Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? Something inspirational and vaguely working-class.
What did I get? Walking Tall is a remarkably assured bit of brute cinema. A lightly fictionalized version of actual events, namely Sheriff Buford Pusser’s “War on the State Line Mob” in western Tennessee’s McNairy County, Walking Tall is violent and righteous without ever tipping over into unsettling strongarm propaganda. It may be Dirty Harry Goes to Mayberry, but mostly it plays fair.
Walking Tall is structured as an “only virtuous man in town” movie; Patrick Swayze’s 1989 eye-rolling classic Road House is very much in its debt. Rife with bar brawls, close-range shotgun blasts, and deadly car chases, Walking Tall lives or dies on the viewer’s identification with Pusser, so it’s fortunate that the indelible Joe Don Baker was cast in the role. Baker is truly a marvel — his baby face, silky voice, and mild harelip effortlessly accentuate the essential sweetness and irreproachable values lurking beneath Pusser’s hulky frame. Carrying around his iconic cedar dowel as a weapon, Baker serves as metonymy for the cheerfully moral use of extralegal force.
Soon after his return to town with family in tow, Pusser finds himself embroiled in a “senseless life-and-death grudge fight” (per his dutiful wife, herself eventually a casualty) with the local moonshine, prostitution, and gambling interests. Quick to anger but never exactly in the wrong, Pusser first tangles with the proprietors of the local gambling hole The Lucky Spot, where a disagreement over loaded dice ends up with Pusser being slashed repeatedly with a switchblade and left for dead in the midnight rain. Once he becomes sheriff, Pusser’s war on corruption extends to the local magistrate (a Col. Sanders lookalike) and even a slimy fellow who comes down from Nashville with the futile intention of persuading him to play ball. As my housemate repeatedly pointed out, it’s not entirely clear whether ridding the area of illegal hooch will actually improve anyone’s lot, but internally, the morality of the Pusser’s stand is never in doubt.
Authentic to the bone, Walking Tall has plenty of dialogue flubs and visible boom mics, none of which make a whit of difference. Director Karlson, who cut his teeth with such B-movie staples as Kansas City Confidential and Gunman’s Walk, has an unerring instinct for the pulp roots of the material, and if you edit out the cursing and the gore, the movie does feel like a throwback. (You can totally screen in your mind your own version from 1935 starring Jimmy Cagney.)
Pusser is a close cousin to such southern paragons of virtue as Bull Connor or the fictional police chief Gillespie from In the Heat of the Night, but he’s distinct from them, too. In some circles Pusser is still regarded as a tinhorn fascist — no less an authority than The Wire even tossed in a stray derogatory reference to the man. Pusser, who as sheriff needs to be instructed in the concept of the search warrant, figures that virtuous action needs no recourse to the law — indeed, in his mind it’s probably a contradiction in terms. But Karlson was careful to make Pusser more palatable to nationwide audiences: Pusser is pointedly free of racial resentment, and his distaste for legal niceties is more instinctual than reasoned; he’s got no particular objection to finding support for his tactics within the legal code, even when it’s not convenient.
Walking Tall would make an interesting double bill with Sounder. The setting might as well be identical, and both engage the entrenched practices of the local white authorities. Sounder, though, is all alchemy and subtle magic; Walking Tall is as delicate as a baseball bat to the gut.
What here smacks of 1973? In what is otherwise a fairly traditional story, the violence.
IMDB score: 6.7
My score: 7
Director: Phil Karlson
Writers: Mort Briskin and Stephen Downing
Starring: Joe Don Baker, Elizabeth Hartman, Leif Garrett, Dawn Lyn, Noah Beery Jr., Lurene Tuttle, Ed Call, Dominick Mazzie, Lynn Borden, Brenda Benet, Arch Johnson, Bruce Glover, Don Keefer, Logan Ramsey, Pepper Martin
IMDB synopsis: Buford Pusser’s a wrestler, whose wife wants him to settle down, so they go to his home town in Tennessee, where he plans to get into business with his father. But he is shocked to discover all sorts of graft and corruption going on. And when he is a victim of it and decides to strike back by running against the corrupt sheriff. And he wins and wages his own little war against them.