the image of his romantic leads walking off into the distance. It speaks to the film's great achievement that, having been forced to consider the viability of a range of familial groupings, we cannot read this last image as an unambiguous embrace of couplehood. In The Tall T, the importance of home may be unequivocal, but the question of how best to formulate that household is one that is up for continual debate and to take Boetticher's generically dictated conclusion as offering any kind of definitive solution would be to deny the film its central ambiguity and reduce an object of perpetual fascination to the confines of a "mere" genre offering.

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