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The Tall Stranger

The Tall Stranger(1957)

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teaser The Tall Stranger (1957)

Union Army veteran Joel McCrea fights to protect a wagon train filled with former Confederate sympathizers in the 1957 Western, The Tall Stranger. Combining elements of the more adult Westerns of the late fifties (stronger language, deeper characterizations and a greater latitude in dealing with sexual matters) with a traditional shoot-em-up, The Tall Stranger presents a fascinating portrait of the genre in transition. With its generous use of television talent of the era, the film also represents the last days of the Western programmer as the genre increasingly moved into people's living rooms.

One element lifting The Tall Stranger above television fare was the presence of two bonafide movie stars -- Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. Although he had scored hits in a variety of genres, including the high-quality dramatic productions of his first mentor, independent producer Sam Goldwyn, and classic Preston Sturges comedies such as Sullivan's Travels (1941), McCrea had confined himself almost entirely to Westerns since the mid-'40s. With his 6'3" frame and affinity for horses (he had gotten into films as a trainer and stunt rider), he was a natural for the genre. Increasingly, he found outdoor filming more suited to his tastes. He also preferred the Western's simple moral tales, even as concessions to maturing audience tastes led to his character's involvement with an unwed mother (Mayo). He had been working with the film's producer, Walter Mirisch, since Wichita (1955) and would continue working with him until his first attempt to retire from the screen after The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959).

Like McCrea, Mayo had started her career with Goldwyn, arriving at his independent studios in time to co-star in one of his most prestigious dramas, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), in a rare unsympathetic role. Most of the time, however, he had used her to glamorize his musical productions, usually casting her opposite Danny Kaye. She moved to Warner Bros. in 1949, where she teamed with McCrea for the first time in Colorado Territory (1949), a Western adaptation of the classic gangster film High Sierra (1941). Despite another memorable villainous role, as James Cagney's cheating moll in White Heat (1949), she continued as glamorous set dressing in musicals, action films and Westerns, with her blonde beauty particularly suited for Technicolor location shooting.

The Tall Stranger was an early adaptation of one of Louis L'Amour's best-selling tales of the old West. His first screen success had come with John Wayne's Hondo in 1953. In fact, ads for The Tall Stranger sold the current film as "Savagely written by the author of Hondo." For the occasion, the long short story was re-published as a paperback novel with McCrea on the cover. That edition is the one most frequently sold by dealers in vintage books, with some copies going for as much as $75.

Much of the talent used in The Tall Stranger came from the new medium of television. Director Thomas Carr, despite a long career directing low-budget features, was already a pioneer in the development of the television Western, having worked on such series as Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Hopalong Cassidy and Annie Oakley. He was also a popular director with the management at Allied Artists, which released The Tall Stranger. There he had directed many of Wild Bill Elliott's final low-budget Westerns, helping to cap the cowboy star's two-decade career in the genre.

Filling out the cast of The Tall Stranger were reliable character actors like Barry Kelley, Whit Bissell and James Dobson, who would soon find most of their employment on the small screen. The film even featured one of the stars of the new medium. Syrian-born Michael Ansara, cast as the renegade outlaw making life miserable for McCrea and the wagon train, had already achieved fame as Cochise on the TV version of the pioneering drama Broken Arrow.

The Tall Stranger marked a gradual winding down for McCrea, who would star in only three more films before ending his regular involvement in motion pictures (he would make a notable comeback in 1962's Ride the High Country), but it was just the beginning for producer Mirisch. He and his brothers had started in the movie industry producing low-budget films, including the adventure series, Bomba the Elephant Boy starring Johnny Sheffield after he grew too old to play Boy in the Tarzan films. Within a few years, however, they would move into big-budget productions with the trend-setting Western The Magnificent Seven (1960), which would pave the way for a string of prestigious films including the Oscar®-winning West Side Story (1961) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). Eventually Mirisch would end up buying United Artists and becoming one of Hollywood's most respected producer/distributors.

Producer: Walter Mirisch
Director: Thomas Carr
Screenplay: Christopher Knopf
Based on the story by Louis L'Amour
Cinematography: Wilfred M. Cline
Score: Hans J. Salter
Art Direction: David Milton
Cast: Joel McCrea (Ned Bannon), Virginia Mayo (Ellen), Barry Kelley (Hardy Bishop), Michael Ansara (Zarata), Whit Bissell (Judson), James Dobson (Dud), Ray Teal (Cap).C-83m.

by Frank Miller

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