"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hang ‘em High (UA, 1968)

Better than some later Eastwood stuff

This movie came in a boxed set of spaghetti westerns with the Dollars trilogy which is odd marketing because it is not in fact a spaghetti. For one thing, there is an attempt to address a moral question. So that disqualifies it immediately.

For another, the dialogue and sound are recorded in situ and the film is not dubbed. There is no stylized exaggerated violence (apart from the hangings), nor any Leone wide screen ultra-close-ups. It was filmed in New Mexico with American character actors. It was directed by an American TV show director and produced by Malpaso and the Hawaii 5-0 people.  Hell, it even had Ed Begley in it.

In the very first scene we have one of the oldest Western tropes of all as the hero is kind to an animal. Obviously a goody. So clearly we are not dealing with the grunting spaghetti killer we had become used to Clint giving us over there in Europe.
Spag titles
Yes, it did have certain spaghetti influences but they are kept to a minimum.

So that’s a relief. Clint is hanged before the titles, which is a bit of a surprise. They do The Ox-Bow Incident in 9 minutes, though forget the quality part. Ben Johnson cuts him down alive (just) but then sadly is written out. What a wonderful Western actor Johnson was but how often he was misused or wasted.

Ben the Great

Clint is ‘Marshal Cooper’, not called Coop (as the hero is in, say, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) so we forgive him, and he signs on with Hanging ‘Judge Fenton’ (Pat Hingle) at ‘Fort Grant’ (only the names have been changed to protect the guilty). Of course he uses the badge to hunt his lynch mob, led by Capt. Ed Begley. Lynching is such an appalling, base and cowardly crime that we have no sympathy for the perpetrators, especially when they decide to forestall arrest and try to kill Clint again. That is just plain naughty.
Marshal Cooper blasts 'em
Just as, in a way, any war film is inevitably an anti-war film (it is enough to show war), so any film that shows a hanging in detail becomes an anti-capital punishment statement. The multiple hangings ordered by Judge Fenton (obviously based on Isaac Parker), with their The Bravados/True Grit-style festive audience, beer vendors, children watching, and, worst of all, a clergyman officiating at the celebrations with hymns and prayers, are enough to turn the stomach of even a fan of the death penalty.


In the dialogue Clint compares the judge’s hangings to lynching and you do wonder, especially when two teenage boys found quickly guilty of stealing a few cows but not murder are ritually strangled.
Good old Ed
We have some excellent actors. Everyone loves Ed Begley and you should see him when Clint comes for his revenge. Fear, panic and terror drip from his pores. Those white eyebrows reach for the sky. He is incompetent evil personified.

And then, oh joy, we have Bruce Dern. Now Bruce Dern has to be a candidate for the 'Best Baddy in Westerns' Award. There ought to be a Western Badman Hall of Fame and if there were, Bruce would reign supreme. Only Richard Boone came close. As soon as I see Mr. Dern in the credits, I know we are in for a good time. Quentin Tarantino knew this too and that is why he included him in his recent Django Unchained and The Hateful 8. The only serious philosophical question for debate is, is he eviler in The Cowboys or Will Penny? My personal favorite is Last Man Standing. Is there a Bruce Dern fan club? There must be. I need to be elected President.
Bruce the Great
Why is Inger Stevens always a boarding house (or whorehouse) lady? Firecreek, 5 Card Stud, Hang ‘em High, she was always to be seen in a boarding/cathouse. Odd. And she always had 1960s blonde hair. Oh well.
Sitting in her boarding house
Bob Steele is the only decent member of the lynch party. Good old Bob, we always like to see him. LQ Jones is there in the mob too. And Dennis Hopper is a crazed preacher shot down (reluctantly) by Marshal Ben Johnson. So we have some old friends here. Not like spaghettis.
Bob Steele, old friend
The photography’s OK (Richard Kline and Leonard South) and the quality of the print very good; the music (Dominic Frontiere), however, is not. When Clint is making out with over-made-up Inger, the music is such romantic slush it could have been lifted from a Doris Day film.

The screenplay (Leonard Freeman & Mel Goldberg) and direction (Ted Post, the Rawhide guy) are the weakest links. Characters were supposed to develop and show complexity with two scenes and six lines of dialogue. Can’t be done. Post was essentially a TV director, and it shows.

So it’s a proper Western, not a trash spaghetti. It’s just not a very good one. A pity because in the right hands it could have had a lot to say.

It was a million times better than the Leone junk Eastwood had been doing and curiously, after it he went backwards. The Don Siegel-directed Two Mules for Sister Sara that he did two years later, for example, was much more spaghetti than this one. It wasn’t really until Joe Kidd in 1972 that Clint starred in a really good Western and began his climb to greatness via Josey Wales and Pale Rider to the magnificent Unforgiven.


  1. That is such a wonderful cast. Too bad it was wasted. With a different director and more screen time for Ben Johnson it could have been so much better.

    I liked Bruce Dern from the very first time I saw him on the screen (large or small). He could even be funny, as he proved in "Support Your Local Sheriff."

    Great review, as always.

  2. Sorry, Jeff. I disagree with your last paragraph. High Plains Drifter wipes the sagebrush off Joe Kidd's ass. It's in a different league. Joe Kidd, except for its length, could be a made-for-TV movie. One of the actors said Eastwood and Sturges didn't hit it off and I think it shows. Even Duvall seems to be going through the motions. The ending with the train is laughable.

    Drifter, on the other hand, is not only a conscious tribute by Clint to Leone and Siegel; it has a supernatural edge, which is unusual for an oater. Eastwood's direction outpaces Sturges' efforts on all levels and his own performance is superior to that in Joe Kidd.

    1. Fair enough. Each to his own!
      I've always quite liked Joe Kidd, partly but not only because of its visual quality.
      Sturges's record on Westerns was mixed, I think, ranging from the superb, like Bad Day at Black Rock (if you consdier that a Western) to the dire, such as Sergeants 3 and The Hallelujah Trail. I hadn't heard before that Clint and Sturges didn't get on.
      Thanks for your comment.