Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Walking Tall (1973)

Walking Tall Marquee

Walking Tall
(1973)

starring 
Joe Don Baker
Elizabeth Hartman
Noah Beery
Gene Evans 
Brenda Benet
Bruce Glover
Rosemary Murphy

Directed by 
Phil Karlson

When was the last time that you stood up and applauded a movie?  Have you ever felt compelled to do so?  I can't  remember seeing any movies where I bolted upright out of my cushioned seat to give a standing ovation.  If I jump out of my seat at the end of a film, it's usually because I have to make a quick getaway to the men's room.  And who would hold onto my popcorn for me while I applauded?  Never mind, there’s never any left at the end anyway.

Walking Tall Ad

It's not like anybody on the screen can hear you.  Perhaps I clapped a little the second time I saw the original Star Wars in a re-release  but I was carried away by the rest of the audience.  But heck, they were applauding the 20th Century Fox fanfare as soon as  the movie began even though there was no such word as "fanboy" in those days.  And while I may have applauded, I sure as hell wasn't standing. 

The very first time I had ever heard of Walking Tall was when the ads for it appeared on TV and in the newspapers asking the deep and thought provoking question:  "When was the last time you stood and applauded a movie?"  And I guess since that question was being asked, people were supposed to assume that Walking Tall was such a great film, audiences were cheering it on as if their favorite team had just won the Super Bowl or World Series.   But that's how good marketing works.  The ads never actually stated  that's what audiences were doing when they saw this film so it wasn't like it was false advertising or anything of that nature.  You know, apples and oranges.  They simply asked when you had done it. 

But I found the ads kind of off putting in much the same way I find the Dallas Cowboys calling themselves "America's Team" distasteful.  I can only take so much bravado when it comes to any film, sports teams, or athletes that go by the name of LeBron who once played in Cleveland.  It sounded as if the whole marketing campaign was  something dreamed up by William CastleThe One and only genuine articlePauline Pusser.  So did I stand and applaud when it was over?  Of course not, and neither did anyone else that was there.  Well, since ex-wife-numero-uno was still sobbing uncontrollably into her Kleenex she was probably too weak to stand, let alone applaud, seeing as how she was so  overcome with grief.  But I had to admit the film was much better than I had expected, so I guess I learned a valuable lesson.  Never judge a film by its shitty overbearing marketing campaign.

Walking Tall is the fictionalized account of events in the life of one Buford Pusser, former Sheriff of McNairy County.  I know this to be a fact because it says so right there on the movie credits.  Yeah, I read movie credits, or at least I do when they are short and to the point as they were back in the day before every single person from the guard at the studio gate to the janitor cleaning the toilet bowls started being listed.  So if it says it on the credits, it must be true. 

When this movie came out it was hard to discern how much was fact and how much was fiction. There wasn't any internet, and the only things one could turn to for the real story were books, newspapers, TV, word of mouth,  and crappy Hollywood publicity campaigns.  And of course, depending on the source, you could be swamped with conflicting information.  Now, with the advent of the internet, we can research the subject matter just by typing a few words into Google or Wikipedia  and coming up with everything we ever need to know. 

And after doing my Google homework I can now one hundred percent conclude that when it comes to Buford Pusser, we still don't know what is fact, what is fiction, what is legendDisclaimer, or what is just so much movie studio bluster.  But isn't that the way it is with most designated heroes?  They are always bigger than life, and until the New York and L.A. critics began slamming Walking Tall, and waiting to do so after it began making mega-bucks in the American Heartland, I don't think anybody saw a problem with the fact that the story behind some legends, both living and dead, are somewhat embellished.  I mean, it’s not like he was an adored sports athlete on steroids who once played in Oakland and St. Louis.

I'm not sure why  people  get their panties in an uproar over the fact that Walking Tall was partially fictionalized.  I mean, didn't they dish out a knapsack full of Oscars for Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind which embellished freely on the life of John Nash?  And I know for a fact that John Wayne didn't personally witness the events at The Alamo nor was Warren Beatty riding around in  a "four cylinder Ford Coupe" interviewing Bonnie and Clyde to make sure he got every minute detail correct.  And was Lou Gehrig the 100 per cent saintly vision portrayed by Gary Cooper on screen with positively absolutely no faults at all?  And The Singing Nun ? You remember that one don’t you?  Well, probably not so forget I brought it up.

The truth is that nobody knows what is what, which is which, what is up and what is down, what is left, what is wrong, what is truth, what is lie, what is fact, or what is fantasy.  Chances are they weren't with these people 24 hours a day seven days a week to know the real truth, no matter what their powers of deduction are my dear Watson.

So I guess you get my point.  When it comes to facts and history, film writers, directors, producers, and studios have always had a tendency to make things up as they go along.  Except for James Cameron of course, who even went a few miles down into the Atlantic to research his subject matter.  Now that's what I call dedication. 

But even he used a totally fictional story to make his point, although you still get the usual Cameron haters whining about things like dialogue, until they do their best to ingrain it in the consciousness of people that the scripts for films like Avatar and Titanic were the most worthless pieces of shit ever put on paper.  Be that as it may, what matters the most is whether you like what you see, and in the case of the original Walking Tall, whether or not what they put on the screen was pretty damn entertaining. 

Walking Tall

Joe Don Baker plays Buford Pusser, a husky, muscular, chunky, fear don't enter into his thinking type of ex-wrestler who finally decides he's had enough of the 70's version of the WWF or the WWE or whatever they call that tommy rot these days.  Tired of being a "trained animal in somebody else's circus" he packs up the wifey Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman), the two kids Mike and Dwana ((Leif Garrett,Dawn Lyn) and heads for home in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster to McNairy County in Tennessee.  There he is welcomed back with open arms by his parents, Grandpa Carl and Grandma Pusser (Noah Beery Jr., Lurene Tuttle).  And at the urging of Carl and by using what's left of his wrestling winnings and selling their mobile sleeping quarters, Buford places a down payment on a new home that comes equipped with it's very own lumber mill.  He no sooner leaves the courtroom with the deed however, when he runs into a loud, somewhat obnoxious, very overbearing, old friend by the name of Lutie Mcvey (Ed Call).  Buford would prefer getting reacquainted down at the local Tavern, but Lutie has other ideas:

"You really are out of touch.  Man that place is nothing but an old museum.  Strictly Senior Citizens.  Why, they even play checkers on the bar.  Buford, we're a big city.  We got our own sin, gambling, crime, vice, 24 hours a day.  A man like you'd feel right at home."

Walking Tall - Ed Call as Lutie

Although Buford seems reluctant at first, he and Lutie head to the outskirts of town to The Pine Ridge Club and its first cousin, a  gambling joint known as The Lucky Spot., or as Lutie calls it, "a shopping center for sinners.  You can lay a bet or a broad or a base for a three day drunk.  Brought more business to town than anything since the cotton gin"  And if you think Lutie is exaggerating, he's not. 

Soothing Balm for Frustrated Husbands

Outside there are trailers and campers aplenty, not to mention scantily clad young ladies shaking their ample booty as they strut  across the  parking lot to entice their johns.  Inside the bar, Lutie does his best to initiate Buford into the wages of Sin.  At first, Buford seems  uncomfortable with the whole Sodom and Gomorrah atmosphere of The Lucky Spot, which depending on whether or not it’s your point of view or Lutie's, makes him either a straight arrow or just another joy killing asshole. 

However, one woman at the bar, Luana Paxton (Brenda Benet),  does catch Buford's eyes for two very, readily apparent, eye catching reasons, which are shot in extreme close up just so you'll know they are real. 

"Lookin's for free," she tells Buford and the rest of us in the audience who are ogling her assets and drooling all at the same time,  "What I mean is, lookin' don't cost Nooooooothing!" 

Lookin's For Free

Well, maybe not for Buford, but I had to buy the DVD so that I could freeze frame the scene and give you my in depth analysis along with this fine screen capture.  So I'm down about $15 bucks or so. Leave your tips in the cookie jar.

Unlike the other young ladies, instead of flinging herself at Buford the Wild Bull Hunk, er...I mean Buford the Bull, she plays it as cool as a cucumber and as smooth as a bowl of vanilla pudding.  The Happy Hooker's   name is Luann and although the encounter between Buford and her breasts.....er I mean between Buford and Luann may seem inconsequential, it is not.  There’s this movie rule that states that the longer a woman exposes her breasts on screen, the more relevant she is to the plot.  Clyde’s Movie Rules 101.

As it turns out, as far as Lutie and Buford are concerned, The Lucky Spot isn't so damn lucky.  After blowing his own princely sum of ten bucks at the craps table, Lutie grabs a fifty smackers loan from an increasingly reluctant Buford.  It doesn't take long for Lutie to prove he's just as adept at losing Buford's money as he is his own. 

But besides being known as Buford the Bull, he is also known as Buford the Eagle Eyed Wonder in some parts of the country.  It seems he can spot a crooked dice game regardless of how many bar patrons are blocking his view or how many prostitutes are letting their boobs hang out trying to hide that fact, especially since it's his cash lying on the table being sucked up into the profits of The Lucky Spot.  

picture025

At which point the bar owners decide they don't really give a damn what some over stuffed chunky ex-wrestling blow hard thinks, and decide to teach Buford an important lesson in Don't Screw With Us.  At which point Buford decides to show them that there was a reason they called him Buford the Wild Bull Hunk. 

Buford pounds on the bad guys.  The Bad Guys pound on Buford.  Lutie gets taken out rather quickly just as we knew he would.  Some more pounding here, some more pounding there, and soon Buford ends up getting laid out on the craps table where about thirty thugs decide to use a knife on his chest to play tic tac toe .  Which brings me to my only comedic movie caption in this review.  Hey, what do you expect?  I’m way out of practice.

Walking Tall Lucky Spot

Buford is  dumped by the roadside, and left for dead.  Okay, I know you're asking, "But Clyde, if they wanted to leave him for dead why did they dump him where he could be found so easily?" 

It could possibly be that they wanted his carved up body discovered as a warning to every citizen of McNairy County not to screw around with the big mob bosses.  In other words, craps, you lose.  "Then why didn't they just dump Lutie with him?", you may ask? Hell, I don't know.  Do you expect me to have all the answers?  But the truth is they didn't dump him directly by the road.  He had to crawl about fifteen feet to get to there so it's not like they made it easy for him.

Buford is finally picked up by a motorist, and taken to his home.  I don't know about you though, but if some thug slices and dices me up like a bull in Madrid on a Sunday afternoon, I'd be headed to the nearest emergency room, not my bedroom.  The girlfriend would be a bit upset if I got blood on the sheets.  But I suppose Buford has no medical insurance which means he'd fit right in with the general population these days if he were still around walking tall. 

Once at home he is stitched together by Marcus Welby disciple, Dr. Stivers,  who is out brushing up on his house calls.  Compare that to my doctor in the year 2011 that I started going to in January.  I've been to his office about 8 to 10 times and have yet to meet him.   Seen a lot of physicians assistants though.  I guess they're like the caddies of the medical profession.  I mean, you don't get to interview Tiger Woods without going through his agent, do you?  Come to think of it, I don't think you interview Woods at all these days.  But I digress.

"You should have called a seamstress," Doc Stivers tells them.  "Took some 200 stiches in him."

"Three years in the Marine Corps, five years in the ring, He has to come home to get half killed,"  Pauline tells him.  And of course Sheriff Al Thurman is right on the case:

"Pretty obvious he was all liquored up.  Dead drunk, huh, Doc?" he asks.

"Not obvious at all," the Doc tells him wearily. "The important thing to you should be who did it to him?"

"Yeah, Thurman.  Who throwed him in that ravine to die?  And where's his station wagon?"  Grandpa Carl asks him. 

I think Grandpa Carl should have given old Thruman a break.  I mean, it hadn't been that long since someone marked Buford's chest up with a bunch of squares, x's and o's, so maybe Carl should cut the man some slack.  But then again maybe not.

"I'm lookin' into that, Mr. Pusser," Sheriff Al explains calmly.

"Yeah, well, let's hope you don't look into it like you been looking into all the other funny things going on in this county," Carl retorts. 

It would seem at this point that Carl knows Sheriff Al better than we do.  I take back what I said about cutting him some slack.

"Now, Carl, you know that men just naturally gotta let off steam, I try and and keep it in bounds."

"You better be remembering one thing before election  time.  People in this county give you that badge, and they can damn well take it away from you." 

That Grandpa Carl is quite a character.  Piss him off and the four letter words really begin to fly. 

"Not like you to threaten me," Sheriff A as in asshole, Thurmon tells him. 

"He speaks for more than himself," Doc finally chimes in. 

Walking Tall - People Can damna well

When I'm in an argument I would definitely want Doc on my side.  His knack for saying so much in such abbreviated sentences probably got him a place of honor on the college debate team.  I'm sure he had the Sheriff quaking in his boots with that threat.

Later, while Buford is at home recovering from his wounds, Sheriff Al returns with his deputy Grady to update Buford on the case.

Sheriff:  I can't find tire nor bolt of your station wagon, Buford.  Neither can the State Police.

Buford:  It can't just vanish. 

Sheriff:  Oh, it happens all the time.  Professionals, most likely.  They repaint them, file off the numbers, you know.  Say, as far as that fracas you got into over at the Lucky Spot, I can't find a single witness that saw it your way.

Buford: We got Lutie!

Sheriff:  (laughing) Now, Buford, you  know Lutie.  Crazy Lutie McVeigh!  Can't tell where the truth ends off and the tall stories begin.  Nobody takes him serious.

Buford:  I do

Sheriff:  Well if that's your whole case, you got none. 

Buford:  Look, I got a chest full of stitches! 

Sheriff:  Well, if that's all, count your blessings and drop the case.

Buford: (while vehemently slamming an ax into the ground) Like hell I will!

Sheriff: (walking away)  Your funeral

Buford:  (yelling)  Thurman!  Thurman, I've known you since I was a kid.  I always thought you walked tall!  Looks like you done learned how to crawl......Hey, Grady, what about you?  You just gonna let them throw me in a hole and bury me?

Grady:  Well, what am I supposed to do, Buford?  He deals the cards.  I just play the hand I get.

Buford:  Go find yourself another game.....Oh there it is again.  The system.  You gotta live my way or you don't live.

That very last line of Buford's sounds good on the screen, just don't put too much thought into it because in the context of this film, it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.  What do I mean?  Send me an email and I'll explain it to you.  

Buford eventually gets well enough to get his saw mill going (in the very next scene to be exact).  It is also in this scene that we meet Buford's old pal Obra, who just happens to be black.  It would seem that Grandpa Carl doesn't care too much for Obra, or black people in general for that matter.  Well, he likes them as long as they know their place in society such as in the cotton fields, at the back of the bus, in the restroom marked coloreds:

Carl (when Obra pulls up in his truck):  Everytime we get started that damn boy in that beat-up truck of his comes around looking for a job. 

But Buford, to his credit, isn't having none of that racist shit and hires Obra anyway.

Buford:  Pa, you got something against Obra?

Carl:  I knowed him since he was a picaninny.  Hired his old daddy many times.

Buford:  That doesn't tell me anything.

Carl:  Well, he got educated, you see?  Then he come down with a raging case of that new social disease, Black Power.

Buford:  Is that all?

Carl:  Now look, hold on just a minute.  I believe in equality just as much as anybody.  But I don't want it forced on me, see?

Buford:  Gonna be a lot of fun working with the two of you.

It would seem that Carl made it perfectly clear what was on his mind.  I half expected Carl to throw out the N word at any time.  And you know which N word I'm talking about.  (Later in the film, it is ironic that Buford is the one who makes use of it to  make a point to Obra.) 

Later as Buford and Obra are having lunch, Buford takes time to do some whittling on a large piece of wood.

Obra and Buford

Obra:  Walk softly and carry a big stick, huh?  You planning on trying that somewhere?

Buford:  I was think about it.  When I get well enough. 

Obra:  How does it feel to be part of the oppressed minority?

Buford:  Well, that's something you ought to know about.  Any suggestions?

Obra:  Yep, Do not beat your head against the wall 'cause it'll probably fall on you. Two, lone wolves are easy prey.  Organize.  There's strength in unity.  And, three, you are a damn fool, Buford, for trying to do what I know you're going to. 

And if you didn't guess by now that Buford was going to make a return engagement to the Lucky Spot, you weren't paying attention.  And since an encore presentation isn't welcomed with open arms by the owners, you can pretty much guess what Buford's new hand made special edition of a Louisville Slugger is for. 

picture060

So after beating the living crap out of the entire working staff of The Lucky Spot, and absconding with exactly $3,680 collars for his car, his and Lutie's money, and the $50 dollars in doctor's bills he incurred, Buford is gleefully arrested by Sheriff Al for assault and battery and armed robbery.  It doesn't take long for Buford to figure out that in addition to McNairy County having a crooked sheriff, their judicial system in the form of Judge Clarke,  is a man so crooked, he could probably replace Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court.  He sets bail at a ridiculously high amount, and then gives Buford, who decides to represent himself, only two days to prepare for trial.

For those of you who saw the remake with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, you pretty much knows what happens next.  It was one of the few scenes actually adapted into that film.  Unfortunately, in the remake they somehow managed to make the whole courtroom scene seem ridiculous, contrived   and silly. In the original film, it works and it works simply because Joe Don Baker manages to sell the scene with an air of believability (even if it is not) that Johnson could not pull off.  If by chance you've seen neither film, than I suggest you start with this one then view the remake if for some reason you want to punish yourself for less than an hour and a half.  But whatever the case, it goes without saying that Buford isn't going to spend the rest of the film sitting in a jail sell.

Walking Tall Courtroom

Obra suggests that if Buford really wants to make a difference, he should run for sheriff against Thurman.  Despite Pauline’s objections, Buford decides that you can’t run and you can’t hide because if you do things will never change.  That’s a fancy way of saying he decides to run for Sheriff. 

picture068

Sheriff Al does his best to harass and intimidate Buford by removing his “Vote For Buford” signs and replacing them with his own.  This in turn eventually leads to a car chase that ends with Sheriff Al unexpectedly dropping out of the election  due to an unforeseen illness, and with Grady finding himself "a new game.” 

Once elected sheriff, Buford and Dickie the Big Stick set out to clean up McNairy County.  But as Buford finds out, a club will only get you so far. 

There's still the matter of Shady Judge Clarke, the mob's bff to be dealt with.  When Buford begins arresting people and confiscating liquor, the Judge sets each and every suspect free on technicalities.  So Buford begins following the law, getting arrest warrants and reading people their rights so that the great upholder of the constitution, Clarence Thomas....er I mean Judge Clarke, will have to punish them.  Except he doesn't.  When one of the locals is arrested for assault on a police officer, the Judge sets him free with a ten dollar fine.  Buford does come up with a solution, and I have to say that although Buford's solution is probably not even remotely plausible and certainly one of the more fictionalized aspects of the film, it is at the least very witty, inventive, and crowd pleasing.  Okay, it's damn funny.  And you can watch it here until it’s gone because as you know, these video’s have a strange disease that cause them to eventually morph into “This video has been removed” posters.

Having the ability to bash someone's skull in, it doesn't mean that Buford lacks a brain of his own.  And since it was Obra's idea for Buford to run for Sheriff, Buford decides turnabout is fair play.

Poor White Trash Sheriff

Later, it is only when Buford is ambushed once again, that Pauline finally gives in and gives her consent for Buford to carry a gun.  And although Buford's club may be  handy for breaking backs, legs, and arms, in a fight, it's not much use when the situation calls for shooting a projectile from about twenty or thirty feet, something Buford is called on to do more than once.

Walking Tall Ambush

Some critics at the time such as Judith Crist, really had a problem with Walking Tall, a problem that went beyond simple film criticism. It was offensive to them that the film had somehow managed to become a hit.  In other words, the only way one could possibly enjoy this film is to be a direct descendent of Jed Clampett.   For instance, in this New York Magazine column,  Judith Crist said the following:

It's just not a case of different strokes for us diff’rent folks, it's an entirely different set of values when it comes to folk heroes.  For the rest of the non-urban country, the past year has been devoted to idolizing a bush league Tennessee ex-sheriff who used it and his service revolver to bloody effect....

Walking Tall which has been packing 'em in around the country and particularly in the south, to the tune of about 32 million.    

.....From it's being a Bing Crosby Production right down to it's hero, beaten in his last election on his home territory for the sheriff's job in which the movie glorifies him, raking in 7 percent of the gross, Walking tall is so durned American that only a quote from Nixon seems lacking  from it's publicity.  It is, even according to ex-Sheriff Buford Pusser of McNairy County, Tenn., "about 80 per cent real."

But it's that other 20 per cent, contributed by producer-writer Mort Briskin, and director Phil Karlson, both seasoned B movie men, that pushes the story of a muscular, lawman, into heroic mold.  That mold was defined in 1969 by CBS's Roger Mudd who eulogized Pusser's stick swinging law enforcement as comparable to Wyatt Earp's, and hardened by The Nashville Banner proclaiming him one with Earp, Bat Masterson, and Wild Bill Hickock, and by biographers and balladeers who've put Pusser right up there with Davy Crockett.  The movie carries the usual "purely coincidental" disclaimer of actuality.  But all the changes of fact-whether it involves making Pusser a valiant ex marine, and wrestler disillusioned with the fakery of the sport, (actually he was given a medical discharge after basic training and was a factory worker by day and studying to be a mortician at night), or having Pusser single handily beat up the roadhouse racketeers who had cheated and beaten him (actually he had two buddies on hand to help), or adjusting his family into storybook proportions and background, or indicating that with a rallying citizenry he got rid of vice and racketeering once and for all are strictly Hollywood Idealization.

And it grabs you where trash and violence invariably do, courtesy of excellent performers, shrewd plotting, and even shrewder pacing.  Joe Don Baker, a tower of clean cut strength, complete with Elizabeth Hartman, Titian-haired, freckled, and rustic pretty as his wife; Noah Beery as plain speakin' liquor lovin' upright Grandpa; Lurene Tuttle titian-haired and freckled and rustic-plump Grandma; a blonde son and a brunette daughter and a loyal yappin' police dog.  And don't think those rotters-moonshiners, pimps, and imported Alabama hit men, all part of the nefarious state-line gang--......

At which point Crist begins to give a quick blow by blow depiction of the entire film, from beginning to end, actually picking up at the halfway point which is generally  where I always try to leave my synopsis, which is just enough to involve you in the story line.  But if you insist on reading the rest of the article you can do so using the above link.

So what was her problem with the film that Crist and others of the elite critics had with the film? She almost begrudgingly admits that the film is well crafted  by the writers, producer/director and the actors. But she spends as much time ripping the film for it’s inaccuracies, in a desperate  attempt to tear down the real life persona of Buford Pusser as if somehow doing so  discredits the efforts of those who worked to put the story on the screen. In other words, because it may not be a blow by blow exact description of the events, then the film must be instantly dismissed.

But her problem is not with the film, her problem is with Pusser himself, whom she sees as nothing more than a backwoods hillbilly vigilante thug with a stick, and almost gleefully reports about his failure to win re-election during the time he was involved in the making of the original film.

She also has plenty of venom left over for those needle-brained simple minded folks like myself who helped make the film a success. Okay, so my brother-in-law bought the tickets, let’s not get too technical.  She goes out of her way to point out the fact that in it’s initial release, the film sunk like a rock in the great big sophisticated metropolises of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. You know, the places where all of the elite smart people such as herself reside. Thus her reference to the film that “grabs you as trash and violence invariably do.” I guess only those of us who never make the grade as elitists can thoroughly enjoy trash and violence. So where does that leave me?

It puts me squarely on the side of trash and violence. Walking Tall may be nothing more than a high quality B picture and it may be labeled as garbage by others.   But there is no mistaking the fact that the film is  fine tuned as well as one can expect for a film such as this.  It is in most ways, no different from a high budgeted action film such as Die Hard, and in some ways even superior because it makes you care about the lives of the characters, not just whether or not good always conquers evil.  In fact, the film makes it plain that such is not always the case. 

It’s because the writers (Mort Briskin, Stephen Downing, and John Michael Hayes) and producers (Mort Briskin, Joel Briskin, Charles A Pratt) were smart enough to make the characters as real to those of us in the audience as if they were our next door neighbor.  So what if they embellished a little or even a lot?  Who cares? 

We root for Buford not just because he is fighting evil, but because we care about every single character in this film, whether it’s the wife and kids, Obra, Grandma and Grandpa, Luann,  or Grady. Despite Crist’s implication that they are nothing more than The Real McCoys on the big screen fighting the revenooers, her attempt to paint them as nothing more than backwoods cornbread eating, countrified caricatures, does not exactly mesh with what is on the screen. 

Joe Don Baker was born to play Buford, and has had a decent career afterward.  But Buford Pusser will undoubtedly be the role he will always be remembered for, and when Bo Svenson took over the role, Baker was sorely missed.  The ridicule of his film Mitchell, on MST3000, may have been funny, but it also unfairly branded him as a fat ogish incapable actor, and nothing could be further from the truth as you can easily check out on his IMDB page and Wikipedia listing.

Elizabeth Hartman, who was so memorable as Selina D’arcy in A Patch of Blue (best actress nomination) and whom as Pauline Pusser could have just been a whiny nag.  But thanks to Hartman, she never lets her character slide into that an overbearing shrew.  We understand  her dislike of guns, how much she fears for Buford’s life, and the safety of her family, because she  forces us to do so.  Put into context, such misgivings are hardly misplaced for any wife and mother. And as Pauline comes around to understanding Buford’s reasons for wanting to stand up to the mob, she ends up winning us over. Besides, if it were written any other way, would we have the big scene where she finally hands Buford a gun despite her distaste for them?  

 

picture115

I’m also glad they included the character of Obra. It not only adds a new layer to the character of Buford, it enriches the story in other ways that would have been missed. And Felton Perry is a stand out in the role.  In  the scene where Buford convinces him to become a deputy and help him, he says more with one sentence than some actors do with a whole script. 

The same can be said of the character of Luan, who may not have much screen time, but the not so subtle connection between her and Buford is just one more element that bears fruit. Benet portrays her as hot, sultry, and sexy in a way that we  understand why  Buford might become a bit rattled.  Never has a woman said so much with the simple line, “You got a match?”

And who would have thought that Rosemary Murphy could go from playing the friendly helpful neighbor Maudie of To Kill A Mockingbird, to the sultry villainous Callie, whose decision to celebrate Christmas in her own special way, leads to  an end result that she doesn’t exactly plan.  She oozes evil.  It’s sickening to watch her whine about Buford beating up one of her men, right after they have beaten a girl they thought was an informant to within an inch of her life.

picture127

With a well plotted script, director Phil Karlson, who also directed Kid Galahad (one of the better Elvis Films), keeps the film moving at such a rapid clip that you won’t notice the over two hour running time. In fact his fast pacing might be a detriment in some films, but here it works to perfection.  There is no filler, and each scene is essential to everything that follows it.  He doesn’t let the story  linger with unnecessary twaddle and you won’t be bored

DodieAs for Dawn Lynn and Leif Garrett they’re two horses of a differnet color, although they are real life brothers and sisters. Garrett comes from the school of it’s better to be seen acting then to be heard and Lyn falls into my category of irritating child actresses.  I don’t like her here, and liked her even less during her stint on My Three Sons as Dodie.    But she may have gotten better as she got older.  I have no clue but the fact that she was out of acting by 1978 might tell you something.   As for Garrett, he continued acting, became a teen music idol at fifteen, left music behind, and his bouts with drug and alcoholism are well documented.  You can read his biography at Wikipedia.

But I would be remiss if I did not mention the tragedy that befell two of the stars of this film. Elizabeth Hartman, whose last film was doing the voice of Mrs. Brisby in the secret of N.I.M.H, struggled with depression for most of her life. Sadly, she apparently committed suicide in 1987 by flinging herself out of a window.

Brenda Benet was married to actor Bill Bixby during the filming of Walking Tall. They were divorced in the late 70’s and had one child. Unfortunately, the child would die during a ski vacation in California. Despondent over her divorce and the death of her child, she took her own life on April 7, 1982.   In 1993, writer/actor/director Bixby would succumb to cancer.

I originally gave Walking Tall eight stars on the IMDB. That would be about right although it only has an overall rating of 6.9. But the truth is, many people seem almost unreasonably contemptuous of the film, just as Judith Crist seemed to be, and if not that, then they have nothing but disdain for the man who inspired it. Even after 37 years, at least one YouTube  user is carrying on his crusade against what long ago passed into the history books. I think you call these people snobs.

But I’m not a snob. Or at least not to that extreme and I enjoyed practically everything about Walking Tall. Fictionalized? Certainly. Not entirely believable? That too. Crudely made at times? Yes, but so is total trash like the original Last House on the Left which some dare to now label a cult classic.

But in the same breath, Walking Tall is not just about the good guys vs. the bad guys. It has heart, it has action aplenty, and in the end a great deal of emotional heartbreak. And even if that’s all you get out of a film like this, I have no choice to slap an A- on it for a job well done.

The movie is available on DVD.  Just stay away from the RHINO release, it’s atrocious.  Make sure it’s the one from Paramount.  I would like to see a special edition blu-ray but it’s doubtful that’s going to happen   Great News!  The Complete Walking Tall Trilogy is returning on DVD and Blu-ray at a great price in May 2012 and is available for pre-order.  I’ve replaced the old product link with the new one, and here it is again on the left.


2 comments:

Doris Smith said...

Dear Clyde

I very much appreciate you posting those stills from Walking Tall. You cannot imagine how much I love Joe Don Baker and how much I love that movie. I love to watch a movie where I know almost all the dialog, so I know what the actor is gonna say before he says it.

Joe Don was MAGNIFICENT in that movie! When I first saw Walking Tall I was about 15 and very impressionable, so it made a BIG impact on me.

I don't care what anyone says, that is among the Top 5 BEST movies of all time.

I've been trying to find out why Joe Don did not play in the other 2 Walking Tall's. Can you tell me?

Doris Smith
Joe Don Baker's #1 fan

Joe Shuras, veteran L.E.O. said...

Yes Doris, I can tell you. Joe Don Baker became a very close friend of Buford Pusser. As a matter of fact, when Joe Don was filming the movie 'Framed' in 1974 in Tennessee, he visited the Sheriff and they enjoyed a few nights out on the town together and when Buford was in California on business with Bing Crosby Productions, he stayed at Joe Don's house. Joe Don Baker had the utmost respect for Sheriff Pusser and is quoted as saying he was his 'hero'. He stated he is proud to this day that people still relate to him as playing Buford in Walking Tall. According to Dwana Pusser, Joe Don was a lot like her father, both on and off screen and she considered him like a 'second father' to her. Buford Pusser was scheduled to play himself in the first sequel called 'Buford' and insisted on control over the script as to be a factual portrayal of his exploits after he got out of the hospital until his term ended in 1970. He did not have this type of control over the first movie and Joe Don Baker wrote a letter to the screen actor's guild protesting this but to no avail. Unfortunately and tragically, he was killed in the motor vehicle crash shortly after the BCP press conference announcing he would be playing himself. From what I understand, when Joe Don Baker saw the 'revised' script he felt it did not due the Sheriff justice and passed on it.