Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) is a former cowboy who is trying to make a go of his own ranch. He rides into the town of Contention for supplies, stopping along the way at a "swing station" to water his horse and exchange pleasantries with station master Hank and Hank's son Jeff. Pat's looking to buy a bull to put to stud, but after he's goaded into a foolish wager, he not only doesn't get the bull, he loses his horse.
Pat starts the long long walk back to his ranch; he still has 15 miles to go when he hitches a ride on a stagecoach. The coach was rented by arrogant accountant Willard Mims (John Hubbard) and his meek wife Doretta (Maureen O'Sullivan), who are on their honeymoon. The coach stops at the swing station—but Hank and Jeff aren't there.
Instead, to their horror, the people on the coach find three bandits: leader Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his wingmen Billy Jack (Skip Homeier) and "Chink" (Henry Silva). The bandits, who have already murdered Hank and Jeff, kill the coach driver and are about to kill the other three when cowardly Willard proposes instead that they hold his wife for ransom. A tense waiting period ensues after the bandits send off their ransom demand.
Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard called "The Captives".
- Adaptational Heroism: Because Boetticher liked nuanced, likable villains, Frank is much more sympathetic in the film than he is in the original Elmore Leonard story.
- Adaptation Expansion: Leonard's story begins with the scene where Pat hitches a ride on the stagecoach. The film adds several scenes before that, establishing Pat's character and the reason he doesn't have a horse - and, not incidentally, making the story long enough for a feature film.
- Comforting Comforter: Surprisingly it's Frank, the bandit leader, who tenderly covers up Doretta with a blanket when he finds her sleeping in the shack.
- Dirty Coward: To save his own skin, Willard suggests that the bandits ransom his wife. Then Willard is only too willing to leave Doretta behind when he gets the chance.
- Distracted by the Sexy: How Pat takes out Billy Jack, the youngest and by far the dumbest of the bandits. He tells Doretta to undo her blouse. Then he emerges from the shack and suggests Billy Jack go in. Billy Jack does so and sees Doretta with her shirt open, wearing her slip. He grabs her and is manhandling her when Pat charges back in and kills him.
- Establishing Character Moment: Pat in his first scene has a friendly conversation with Hank and is nice to little Jeff, showing him to be kind and decent. Willard is first scene in the coach acting like an obnoxious prick, demanding that the coachman fetch all his baggage.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Frank is a thief and murderer who had no problem killing a father and his young son. But he's sickened by Willard's eagerness to offer his wife up for ransom. He pretends to let Willard go, then has Chink shoot Willard down.
- Evil Counterpart: Frank is basically the evil version of Pat. Like Pat, he dreams of having his own ranch with a herd of cattle. Like Pat, he's attracted to Doretta. Frank clearly likes Pat much more than the two goons in his gang. And Frank and Pat both hold to the same codes of the west, although Frank's willingness to violate those codes at the end show why he's the Evil Counterpart to begin with.
- Gun Struggle: Played straight, as a struggle between Billy Jack and Pat over a shotgun leads to Billy Jack taking a shotgun blast under his chin.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Frank is impressed when Chink manages to shoot Rintoon the coach driver while he's in the air. Later Chink shoots Willard off his horse with a rifle (plausible enough), then manages to shoot him a couple more times with pistols firing from the hip (not so plausible).
- In the Back:
- Frank makes a point of having Chink shoot the weaselly Willard in the back.
- Then Pat deliberately calls out Chink's name so he won't have to shoot Chink in the back.
- And at the end, Pat gets the drop on Frank from behind as Frank exits the shack. Frank calmly says that Pat won't be willing to shoot a man in the back, and he's right, as Pat lets him get on his horse and walk away.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Willard is portrayed as a horrible scoundrel and coward for offering his wife up for ransom. And well, he basically is a horrible scoundrel and coward, as he is eventually willing to leave and abandon Doretta. But he did save their lives by telling Frank that Doretta was rich and could be ransomed. If he hadn't, the bandits would have killed all three of them right there.
- Lima Syndrome: Frank keeps Pat alive for no other reason than he likes him, apparently. And he later puts a Comforting Comforter over a sleeping Doretta.
- Match Cut: From Pat chopping wood to Doretta starting a fire with the chopped wood.
- Mood Whiplash: What looks like it might be a family comedy film in the early going suddenly turns a lot darker when the stagecoach meets the bandits.
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Pat and Doretta are walking away. Doretta hesitantly reaches out and eventually puts her arm around Pat's waist. He puts his arm around her shoulder, and they walk off as The End pops up onscreen.
- Trivial Title: "The Tall T" is the name of Tenvoorde's ranch, which Pat visits early in the movie, and which has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
- You Wouldn't Shoot Me: So says Frank, noting that he stopped the others from killing Pat at the station, and Pat wouldn't shoot a man In the Back anyway. He's right.