Walking Tall (1973)

WALKING TALL, the 1973 original, is dubbed by a certain WeThePedia as an “American neo-noir biographical vigilante action thriller”. All those, yep, and also one of the surprise sleeper hits of its decade: made for a spare change $500,000, it grossed at least $19,800,000, battering into spot #19 for the year.

Former wrestler and family man Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) plans to work with his dad in a lumber business in rural McNairy County, Tennessee. An innocent visit with a buddy to a local gambling joint ends with his pal murdered and Buford badly beaten and scarred from knife wounds. Recovered, he goes after the thugs and successfully runs for for sheriff, setting about to clean up the corrupt jurisdiction. The entrenched criminals fight back with increasing viciousness, but Buford is not going to back down.

Though the real-life Pusser was “technical advisor” on the film, ample pieces of the script, written by Mort Briskin and Stephen Downing (with John Michael Hayes, sans credit), are fictionalized. Phil Karlson, a veteran of hard-boiled crime pictures, directed with blunt force, location shooting in Tennessee. A “drive-in movie” that caught on like wildfire, thanks to shrewd advertising, word-of-mouth and a public whetted for roughly dispensed justice: this punk pulverizer was wedged between street cleaners Dirty Harry and Death Wish. A bigger, leaner, more likable version of Broderick Crawford, Baker makes a solid hero and his primally satisfying mop-ups is boosted by dishing it out on a great lineup of snarling bad guys: Rosemary Murphy, Gene Evans, Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Fowley, Arch Johnson, Logan Ramsey, Richard X. Slattery, Del Monroe, Carey Loftin.

Ill-fated Brenda Benet, 1945-1982

Critics always feel cringe-bound to warn review perusers that movies like this extol vigilante justice. As if the natural human impulse to unchecked criminal depredation is to not want to fight back? What wussy Poppy Planet do they live on? Audiences responded to this story not merely out of bloodlust or perceived class/regional/educational/ethical issues, and not because it was fact-based, but because Pusser was not some bitter loner like Harry Callahan or traumatized death-wisher like Paul Kersey: like them he had a family life, friends and community connection. People needed Buford (at least the movie version of him) to fight for them because every time they watched the news or read the paper the unbearable opposite was thrown in their faces. Enjoying movies or stories that give a shot of catharsis by seeing murderers and rapists get clocked instead of comforted (make that Glocked) doesn’t mean you’re a raving right-wing nutjob. Or ignorant enough to vote for them.

With Elizabeth Hartman, Brenda Benet (tres sexy), Noah Beery Jr.,Lurene Tuttle, Felton Perry, Bruce Glover, Leif Garrett, Dawn Lyn, Don Keefer, Ed Call, Red West. 125 minutes.

* Followed two years later by Part 2 Walking Tall. Pusser, 36, had signed to play himself, but the very day he signed he was killed in a car wreck (circumstances suspect): Bo Svenson took over the role, which he repeated another two years on in Final Chapter: Walking Tall. Svensen then did Walking Tall as a quite brief (7-episodes) TV series in 1981. Prior to that Brian Dennehy played Pusser in a 1978 made-for-TV flick, A Real American Hero. The 2004 remake, Walking Tall, let Dwayne Johnson (then still billed as ‘The Rock’) swing the club; it provoked a pair of direct-to-video sequels with Kevin Sorbo.

As with a host of movies, nailing down the payday brings a headache. Cogerson places the domestic gross at $19,800,000. Other sources say it was as high as $40,000,000: twice as much is quite a variance. Perhaps the latter figure includes foreign revenue. Or maybe your frazzled host will give up and devote a chunk of his remaining lifetime to going over thousands of posted reviews and eliminating all mentions of box office results, since half the time they’re guesswork. Where’s a handy club?

Buford Pusser, 1937-1974

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