FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Hanging Tree
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Produced by Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd; directed by Delmer Daves and Karl Malden (finishing, uncredited); screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles, based on Dorothy M. Johnson’s novella; music by Max Steiner; cinematography by Ted McCord; edited by Owen Marks; art direction by Daniel B. Cathcart; starring Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Karl Swenson, and and Ben Piazza. DVD, color, 107 min., 1959. A Warner Archive release.
Delmer Daves was a pedestrian studio director who made some well-regarded Westerns such as Broken Arrow (1950) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). The Hanging Tree (1959) was his last Western and a somewhat more complex film than a description of its conventional narrative would suggest. Based on a novella by Dorothy M. Johnson, who had written two short stories that were the source for John Ford’s classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and for Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1970), it takes place in 1870 in a transient, lawless Montana gold-mining camp called Skull Creek, which is filled mostly with greedy flotsam seeking to strike it big.
In the classic Western mode, a lone man, Doctor “Doc” Joseph Frail (Gary Cooper in one of his last roles), arrives and buys a cabin on a hill overlooking the camp, where he sets up a practice. He’s a mysterious figure who carries with him a horrific secret from his past in Illinois. Besides being a doctor he is a gambler and, more importantly for survival in this milieu, good with his fists and a gun. He has a harsh, distant, dark side—exemplified by his blackmailing a young thief, Rune (a superfluous character played by Ben Piazza). After saving him from a mob and sure lynching, Frail uses Rune’s gratitude to pressure him into becoming his indentured servant. Despite this, he is essentially kind, and a committed healer. In fact, he even “lends” a couple of cows to fatten up an impoverished couple’s malnourished little daughter.
The narrative takes off when after a stagecoach robbery Frail takes in a temporarily blinded survivor and foreigner, Elizabeth Mahler (Swiss actress Maria Schell), whom he tenderly nurses back to health. Mahler’s father died in the robbery, so she is left in a strange country alone in the world—without money or family. Given that most of the women in the camp are prostitutes, the mature, blonde, and beautiful Elizabeth arouses the intense interest of a number of its inhabitants. Frail is also clearly attracted to her, but out of a sense of self-protection he pushes her away when she displays romantic feelings for him after he has returned her to health and sight. Though Frail sullenly rejects her, he also secretly funds a gold- mining venture that she cooks up with Rune.
Wives are a rarity in the camp, but the few that there are band together in a vain attempt to remove Elizabeth from Frail’s cabin and the camp because they are supposedly living in sin. “Respectable” women who self-righteously opposed sin and advocated decency, a virtue conceived by them almost solely in sexual terms, were usually unsympathetically depicted in the Western, for they embodied the hypocrisy of civilization. They were invidiously contrasted with characters whose lives may be on the surface tawdry, but who turn out to be truly caring and good (e.g., Claire Trevor’s Dallas in John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, a film that did much to establish the archetypes of the genre in the sound era). In reality, the real threat to Elizabeth comes from the primitive men in the camp, who lust after her.
The most brutish and obsessed by her is Big Frenchy (Karl Malden), whose eyes gleam covetously and who licks his lips when he is around her. Malden’s strong performance turns Frenchy into a recognizable, odious human being rather than a one-dimensional villain. Interestingly, Malden, who had recently directed his first film,Time Limit (1957), stepped in to complete the film for Daves when he got sick. Frenchy is a self-pitying coward, who can be almost comically ingratiating, and even becomes a partner with Rune and Elizabeth in their mining venture.
There are other, less interesting, villains in the film: a tinhorn gambler, Society Red (John Dierkes), who enrages Frail by alluding to what happened in Illinois; and, in his first film role, George C. Scott in the small part of Dr. George Grubb, a wild-eyed religious fanatic and alcoholic, who calls himself a ”healer” and sees Frail as rival. Scott carries a staff and glowers but even he can’t make this clichéd character come alive.
After Elizabeth and her partners strike a “glory hole’ filled with nuggets, the films rushes to a violent conclusion. The other miners are treated to drinks by Frenchy but the celebration turns into a riot as they burn the camp down. In the midst of the drunken frenzy, Frenchy, filled with liquor, tries to rape Elizabeth, and predictably is beaten and killed by Frail.
The film’s view of human nature is pretty dark; the men in the camp are ready to lynch Frail without much reason. They are an easily manipulated, uncontrolled mob that only can be diverted from murder by avarice—in the form of gold coins offered them. You could probably extract a larger meaning about human nature or American greed and violence from the mob’s behavior, but the film doesn’t go that deep.
The Hanging Tree concludes with Frail and Elizabeth linking romantically. Yes, there is nothing unexpected in that ending, but it feels right and true rather than contrived. Frail and Elizabeth may not be psychologically intricate characters, but they are substantial people. Frail is steadfast, courageous, and ultimately on the side of good, but he is also a weary, taciturn, tormented figure, and Cooper’s strong performance successfully embodies all those aspects of Frail’s character.
Daves uses the sagebrush, rocks, river, and mountains that lie west of the film’s Yakima, Washington location to skillfully frame the film. The cacophonous, chaotic camp may lack the mixture of realism and lyricism of Altman’s unfinished town in McCabe and Mrs. Miller— a melancholy poem of a film that sided with the losers and dreamers—but the rawness and savagery of The Hanging Tree’s atmosphere is clearly conveyed. Daves is obviously no Altman, but The Hanging Tree is a professional piece of filmmaking with the added bonus of first-rate performances by Cooper and Malden. It’s no Western classic, but I’m grateful that the Warner Archive reissued it.
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition ofAmerican Film and Society Since 1945(Praeger).
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Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.