The Hanging Tree (1959)

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From The Prize Novel — A Picture Of Thundering Power!

We’ve looked before- and will again- at films which have perhaps taken on reputations greater than they deserve. Many times films have disappeared and become harder to view, though the advent of TCM some time ago and more recently the swath of numerous MOD DVD offerings have cut down on this phenomena.

The Hanging Tree is one of these films. It is by no means a bad film, but surely should be considered one whose reputation has grown over the years for various reasons. Much might be to draw conversation away from such stalwarts as High Noon or The Searchers. But to raise it to that level simply isn’t justified by the end result.

Starring Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, and (then) newcomer George C. Scott, the casting could not be much stronger. Cooper, in one of the few roles left in the waning years of his life, is a crusty frontier doctor with a secret past. He nurses the sole survivor of a stage robbery (Maria Schell) back to health after a severe sunburn and blindness.

Eventually the townsfolk of the little mining town grow suspicious of why the young lady is spending so much time at the doctor’s place. Couple this with the leering eyes and dishonorable intentions of Big Frenchy (Karl Malden), the man who found the woman after the robbery, and you have the start of a perfect storm.

Eventually the good doctor evicts the woman, who pairs up with Frenchy and heads out to stake a claim. Luckily, they literally strike gold which increases Frenchy’s already growing arrogance and antagonism towards the good doctor.

What perhaps limits the picture are the numerous plot gaps. As good as George C. Scott is as the stereotypically rabid preacher, the character serves little if any purpose in the story.  It is a great but irrelevant role.  Also, is Frenchy from France or Canada? Malden seems to at times attempt a French accent but it comes and goes with the breeze. Overall the plot just isn’t deep enough or probing enough to do the cast justice.

The atmosphere is, however, an equally strong positive. The mining town isn’t the typical western town we’ve grown so accustomed to in similar pictures. Nowhere to be seen is the swanky saloon, though there is some prostitution and gambling in town.

Better still is the sparkling cinematography and direction (under notable Delmer Daves), which is full of lush pine forests and the Pacific Northwest. Many shots include quite a bit of the local landscape which adds quite a bit to the feel of the picture. The score by Max Steiner is also quite good and is one of Steiner’s better outings from this period of his lengthy career.

Thankfully the Warner Archive has just released this through their MOD program. Though it doesn’t mention any remastering or the like, the print is much brighter and in overall better condition than the version I had. So although it is doubtful that Warners expended much effort in restoring the picture (the picture still looks slightly cropped but it is anamorphic), I’d say they definitely took their time in finding the best available source as historically lack of good source prints was given as the reason for this picture never appearing previously.

You also get the original trailer which, though not much, is about what we’ve grown accustomed to on these MOD releases. It really doesn’t matter as the upgrade in picture quality (and a lesser but still substantial improvement in the audio) is worth the price of admission alone.

Thanks also for the review copy provided by the Warner Archive.

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