Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hang 'Em High

This is a surprisingly good movie!  I was surprised because I thought it would be a spaghetti Western, but the synopsis of the plot of Hang ‘Em High intrigued me so I decided to take a chance on it.  I’m glad I did; this 114-minute film from 1967 is well worth watching.  And there are lots of little reminders of Alias Smith and Jones, too.

Clint Eastwood plays Jed Cooper, whom the audience first sees as a cowboy driving a small herd of cattle across a river, just like in Twenty-One Days to Tenstrike.  Suddenly, a large group of men surround him and accuse him of rustling.  One of the men is played by immediately-recognizable Alan Hale, Jr. (Andrew Greer, the lawyer in The Girl in Boxcar 3).  Another man, Loomis, is played by L.Q. Jones (Clint Weaver in Stagecoach Seven) , not so recognizable as I mistakenly thought he was the man wearing an eye patch.  They don’t believe his evidence that he bought the cattle legally and hang him from a nearby tree.  This scene at the beginning of Hang ‘Em High was well-done and reminded me a little of The Ox-Bow Incident.

Fortunately, a marshal comes along, sees the man dangling and cuts him loose, only to have his deputy shackle his feet and dump him in the prison wagon with the other men he’s transporting to Fort Grant, Oklahoma Territory.  Much later in the movie the audience learns that the marshal’s name is Hayes.  After a few days in the pit-like jail, the judge (played by Pat Hingle) releases him.  Cooper wants revenge on the nine men who attempted to hang him.  But it turns out Cooper is an ex-lawman and Judge Fenton offers him a job that he can’t refuse: $250 a month as a Federal Marshal; he will be the twentieth marshal in the entire Territory.  The judge tells Cooper he can go after the men who tried to kill him but he must bring them in alive, and the remainder of Hang ‘Em High is about Cooper’s pursuit of them.  There is also a rather mysterious woman, Rachel Warren (played by Inger Stevens), who comes to play a significant role in the movie.

Other connections to Alias Smith and Jones abound: A character, seen only in one scene at the beginning of Hang ’Em High, is called Preacher.  The town where the bad guys are is called Red Creek.  Cooper and another man call each other “boy” but in this movie, it’s used as a derogatory insult, in contrast to the affectionate use of the term in the TV show.  At one point, Cooper is distracted from his mission of revenge by having to track down some murdering cattle-rustlers, and he brings all of them through a desert safely, though it’s clear when they reach Fort Grant that they suffered mightily.  One scene had L.Q. Jones inside a house engaged in a shoot-out with Cooper, in a fun twist from seeing him on the outside shooting in in Stagecoach Seven.  And Alan Hale was taking the law into his own hands when he supported the hanging of Cooper, in contrast to his role as a lawyer in ASJ.  In another irony, Mark Lenard (Jim Plummer in Exit from Wickenburg) is a prosecutor appearing before Judge Fenton’s court.

Fort Grant is a clear stand-in for the real Fort Smith in Arkansas and Judge Fenton is obviously a surrogate for the real Judge Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge.”  About half the plot of Hang ‘Em High consists of Cooper tracking down his nemeses and the other half deals with his relationship with the judge and his tendency to hang all the prisoners brought before his court.  The gallows is prominently located in the center of the town and the movie shows several scenes of people being hung.  At one mass execution, there is a party-like atmosphere, just as in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry; a vendor can even be heard hawking, not popcorn, but pretzels, licorice sticks for children, and cold beer.  There is a great shot of the shadows of several pairs of legs dangling; in fact, the quality of the cinematography and production design is very high in this film. 

There are no bonus features on the DVD I watched but there is a very interesting trailer for Hang ‘Em High; it is obvious that the movie is from the ‘60s!  All in all, this was a very enjoyable film and definitely worth seeing.

Biography of Judge Isaac Parker:
http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ar-isaacparker.html

History of the U.S. Marshal Service, with a focus on the Old West period:
http://www.legendsofamerica.com/law-usmarshals.html

Review summary in The New York Times:
http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/21400/Hang-Em-High/overview

From IMDb:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061747/?ref_=sr_1