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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Hanging Tree (1959)

During the gold rush in the latter part of the 1800s, a doctor (Gary Cooper) with a mysterious past arrives in a Montana mining camp. He blackmails a young man (Ben Piazza) into becoming his indentured servant. But when a woman (Maria Schell) is found with severe sunburn, dehydration and temporary blindness from exposure, she will affect both their lives. The director Delmer Daves has directed several of the best westerns of the 1950s: the great 3:10 TO YUMA, THE LAST WAGON and JUBAL. You can add this one to the list. It's a complicated western that puts the emphasis on character development and psychology rather than gunfights or cowboys vs. Indians. The acting is uniformly good and the film provides that rarity in westerns, a strong and complex part for a woman. But ... and it's a big but ... the film seemed like it was on its way toward something dark and horrible and then, all of a sudden there's this what the ancient Greeks called deus ex machina. Out of nowhere, a quick and pat resolution. It's a serious enough flaw that prevents me from calling it a great western. But it's still one of the best westerns of the era, good enough to inspire Max Steiner to give it a fresh score rather than one of his retreads. With Karl Malden, George C. Scott (in his film debut), Karl Swenson and Virginia Gregg (aptly referred to by Piazza as a female snake, not good enough to crawl).

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