Hangman’s Knot is one of the very best Randolph Scott Westerns – and that’s saying a lot.
Producer and writer Roy Huggins created the screenplay expressly for Scott and approached Scott’s business partner Harry Joe Brown with a view to selling the project to Warners, but Brown (rightly) thought Columbia would be a better bet. Brown and Scott offered Huggins less for the script but Huggins got to direct, something he had always wanted to do. It was in fact his only movie as director. “I directed the film to prove I could do it,” he wrote. “Directors are a strange group. They like to make the world feel that directing is a very difficult thing to do, and it isn’t at all.”
It’s a tense, claustrophobic and gripping Western that develops character interestingly and has unexpected plot twists. Most of it is a siege story, as the (semi-) good guys are holed up in a stage way-station while the bad guys do everything they can think of to kill them and grab the gold they believe to be inside – maybe. Siege stories can make for rather static Westerns with too much talking and too little action, in a confined space (i.e. a studio set). But this one avoids that risk: it is action-packed and exciting.
One of the best Randolph Scott Westerns
It has the plotline of an attack in the late stages of the Civil War which is discovered to have taken place after Lee’s surrender. Westerns quite liked this story (see, for example, The Man from Colorado, Love Me Tender, others). Scott is principled CSA Major Matt Stewart who attacks a Union army wagon train to steal some gold, only to find afterwards that the war has been over for a month. Discussion develops amongst his men as to what to do with the loot, hand it over to the Union, keep it or, Randy’s preference, take it back down South to help with rebuilding. But a purported sheriff’s posse, actually a band of badmen, has other ideas. These villains would like the gold for themselves. So the stage is set for conflict.
Good news: the band of badmen is led by Ray Teal, one of my favorite Western character actors. He is seriously unpleasant and not a little murderous. It is he who ties the eponymous ligature round the neck of brave Frank Faylen, one of Randy’s men. Teal’s henchman is Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, in his last Western with Scott, and Monte Blue is another bandit, so it’s a pretty good posse.
Ruthless Lt. Lee Marvin
As for the other side, Major Randy’s second-in-command is Lee Marvin, in his first Western with Scott, and excellent he is too as the equally murderous Reb lieutenant (a role he would reprise two years later in Fox's The Raid). Among the ex-Confederate men are Faylen: Frank was not only cabdriver Ernie in It’s a Wonderful Life; he was also in a good number of Westerns, such as Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Lusty Men (also in '52) and Blood on the Moon, not to mention his derringer-toting tinhorn gambler in The Lone Gun. And as a callow youth who has never (until now) shot anyone in the war is Claude Jarman Jr. Jarman was a former child star who had, in my view, been stunningly good in Rio Grande in 1950 as John Wayne’s son – an actor of real talent. He does a good job playing a terrified boy who becomes a man.
Claude Jarman Jr.
The last of Randy’s men is played by John Call, who, director Huggins said, “couldn’t act his way out of a sack.” He had been a leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway and wasn’t exactly cut out for Westerns. Oddly, Glenn Langan gets fifth billing. I say oddly because he only has two lines and is shot in the back by Lee Marvin in the first reel.
There are neutrals, who swing to one side or the other as the plot progresses. The way-stage owner is old Clem Bevans, a sprightly 73, in his 29th Western, and his daughter is a sour and bitter woman (Jeanette Nolan) who has lost both husband and son in the war. And there are two stage passengers, Richard Denning and Donna Reed, the former a scoundrel (he wears a suit and has a derringer so he must be) and the latter a brave and beautiful Union nurse. So there’s plenty of scope for human interaction and character development, and Huggins, both as writer and director, handles that very well.
Cheesy DVD cover, very unrepresentative of the movie
Donna Reed, James Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life and soon to be Alma in From Here to Eternity, was suggested by Scott. She was suffering from an in-between career slump and was glad of the part. She was the only one who wanted to rehearse, though. The others were happy to go for spontaneity, Marvin especially (who told an amused/bemused Huggins, “Dialogue isn’t important with an actor – it’s body language that matters.”) In fact, Reed is noticeably stiffer than the others.
Randolph Scott is brilliant, as always. He underplays in an almost Gary Cooperish way, throwing away ‘heroic’ lines and coming across as steely, decent and tough. He was such a good Western actor.
There was some typically good location shooting in Technicolor, up at Lone Pine, by Charles Lawton Jr., one of the very best Western cinematographers ever (the original 3:10 to Yuma is a photographic masterpiece and Lawton also shot the best of the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Westerns in the late 1950s) and the exterior scenes are fabulous, but because most of the action takes place in an around the cabin, the film has a theater-play feel to it and it was made on a budget of less than $400,000, in 17 days (one less than scheduled). Huggins claimed that it made 20% more than all previous Scott films for Columbia.
Some great location shooting
There’s a fire in the cabin and a flash-flood outside. The ending has more bodies than Act V of Hamlet. It sure don’t drag. Dynamite also plays an important part in the 1865 plot. Unfortunately it wasn’t invented until 1867 but hey, we don’t want to be picky, do we?
The movie got excellent reviews. The New York Times said it was a “taut, action-filled adventure. … Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott … obviously were aware that motion pictures should move, and their robust drama wastes few words and very often digs into the character of its principals to give genuine substance to the brisk action of the story.” I agree. It's not often (in fact I think never) that Randolph Scott Westerns get a four-revolver rating.
A top-notch Western, not to be missed if you are a Randy devotee. Or even if you aren’t, actually.