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

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Hanging Tree (Warner Bros, 1958)

Coop's finest Western since High Noon

Last night, The Hanging Tree was on TV here in France, on the Franco-German channel Arte. This station has a lot to recommend it; for example it shows movies in a choice of languages – French, German or the original – well done, Arte. And shame on the channels that only show movies dubbed into French, and shame on the French broadcasting authorities that allow that. No wonder the French are so bad at foreign languages.

Of course I had to watch it. A Gary Cooper Western is not something you pass over lightly and I hadn’t seen it for, oh, weeks.

Actually, I hadn’t seen it for a long time, and as can often happen when watching a Western like this, you can end up re-appraising it. Yesterday I came to think that it’s Coop’s best Western since High Noon (1952).

Cooper himself said just before he died,

Nothing I’ve done lately, the past eight years or so, has been especially worthwhile. I’ve been coasting along. Some of the pictures I’ve made recently I’m genuinely sorry about. Either I did a sloppy job in them, or the story wasn’t right.

He was certainly being too harsh on himself. Yes, he had done some pretty poor Westerns since High Noon, such as Springfield Rifle, Vera Cruz and Friendly Persuasion (a semi-Western). But even in those he himself was never “sloppy”; he always lifted mediocre movies. And he had also done some very good ones, notably Garden of Evil with Henry Hathaway (1954) and the powerful Man of the West with Anthony Mann (1958). Most of all, his last two Westerns were superb, The Hanging Tree and They Came to Cordura.

The Hanging Tree was written by Wendell Mayes, whom Billy Wilder had hired in ’57 to work on the script of The Spirit of St Louis and who did three outstanding scripts for Otto Preminger but they are not Westerns so we can't talk about those now, and Halsted Welles, who had adapted Elmore Leonard’s short story for the screenplay of 3:10 to Yuma for Daves, also in ’57. They used as a basis a novella by Dorothy M Johnson, writer of A Man Called Horse and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, and a fine Western author. Quality writing all round, then, and it shows, in the subtlety of the characterization and the tension of the plot.

The director was Delmer Daves (1904 – 77). Now Delmer must be thought of as one of the top helmers of Westerns. He had lived on reservations with Hopi and Navajo Indians. He started his film career as a prop boy on The Covered Wagon in 1923 and became an actor, writer and producer. He was especially fond of Westerns and directed nine, from the seminal Broken Arrow in 1950 to The Hanging Tree, his last, in 1958, passing by Drum Beat, Jubal and, his masterpiece in my view, 3:10 to Yuma, among others. A fine record. He contributed visual artistry and he also managed to extract great performances from his actors (not that that was difficult with Coop). In fact on this, his last, movie, Daves became ill with ulcers towards the end, and Cooper, whose new company, Baroda Productions, this project led, asked one of the actors, Karl Malden, to finish the direction, which he seems to have done competently.
Delmer Daves
Coop’s health had at last given way. His years of stunting finally took their toll. He suffered hernias, ulcers and severe back trouble. In 1959 he was diagnosed with cancer. He made these last films in considerable pain, yet while he resorted as much as possible to his double, Slim Talbot, he still did quite a few of the action scenes himself. He was in especial agony when he had to ride a horse. But he was magnificent. The character he plays, Dr. Joseph Frail, is a much more complex personality than Coop’s previous Western figures, even Will Kane. He is at once a caring, thoughtful physician and a cold, rebuffing and almost sadistic man. He drinks, smokes and gambles, ruthlessly accumulating wealth, and totes a .45. Cooper captures this wonderfully well, as always, “underacting”, transmitting so many emotions with the face, especially the eyes, suggesting mystery, a painful past and intelligence. It is a breathtakingly good performance.
The story is a curious one. Set in the aptly-named Skull Creek, a Montana gold camp in 1873 (a wonderful creation, all praise to art direction by Daniel B Cathcart, who also did The Law and Jake Wade and The Badlanders; I think the camp in Ride the High Country was modeled on it), it has Dr. Frail (a name he has chosen as it “suits a man with frail hope”) ride into town at the start (that was a trademark in Gary Cooper Westerns) and set up business in a clifftop cabin.

As he passes the ominous tree which dominates the town, center of the lynch mob rule that runs the place, a man comments, "Every new mining town's got to have its hanging tree. Makes folks feel respectable." It's pure Daves. It echoes Clark Gable's wry comment on seeing a hanged man in The Tall Men a couple of years earlier: "Looks like we're getting close to civilization." We also think of the early scene in Anthony Mann's Bend of the River when James Stewart saves Arthur Kennedy from the noose, and The Ox-Bow Incident, and a whole host of other Westerns. They just loved to hang people, preferably without too much concern as to whether the victim were actually guilty of anything. I loathe lynching on screen or anywhere else. Delmer Daves did too. And Henry Fonda. And any humane being.

Frail immediately establishes himself as a kind and caring physician, treating the child of a poor family free and even lending them his milk cow to nourish the little girl.
Caring doc
Yet when he saves a sluice robber from certain death on the town’s lynching tree (a tree, by the way, which eerily dominates the town in a way reminiscent of the excellent Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Western of the same year, Ride Lonesome) and treats the young man’s gunshot wound, we see another side to the Doc. He exploits the boy, forcing him to become his “bondservant”, almost a slave, and there is even something slightly creepy about the relationship. The boy is called simply Rune; this puzzling name may be either first name or last name or neither. His soft, almost feminine looks hint at something nearly corrupt. Rune is played by Ben Piazza, his first big role. Piazza was really a tragic figure who died of AIDS in 1991, survived by his companion. He is really quite excellent in this picture and we see how he gradually changes from anger and resentment to loyalty and affection. At one point he says of himself that he is there because he has nowhere else to go; that is certainly true – he has for the first time found a home and a point in life, assisting the doctor.
Ben Piazza, very good performance
The arrival of a woman in the camp is what causes all the trouble. She is a Swiss lady, only survivor of a stage hold-up and crash (superbly and impressionistically staged by Daves), who is burned and blinded by the sun and whom Dr. Frail tends and cures. While some of the rough camp men are respectful and decent, others, notably Frenchy Plante (Malden) are not. Plante is indeed a repellent character, sly, lustful and cowardly.

But here is a basic weakness of the film: while the character of Plante is a great one, Malden ruins it. He was an absolutely awful Western actor and did his best by overacting to ruin any number of movies. Maybe he was alright in crime dramas but in Westerns he was truly hopeless. He is incapable of speaking but only shouts. His bulbous nose dominates the screen unpleasantly and he wears the stupidest hat you have ever seen. His worst, most scenery-chewing performance was probably as the Army officer in Cheyenne Autumn but he also did his utmost to sink One-Eyed Jacks (which wasn’t actually that hard to sink) and Nevada Smith. The only Western he was half decent in was as the barman in The Gunfighter.
Malden, embarrassingly bad
The woman, though, is played by Maria Schell and very well indeed. I especially admire the convincing way she coped with the gradual return of her character’s sight. She has the right blend of grace and toughness and really does an excellent job. It is completely plausible when the doctor’s tenderness and her gratitude blossom into genuine love. It was her first Western of only three (she was also good in the Glenn Ford version of Cimarron in 1960) and it is a pity she didn’t do more.
Maria Schell, outstanding
Another impressive aspect of the tale is the way that malicious (female) tongues wag as the woman patient is tended by the doctor. Virginia Gregg as the wonderfully-named Edna Flaunce is superb. (The characters' names have an almost Mervyn Peake tinge to them). I also loved the young George C Scott as the poisonous preacher Grubb, furious that a real doc was taking away his lucrative trade as crooked faith healer. Daves was as anti-clerical as he was anti-lawmen and his preachers and sheriffs, when they appear at all, are corrupt or vicious or both. Grubb has a great line, "I hear tell she's a foreigner. Is she loose virtued?"
George C Scott as crazed preacher: excellent
John Dierkes is also very good indeed as the bearded gambler Society Red, and when the bacchanalian mob run riot after a big strike and a bonfire gets out of hand and burns the camp, there is even a hint (as far as 1959 mores would allow) of homosexual rape as Red and a couple of cronies trap Rune in the cabin and seem to have their way with him. Daves often played with homoeroticism, on a subliminated level, in this case done in a dark and unpleasant way.

The writing and, with the exception of Malden, acting, is really first class.
Fascinating relationship develops
The Max Steiner music is a bit turgid and there is the inevitable (and inevitably ghastly) ballad crooned over the opening titles by Marty Robbins. Oscar-nominated, would you believe; it didn’t win, at least. No 50s Western was complete without an excruciatingly warbled ballad. Of course Tarantino’s still doing it… The worst part of this is at the end when the moving last scene is ruined by this trite ditty.

It’s supposed to be Montana, Coop’s home, but the locations were in Washington – very nice, though and well photographed by Ted McCord (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Giant). Visually, this is an attractive picture.

I really would recommend you to have another look at The Hanging Tree. It is very fine.


  1. I have never seen this ... time to buy another DVD.

  2. I bought the Warner Archive DVD-OD of The recent chemical restoration of this fine film and, sad to say, it really needed a full digital resto. I noticed last week that there is a new Blu-ray out; do you happen to know whether or not such a full restoration has been done?

    - Steve Schaffer

    1. Hi Steve
      No, I couldn't say.
      Certainly the movie deserves a top-class Delivery.