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

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Hangman’s Knot (Columbia, 1952)


Top notch




 
 
I watched one of my favorite Randolph Scott Westerns again last night. It was on TV. To say “one of my favorite Randolph Scott Westerns” is saying a lot because I am a huge fan of Randy’s oaters (well, except Belle of the Yukon, of course) and he made so many fine ones. This one, though, is so well done that it ranks with those great Budd Boetticher-directed pictures of the late 50s. Yup, that good.
 
One of the best

There are in fact some similarities between that series (in particular The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station) and Hangman’s Knot. They were all Columbia pictures shot up at Lone Pine, for one thing, in superb color (Columbia did not stint on this) and the DP on all the above was the great Charles Lawton Jr., a real talent (his black & white for Delmer Daves on 3:10 to Yuma in 1957 was one of the finest artistic achievements in the Western genre). Lee Marvin, for another, Bill Masters in Seven Men from Now, the first of the Boetticher/Scott series and a Warners picture, and the Confederate lieutenant Rolph Bainter who has come to enjoy killing, in Hangman’s Knot. And while Hangman’s director Roy Huggins was no Budd Boetticher – in fact this was the only movie he ever directed – it must be said that he did a first-class job.

Roy

The story is that writer Huggins (Gun Fury, Three Hours to Kill, later producer of many episodes of Cheyenne, Maverick, The Virginian and then Alias Smith and Jones on TV) 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. “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 badmen do everything they can think of to kill them and grab the gold they believe to be inside – maybe.

It’s one of those tail-end of the Civil War stories. CSA Major Matt Stewart (Scott) and his men attack a shipment of Union gold being escorted by Nevada Volunteers. They succeed, with Lt. Bainter (Marvin) gleefully shooting down the boys in blue, although they lose three of their own men too.

"What's happened to you?" the major asks Bainter. "Is it that easy to kill a man?"
"Well, isn't it?" the lieutenant replies. "What else have we been doing for the last five years?"

It's actually quite thoughtful dialogue. 

"Is it that easy to kill a man?"

 
However, a dying Union officer tells them that in fact the war is now over. Lee surrendered several weeks before. This plot device was quite popular in Westerns (think of The Man from Colorado, say, or Love Me Tender) and it heightened the futility and tragedy of the conflict: those men died for nothing. Of course the Rebs don’t want to believe it, but they get confirmation when they rendez-vous with a Confederate agent (Glenn Langan, who oddly got fifth billing - I say oddly because he only has two lines and is shot in the back by Lee Marvin a few seconds later) who is disguised as a traveling patent medicine vendor. Now the question arises, just as it did in Love Me Tender four years later, what to do with the gold?

No one wants to hand it over to the Federal government. Perish the thought. Most of the men want to share it out and take their part home. Major Stewart is for taking it all back down South to aid with rebuilding and alleviate suffering. Noble sort of chap. For the moment, they load it on the medicine wagon and the major dresses up as a mountebank salesman, with his men (and the gold) hidden in the back.
 
They are now waylaid by a posse, deputized that very morning, they say. Oh joy, it is led by Ray Teal. I’m a considerable Tealite, it must be said. Ray could play goodies and baddies with equal aplomb. He fact he did aplomb. Here he is an out-and-out skunk, for he is no sworn lawman at all, just leader of a gang of thugs looking for that gold.

Ray is the nasty gang boss
 

His No. 2 is good old Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, another who could do goody and baddy equally well, and here he is even more ruthless and unpleasant than his boss. Monte Blue’s in the posse too, so it’s a good gang.
The Rebs trick the posse of bad guys, for the moment, but then lose their wagon and have to hijack a stagecoach, in which are traveling the slimy Lee Kemper (you can tell he’s a no-good Easterner because he wears a suit and has a derringer) and a lady he says is his fiancée, a Union Army nurse, Molly, and it’s Donna Reed. Kemper is played by Richard Denning, whose real name was Denninger, which isn’t that far from derringer, is it? He changed it because it sounded too like Dillinger. I would have thought that a good reason for keeping it, but hey. He would become the Governor in Hawaii 5-0 (fame at last) but really he was very far from a charismatic actor. "I'm very grateful for a career that wasn't spectacular, but always made a good living or filled in ‘in-between’”, Denning said of his acting days. "I have wonderful memories of it, but I don't really miss it." Quite.

Lowdown Easterner gives his word, then breaks it
 
As for Donna’s Molly (and female characters named Molly are always saintly, aren’t they; they had been since The Virginian in 1902) that was a different story.  She had been James Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life and would soon be Alma in From Here to Eternity. She 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.” Classic Lee. In fact, Reed is noticeably stiffer than the others, though very beautiful. After the scene of Marvin holding her against the wall, she was so terrified by him that she did not let him come near her on or off the set.

Destined to fall for Randy
 
Well, they get to the stage line’s way station in the nick of time and take cover there from the gang. The place is run by our old pal Clem Bevans, always enjoyable as an old-timer and here doing one of his best Western roles, I think. His daughter Margaret (Jeannette Nolan) helps out but she is a bitter woman filled with hatred. You see, her husband was killed fighting for the Union at Gettysburg and her son was one of the Nevada Volunteers cut down by these very Confederate guerrillas. No wonder she is hostile. Actually, it’s a well-written part, and well acted too, because she gradually softens as the siege goes on, and warms especially to a youth in Major Stewart’s party, Jamie.
 
Now Jamie is played by third-billed Claude Jarman Jr. Jarman was a former child star who had come to fame in The Yearling in 1946 when he was twelve and who had, in my view, been stunningly good for John Ford in Rio Grande four years later as John Wayne’s teenage son – an actor of real talent. He had a short but memorable part in The Outriders, a Joel McCrea Western, but mostly he was gradually relegated to B-movies and TV. He later became a producer of TV shows. He does a fine job playing a young man reluctant to kill anyone, even in the heat of battle (he is the polar opposite of Lee Marvin’s character) who, Major Stewart tells him, has “a lot of growing up to do.” He will finally become a man.

He can't shoot

Jarman very good
 
Marvin of course was born for the Western. I must do a Marvinorama one day, a career-retrospective of Lee’s oaters. For now just to say his Western debut came in 1950, in a perfectly splendid 20-second sequence of Wyoming Mail: he is an engineer, happily driving his train and whistling until a knife, thrown by a galloping robber, thuds into his back. Well, we all have to start somewhere. Actually, Lee got two debuts (that's unusual) because Universal used exactly the same footage in Cave of Outlaws the following year. The Don Siegel-directed The Duel at Silver Creek, in August ’52, then Hangman’s Knot, released in November, were his first speaking roles in an oater, and from there he would go from strength to strength. He would become one of the greats of our noble genre. In 1954 he would reprise his part in Hangman’s Knot with a very similar role, as a hot-headed and obnoxious Reb, in Fox’s The Raid.

Lee is in first year of speaking parts in Westerns
 
Also among the Confederate guerrillas is Frank 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. Always good to see Frank. He is captured by the bad guys and it is he who has the eponymous ligature placed around his neck. It looks like curtains for him, until bold and daring Maj. Stewart rescues him.

Frank good in Westerns
 
The major does this by throwing sticks of dynamite at the bad guys. As this is a late-1865 story and dynamite wouldn’t be invented till 1867 that is a bit premature but hey, who cares, right?
 
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. Still, he wasn’t that bad, I thought. He is gravely wounded, twice, and spends much of the movie groaning in bed, never the easiest part for any actor.
 
Scott himself is brilliant, as always. He underplays in an almost Gary Cooper-ish way, always generous with the limelight, throwing away ‘heroic’ lines and coming across as steely, decent and tough. He was such a good Western actor.

Randy as superb as ever

 
Though there are some fabulous location shots, especially in the first reel, most of the action takes place in and around the stage way station, just a cabin, and the film has a theater-play feel to it. 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. Siege stories like this 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, very well written and directed by Huggins, and acted by the cast. 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.



Some great Lone Pine locations, shot by Charles Lawton Jr
 
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.

A top-notch Western, not to be missed, especially but not only if you are a Randy devotee. Columbia did something very similar the following year, The Nebraskan, with Philp Carey, directed by Fred F Sears, and it was pretty good too, but not as good as this one. Huggins did as competent a job as Boetticher or, say, André De Toth would have done. It’s 81 minutes of tension without a wasted word of dialogue.

Recommended.



Sorry about the changes in font and bad spacing. Sometimes Blogspot drives me absolutely crazy. It just won't do what you ask!


 

8 comments:

  1. Jeff, a really fine write-up of a "Top Notch" Randolph Scott Western. Total agreement here. I've liked this one ever since I first saw it as a youngster. Fact is I watched it again recently. Roy Huggins should have directed more Westerns, because he knew how to do it. He did direct one other Western, which was a made for TV movie in 1970. THE YOUNG COUNTRY first aired on ABC's TUESDAY MOVIE OF THE WEEK on March 17, 1970. Originally it was a pilot for a new TV Western series, which didn't sell, but was later revamped and became Huggins' ALIAS SMITH AND JONES(1971-73) TV series.


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    1. I'll look out for The Young Country. Don't know it.
      Jeff

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  2. One of Scott's most popular and successful westerns, and also one of his best, something we probably all agree on. It would likely be in my list of 10 favourite westerns.

    I have a tendency to groan a bit when a western becomes a 'siege' situation though there have been some terrific and very successful examples. "HANGMAN'S KNOT" ,however, manages to be a siege western that moves continuously and is full of action and tension. Randolph Scott is just magnificent in it.

    A film I can watch time and again.

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    1. I agree about 'siege' Westerns, but done well they can be tense and gripping, like this one.
      Jeff

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  3. This is among Scott's best westerns. Just a tiny notch below the RANOWN pictures in my opinion. The way station is atmospheric and claustorphobic. Denning is the bad guy in a George Montgomery vehicle, BATTLE OF ROGUE RIVER.He was a real slime in that one. I also like Faylen, especially in 99 RIVER STREET, a John Payne noir.A very nice review.

    Steve Ellis

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    1. Yes, that's right. Denning was unspectacular in Rogue River too. See http://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.com/2017/09/battle-of-rogue-river-columbia-1954.html
      Jeff

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  4. One of my favourite Scott westerns. Thanks for a fine review and pics. Solid cast and direction. Wonder why Huggins didn’t direct again.

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