Warner Bros. // 1959 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // September 16th, 2012
One came shooting. One came to hope. One came to ravage. One came to hide.
I've stopped expecting much from the Warner Archives collection; often the films they release have big names, but little else behind them. I guess that's a good thing, because with these lowered expectations, I watched The Hanging Tree and loved it. Not only does Marty Robbins, one of country music's greatest crooners, sing the title track, it presents the debut role for George C. Scott (Patton). This is the kind of movie that deserves a larger release, not some bare bones disc.
Doc Frail (Gary Cooper, High Noon), a doctor newly arrived in a small gold mining settlement, saves a young criminal from the town mob, but instead of setting him free, forces the boy to work for him for no money. Soon after, a stagecoach is robbed and the travelers are murdered, all except Elizabeth (Maria Schell, The Magic Box), a young woman who managed to escape the attack. She is found, blinded, burned, and suffering, and is brought to Doc for treatment. As she starts getting better and her sight comes back, she decides to stay and makes a deal with Frenchie (Karl Malden, The Cat O' Nine Tails), the man who found her, on a gold claim. It turns out, though, that Frenchie has more diabolical designs for Elizabeth than just helping her run a mine.
How does a movie directed by Delmar Daves (Dark Passage), starring Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, and Maria Schell, and featuring a score by the legendary Max Steiner (Casablanca) get forgotten so easily? It would make sense if the thing was a huge mess, but The Hanging Tree is an excellent film in nearly every respect. It's plain crazy, but the movie is here now and every fan of the western genre should be grateful.
On the surface, it's not even the kind of western that I care for. There aren't any big gunfights or smarmy antiheroes and there are long sections of inaction broken up by romance instead of violence. There is a weird, slimy undercurrent to the film, though, that I certainly didn't expect, and it's a testament to Delmar Daves's skill at the helm that the movie flows so smoothly and feels so complete, even with old genre conventions that normally bore me.
The performances are a big part of it, with Cooper taking the lead. His stern, wooden self is at play, and his personality works as well here as it does anywhere. By all rights, he's a quality doctor, but when he arrives in town, a number of characters seem to know him and, more importantly, know that he has a very dark past that may include arson and murder. He's clearly no peach, as he basically enslaves the boy he saves and tries his best to keep Elizabeth away from the town's population. He's not the only one with secrets, though. Karl Malden's Frenchie uses the fact that he saved Elizabeth to try to force himself on her, taking a good act and making it terribly sleazy. And what can I say about George C. Scott in his debut on the silver screen? Everything he is beloved for, all the scene chewing and bluster is already in place in this deranged preacher, a character that isn't necessary for the story. The movie just wouldn't be the same without his few scenes.
The performances and the direction are great, but The Hanging Tree succeeds because of the combined efforts of an experienced and talented crew. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson's novel by Wendell Mayes (Death Wish) and Halsted Welles (3:10 to Yuma), the dialog is smooth and efficient without falling into the exposition trap that hurts so many westerns. The cinematography by Ted McCord (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) takes advantage of the gorgeous mountain landscapes of the Yakima region of the Cascades perfectly and Max Steiner's relatively subtle score accents all of it very well. I'm very surprised that The Hanging Tree doesn't have the reputation that other much less effective westerns have; there's really nothing to complain about on any level. I'm far more impressed than I could have expected and I'm glad to finally know about The Hanging Tree.
The disc for The Hanging Tree fares pretty well for an on-demand release. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer has some fairly apparent edge enhancement, but the black levels are solid, whites are bright, and the colors are rich and full, befitting the Technicolor stock. The sound is your basic mono mix, but the dialog and Max Steiner's score are well-balanced. Unfortunately, the only extra is a trailer, and it deserves a lot more.
The Hanging Tree is a near classic of the genre, one that has been all but forgotten. That's a real shame, and a senseless one; with a fine director, gorgeous scenery, and a number of stars who still carry weight with audiences today, everything should have been in place to ensure its place in cinema history. For whatever reason, that didn't work out, but hopefully this release will help it gain a little bit of traction in the minds of fans.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated