Shortly after picking up an Oscar for his editing work on the western classic "High Noon," Elmo Williams made his directorial debut with the low budget programmer "The Tall Texan." It's a B picture all the way, shot in eight days on a shoestring budget and produced by Robert L. Lippert, Jr., whose father (best known for producing such 1950s low grade essentials as "The Lost Continent" and "Rocketship X-M") conveniently released the film via his own company.
The story is one part "Stagecoach" and three parts "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," with some generic "wild injuns" stuff thrown in for good measure. We begin with a coach crossing the desert frontier, its passengers being the usual odd mix, most notable among them a handcuffed convict (Lloyd Bridges), nabbed for a crime he claims he didn't commit. Which means, of course, that he is the hero of our film.
A few plot detours later, the passengers find themselves stranded in the harsh New Mexico heat, their coach overturned. But wait: the injured native they picked up along the way tells them (in Spanish, because B moviemakers had no time to be bothered with authentic native languages) of a "river of gold" nearby. Fueled by greed, the passengers head out in search of instant riches - and Ben is unable to keep them in check, his warnings to stay off sacred Indian grounds gone unheeded.
What begins and ends as a typical western actioner becomes, in the middle, a surprisingly riveting human drama. Bridges makes a great cowboy hero, and the lovely Marie Windsor is enchanting as the take-no-guff woman who catches his eye. The real star here, however, is Lee J. Cobb, delivering yet another of his effortlessly perfect roles as the greasy baddie. Cobb's character is the one who gets bitten the hardest by the gold bug, and his desperation and domineering personality make for some terrific conflict.
Of course, "The Tall Texan" never truly rises above its B movie roots - its budget prohibits the film from being much more than a series of talky scenes in the desert, capped by the occasional shoot-out. Williams fares better with his editing duties than he does with his directorial ones, the scenes presented as simply as possible, the real tensions coming from excellent acting and a pacing that tightens the drama to tidy compactness. (With credits, it's a mere 82 minutes; this is a movie eager to get to the point.) Throw in a fine script with some rather snappy dialogue, and "The Tall Texan" becomes a thrilling oater whose intelligence trumps its budget.
VCI Entertainment has become one of the more trustworthy companies when it comes to the quality of older low budget fare, and their work here is no exception. Aside from a visible splice or two, the picture (presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio) is remarkably crisp and clean, with none of the dust or scratches that usually mark such titles.
While not as clean as the video, the mono soundtrack (in Dolby Digital) is also better than expected. No subtitles are offered.
The key feature here is a fifteen minute behind-the-scenes photo gallery that plays alongside "audio reminiscences" from Ross May, who was the horse wrangler for the film. May offers up several anecdotes about the cast and crew, and in lieu of a full-length commentary, these ramblings are quite enjoyable. Also included are biographies of Bridges and Cobb, as well as trailers for "The Tall Texan" and several other VCI westerns, all of which manage to look pretty good. Capping off the disc is episode one of the 1945 serial "Secret Agent X-9;" a chapter of a cowboy serial would've certainly been a better fit than this one (although it does star Bridges in the title role, allowing for a cheap connection). That said, the chapterplay is fun stuff, doing its job of getting you hungry to watch the whole thing on DVD.
If you're the kind of person who perks up at the mere idea of a low budget western called "The Tall Texan," then you're sure to enjoy yourself here. VCI does a terrific job of cleaning up this low budget gem, and the movie itself, while not classic cinema, is ideal for a lazy afternoon of cowboys and horses.