Judge Paul Corupe reminds you that it's traditional to have eight coils in your noose.
"You ever seen a hangman's knot?"
A gold heist, gunplay, and a hanging are all part of the fun promised by Hangman's Knot, a Civil War b-western starring tumbleweed idol Randolph Scott. Lavishly photographed in Technicolor and boasting an excellent supporting performance by Lee Marvin, Hangman's Knot may not be the best or most important western of its time, but it's a generally agreeable time-waster that should please fans of the genre.
Facts of the Case
In the final years of the Civil War, Maj. Matt (Randolph Scott, Ride the High Country) leads a Confederate assault on a Union gold shipment passing through Nevada. His soldiers shoot down the entire convoy and snatch the payload for the Rebel army, but their celebration is short-lived—they learn from a dying Yank that the war has already ended. Not knowing whether to believe him, Matt and his patrol eventually decide to head back home with their ill-gotten gold.
News of the massacre and the missing gold soon reaches a posse of thieves, who give chases to the Rebels. Matt and his trigger-happy heavy Rolph (Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen) hijack a stagecoach and hole up in a nearby relay station. There, they face resistance from local citizens, including ex-Union nurse Molly (Donna Reed From Here to Eternity). With a mob of gold-hungry thieves surrounding the place and a bitter resentment boiling over from those inside, Matt and his men are forced to hold everyone in the station hostage while they figure out their next move.
Even though Hangman's Knot doesn't hold up to the lurid implications of its title, it's still a pretty fair Technicolor b-western bookended with some exciting action sequences. Randolph Scott was a fairly popular b-western hero from the 1940s through to the late 1950s, achieving his greatest popularity with a series of films that matched him with director Budd Boetticher, starting with 1956's Seven Men from Now. Hangman's Knot, appearing several years before the Boetticher pictures, is not quite as notable as his later efforts, but it does have a few things going for it.
The film begins quite promisingly, with a violent ambush on the Union gold shipment and a thrilling stagecoach chase. The tempo is brisk and the action is well-photographed, but the film eventually proves unable to keep up with the pace it sets in these early scenes. When the heroes arrive at the relay station, Hangman's Knot starts to reveal its lack of budget. In theory, here is where the conflict should be heightened and romance given a chance to blossom, but unfortunately the lengthy middle of the film fails to rise above a drawing room drama, confined to a handful of sets. Instead of plotting their escape, Maj. Matt spends his time combating his prisoners' Rebel stereotypes and making googly eyes at the perpetually tea-making Molly. The film occasionally cuts back outside to the bandits lying in wait, but there is surprisingly little tension or urgency, especially considering that the film has gone to great lengths to set up this stand-off.
The only aspect that keeps the film afloat during the leaden middle is a brief subplot that develops between Matt and Rolph, as Rolph tries to rape Molly. Matt breaks down the door to save her, which leads to their brief, if implausible, romance. Luckily, an exciting ending helps to compensate for the slower, dialogue-heavy scenes as the mob tries to burn out the Rebels, forcing them to implement their escape plan earlier than expected.
With the exception of Lee Marvin, the entire cast puts in workman-like performances. Scott is no John Wayne, but he is definitely passable as a western leading man. The role of Maj. Matt is a little bland though, and Scott doesn't really get a moment to shine as a true leader or a hero. Contrast that with Lee Marvin's performance as the sinister Rolph, who brings sorely needed life to the picture and steals just about every scene he's in. Rolph is a greedy gunslinger who is just as at ease shooting a traitor or cruelly needling a hostage as he is locking himself in a room to have his way with Molly. He represents all that the Union folk believe is true about the savage Rebel soldiers, and proves an appropriately slimy foil for Matt, who helps dispel the resentment of the hostages by contrast, if not by action.
This distinction provides the moral center of the film, as differences are drawn between cold-blooded Rolph and honest, trustworthy Matt. Yet I can't help but notice that they are essentially playing on the same team here, as ex-Rebel thieves with Union blood on their hands. The film probably would have been better served by exploring the fine line between the war-time killing of enemy soldiers and cutting off supply lines with the less legal activities of armed robbery and murder.
As usual, the Technicolor process looks quite good replicated on DVD. The colors are bright and solid, and generally a pleasure to look at. The problem comes from the source print, which is fraught with constant grain and significant source damage in some scenes, including one moment where the shot is completely saturated in unnatural light. Sound is provided by a passable Dolby mono track—dialogue and music sound just fine.
The only extras included are the "previews" standard on the bare bones Columbia TriStar releases; however, this time it's worth the effort to check them out—before trailers for modern oaters like Silverado, we get a really fun trailer for the John Wayne classic western Cowboy.
While it drags a bit in the middle and suffers from a less-than-pristine source print, this DVD is a nice library addition for fans of 1950s westerns and Randolph Scott in particular. While generally a fair film, there's nothing here to make it really stand out against more popular genre pictures, making Hangman's Knot a tough sell for anyone looking to explore b-westerns for the first time.
There's a reason they call me the "hanging judge," but this ain't no border justice town, consarnit, so all parties are free to go.
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