Saturday, June 8, 2013

Clint Eastwood returns to the USA in Hang 'Em High

After three progressively more successful (and violent) westerns made on foreign soil with director Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood saddled up and returned to Hollywood a movie star. Having declined Leone’s offer to star in Once Upon a Time in the West, a role that went to Charles Bronson, Eastwood also passed on Carl Foreman’s MacKenna’s Gold in favor of the more modest Hang ‘Em High for producer Leonard Freeman and his own newly formed Malpaso productions. In retrospect, it was a safe and sensible choice. If not the masterpiece that Leone’s epic would be recognized as in years to come, it wasn’t the disaster that Foreman’s film, starring Gregory Peck, turned out to be either. Hang ‘Em High was also something that neither of those films turned out to be: a box-office hit.

Eastwood, clean-shaven and looking years younger than the laconic bounty hunter of Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, is Jed Cooper, a former marshal from St. Louis turned rancher who is hanged by a band of nine vigilantes led by the highly respected Captain Wilson (Ed Begley) who wrongly believe the cattle Cooper is escorting to his ranch was stolen from a man he supposedly just killed. Before the noose can finish its job, Cooper is saved by a passing sheriff and taken prisoner. Once his innocence is established by Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle), the former lawman, determined to seek revenge, is appointed deputy marshal and Cooper sets out to bring the culprits to justice.

It doesn’t take Cooper long to gun down one culprit, arrest another, and see one of the guilty turn himself in after being spooked by reports of a "marshal with a hanging scar." There’s also time to dally with a woman of ill-repute (Arlene Golonka) and establish a more meaningful relationship with Rachel (Inger Stevens), a woman who takes an unusual and mysterious interest in the newly arrived prisoners.

The most interesting relationship in Hang ‘Em High is between Cooper and Fenton. The judge may admonish his new deputy (with whom he is much impressed), insisting he seek justice rather than revenge, but Fenton appears to take a perverse delight in sending men to the gallows, and even resents Cooper’s request that two youths he’s arrested for cattle rustling be spared the noose. "Justice is my province," Fenton says. "Mine and mine alone." As he watches the multiple hangings that bring out the townspeople in a festive carnival atmosphere, and, from his window, nods the signal for the executioner to pull the lever and send the doomed men to their reward, he’s a showman, a P.T. Barnum in a circus of law and order.

As Cooper, Eastwood shows more emotion than he was permitted to as the nameless killer of the Leone films. If anything, he resembles a disillusioned and mature Rowdy Yates, the often naive cowpoke he played for seven years on TV’s Rawhide. He can be lethal but compassionate and fair, too.

Inger Stevens, perhaps the busiest actress of 1968 (she also appeared in Madigan, Five Card Stud, and Firecreek the same year), is fine, as is Ed Begley, the leader of the lynching party, Charles McGraw as a sheriff with back trouble, and Bruce Dern in one of those smiling sadist roles he often played at the time. Top acting honors go to Pat Hingle whose fiery Judge Fenton seems more respectful of his own power than he does of law and order. There are other familiar faces appearing throughout, including Bob Steele, Bert Freed, and Dennis Hopper.

Dominic Frontiere’s rousing theme was covered by the late Hugo Montenegro in the same style he copped from Ennio Morricone, whose themes from For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Montenegro rode to pop success, but Booker T and the MGs had the hit, as well they should have. Although Hang ‘Em High is often described as an "imitation spaghetti western," there is little trace of the Italian influence to be found here. Rather it’s a simple story of frontier justice directed competently and without flourish by TV veteran Ted Post. More so than in his European efforts, in Hang ‘Em High Eastwood establishes the persona he would soon urbanize in Dirty Harry.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


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