Monday, November 29, 2010

Walking Tall (1973) review


Joe Don Baker (Buford Pusser), Elizabeth Hartman (Pauline), Bruce Glover (Grady Coker), Felton Perry (Obra Eaker), Kenneth Tobey (Augie McCullah), Logan Ramsey (John Witter), Gene Evans (Sheriff Thurman)

Directed by Phil Karlson

The Short Version: Oppressively brutal revenge movie based on real life sheriff Buford Pusser from Tennessee and his one man war against the State Line Mob and the Dixie Mafia. One of the best and most fondly remembered movies of its kind, Phil Karlson's violent thriller is a timeless tale of blood and justice in the corrupt south.

Buford Pusser returns home to McNairy County to find the town in which he grew up has been infiltrated by prostitution rackets, gambling houses and moonshine operations with ties that extend beyond the state. After a deadly run in with some hoodlums from 'The Lucky Spot', Buford decides to run for sheriff and wins by a landslide. Immediately after being sworn in, the determined lawman makes it his mission to wipe out the syndicates which have terrorized and poisoned the county. Proving to be a force to be reckoned with, the hayseed mobsters relentlessly go after Buford and his family.

WALKING TALL is arguably the king of Hixploitation cinema as well as being one of the quintessential 70's action pictures bar none. It contains all the necessary ingredients for a spicy piece of Southern Fried Cinema. It has car chases, shoot outs, explosions, crashes, moonshiners and one helluva mean streak. While it's a revenge movie at its heart, Phil (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, KID GALAHAD) Karlson's picture is about the triumph and tragedy of the will of one man who dared to take a stand against violence and corruption in a small Tennessee town.

Joe Don Baker is the epitome of the screen tough guy. The West Coast had "Dirty" Harry Callahan, New York had Paul Kersey and the South had Buford Pusser. Baker takes the script, balls it up, eats it and totally makes the role his own. He's so intimidating and mesmerizing here it's nearly impossible to imagine him in any other kind of role, much less anybody else stepping into this role. Since Baker's phenomenal portrayal, no less than three actors have carried the big stick in subsequent movies, television shows, remakes and sequels to remakes.

Prior to this hugely influential Drive In sensation, Baker was a joke cracking, "one armed" gunslinger in the entertaining GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969), Steve McQueen's brother in Sam Peckinpah's JUNIOR BONNER (1972) and also a disgruntled Vietnam War veteran who destroys a small town in WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (1972) directed by Richard (MACON COUNTY LINE) Compton. Baker also made an impression when he co-starred with Walter Matthau as a brutish Southern hitman in Don Siegel's CHARLEY VARRICK (1973).

Callie: You got a warrant?

Buford: Yeah, I keep it in my shoe!

Before starring in movies, Baker had shone his skills on broadway in a number of plays, one of them being directed by actor Burgess Meredith. He's often underrated and two of his movies have featured on the bewilderingly popular 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' television program. He's undoubtedly a skilled thespian and is a bright spot in even the most dire pictures. For WALKING TALL, Baker carved an indelible image of a man who conquered adversity and paid a terrible price in the process. Movies about such indiviuals have been done many times before and since, but Baker's portrayal as the real life Tennessee lawman, Buford Pusser is one of the most iconic representations of the stubbornly resolute American hero.

WALKING TALL (1973) is a revisionist version of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or other larger than life western paragon bolstered by a shocking degree of brutality that still maintains its power today. Frequently graphic in its bloodletting, the violence is often sudden and vicious. It should be stated, though, that the first scuffle has some major weak spots (one man throws a punch that looks like a rehearsal and Buford's big stick briefly bends in the same scene), but after that, the tone becomes increasingly grim and the action scenes take on a stark realism.

The real Buford Pusser was technical consultant on the picture. A big man, he stood 6 foot 6 inches tall and aside from a brief stint in the military and as a pro wrestler, he was the sheriff of McNairy County Tennessee from 1964 to 1970 (WALKING TALL was shot in Henderson and Jackson County,TN). Over the course of his ferocious and harrowing battles with the State Line Mob (a sadistic crime syndicate that operated on the Mississippi-Tennessee border), sheriff Pusser had been stabbed seven times, shot eight times, and nearly run over by a car. His jaw had been shot away the morning his wife was killed accompanying him on a domestic disturbance call after the two were ambushed by four hitmen in a black cadillac. Pusser's jaw was meticulously reconstructed during a long series of operations (reportedly sixteen facial operations).

His other skirmishes with the mafia were like a movie that was being played out in real life as more shoot outs and chases led to even more violent retribution and eventual death. On August 21st, 1974, sheriff Pusser had left a local fair in his corvette with his daughter not far behind him. His car crashed into an embankment and some reports state he was thrown from the vehicle while others state his daughter pulled him from the burning car. Evidence was inconclusive as to whether the crash was accidental, or intentional. The sad irony of this is that earlier in the day, Pusser had signed a contract to play himself in the sequel to the soon to be iconic action film based on his life.

Sheriff Pusser's shocking death extended to some of the cast members as well. Elizabeth Hartman, who played Pauline Pusser in the film, suffered from mental illness throughout her life. In 1987, she reportedly jumped from the fifth floor window of her Pittsburgh, PA apartment. Another female cast member, Brenda Benet (she played the hooker informant Luan Paxton), took her own life in April of 1982. Unable to cope with the death of her son who died in an accident while on a ski vacation the previous year, Benet took her own life with a self inflicted gunshot to the head.

The racism in the film was also prevalent during the shooting and made for an uncomfortable schedule. Segregation wasn't the only problem, either, as the threat of violence loomed large over the production whenever Pusser was around considering the Mob had a hit out on him. The result was nothing short of a provocatively hostile, if crude view of a lawless southern town that used brute force to quell an ever growing criminal element. The real Buford Pusser may have died in an unexpected fashion, but his near invincible persona lived on in three big screen thrillers, a Television movie and a short lived TV series. The first WALKING TALL does just that and remains a shining, if bloodily crucial piece of celluloid Americana.

This review is representative of the Paramount DVD

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