THE HANGING TREE: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1959) Warner Archive
You would be pretty hard-pressed to discover a manlier legend of the Hollywood western, finely wrought and introspective than Gary Cooper. By 1959, Coop', who died on May 13, 1961 from prostate cancer, was an institution in his own right; the lanky Montanan who, in his youth, was ruggedly handsome, but in later years, could appreciate the erosion of these matinee idol good looks into a weathered façade: the perfect complement to his no-nonsense acting style. Gary Cooper's screen legacy is that of a towering figure infused with a sort of reluctant masculinity. For although Cooper could slug it out with the best of them, and frequently threw punches to level adversaries twice his girth, one always sensed he would have preferred a hearty intellectual debate to the more ballsy display of fisticuffs. In movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and High Noon (1952) we get Cooper as he likely was in real life: a slightly wistful gent, deeply entrenched in his unwavering principles and personal integrity; instinctively knowing right from wrong. Yet, Cooper was never hard line. He never expected others to follow his example; merely, to live up to their own personal best.
In his final western, Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree (1959), we get a genuine sense of Gary Cooper, ripened with time and more than a few movie westerns under his belt; someone who has seen it all/done most of it too, and, has learned by example what works on the screen – the righteous path to fortune and glory, like wreck and ruin, converging on this singular wrinkle in time. Life - never as perfect, linear, or, as full of promise as we would desire it to be; Coop’s epitaph to the Hollywood western eviscerates its mythology otherwise slavishly devoted to the noble frontier. Based on Dorothy M. Johnson’s 1957 novelette of the same name, the screenplay cobbled together by Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles unapologetically strips away the mask of virtue so much a part of the western iconography, thanks in part to film makers like John Ford. And, while Ford’s excursions into frontier territory offer the viewer a glowing pastiche of the west as it ought to have been – lusty and adventurous – Daves’ depiction herein turns to a far grittier and visceral chapter in its lawlessness and wicked abandonment, more likely much closer to its truths. The gold fields of Montana are not populated by wily old coots and claim-happy prospectors, but the dregs of society; the morally ambiguous at best; at their worst, the ruthless, cutthroat and generally unworthy of the fortune and glory they seek.
Into this milieu blunders a trio of naves. Only one, the ‘beautiful lady’, barely having survived a near-death stagecoach holdup, later to be discovered by a posse badly hurt, nearly unconscious and temporarily blinded by the sun, is the true innocent. The two who side in her recovery, Doc Frail – of spurious background (rumored to have set afire a mansion in the east, killing two people) and Rune, the boy he has blackmailed as his man servant after restoring him to health from a near-fatal gunshot wound, are of dubious distinction, though arguably, still the noblest intentions. Indeed, Rune has acquired a bad case of puppy love; Doc, uncertain whether he is even worthy of the lady’s affections. The world this disparate and desperate triumvirate come to inhabit operates on a shifty-eyed plateau of extreme ethical haziness. We witness the towns folk of Skull Creek, a mining outpost in the middle of nowhere, swayed and collectively lacking any self-governance or even a modest collective conscience; pillaging and torching their makeshift community during a self-destructive, if celebratory, bacchanal.
The Hanging Tree is teeming with such moments of genuinely terrifying mob rule; the way of the gun the only way to survive a daily onslaught of jealousy, fear, corruption and moral turpitude threatening to wipe out anyone with a more altruistic approach to life. The Hanging Tree likely appealed to Delmer Daves for precisely this hard-hitting realism. Lest we remember, Daves career was responsible for such masterworks as The Red House, Dark Passage (both in 1947) and 1949’s Task Force (also starring Gary Cooper). Daves would fall ill right in the middle of shooting The Hanging Tree, co-star, Karl Malden assuming the director’s chair to complete the picture, along with a very brief assist from director, Vincent Sherman. And yet, there is a consistency to the final cut, directly rooted in Daves’ overriding arc and vision for the movie. Although released thru Warner Bros., The Hanging Tree was actually made for Gary Cooper’s indie production company, Baroda; overseen by producers, Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd (whose brief alliance would produce three more pictures, including the iconic, Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961). Coop’ amassed a formidable team to make The Hanging Tree, not the least, veteran composer, Max Steiner to write the score, Ted D. McCord to photograph it, and, in his movie debut as an overzealous and wild-eyed frontier ‘preacher’ – George C. Scott.
Our story begins with Dr. Joseph Frail (Gary Cooper); a physician by trade, but also a gambler, gunslinger and very shrewd businessman. He rides into Skull Creek, Montana during the gold rush, looking to establish his practice amongst the ‘good’ citizenry. En route to the isolated cabin he will soon cajole an old prospector to sell to him, Frail passes ‘the hanging tree’ – a gnarled old oak, dangling a withered noose from one of its craggy/bare branches. Frail quickly sets up his home and office, treating the sick with medicinal remedies and kindness. Meanwhile, Rune (playwright and stage actor, Ben Piazza in his first movie role) a devious young upstart, is shot by prospector, Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden) after attempting to steal several nuggets of gold from his sluice. The boy flees, pursued to a point by the ebullient Frenchy, out for blood. Avoiding capture, Rune manages to make his way to Doc’s cabin. Frail treats the wound but then blackmails Rune into serving him as his ‘assistant’ – basically, a ‘fetch and carry’; lest, Frail be tempted to turn Rune in to the authorities for theft or simply leave him to Frenchy’s vengefulness to finish the job. Begrudgingly, Rune acquiesces, quite unaware Frail has already destroyed the only evidence – the bullet extracted from his shoulder – possibly to link him to the crime.
Rune comes to admire Frail’s compassion for the sick. But he utterly despises the way he tricks a fellow poker player, Society Red (John Dierkes) out of the deed to his mine – yet to yield any riches. Red infers Doc Frail is on the lam, having escaped a charge of arson back east that resulted in the death of his wife and brother. Frail strikes down Red with a single blow. But his reputation in town suffers from this accusation. Indeed, Edna Flaunce (Virginia Gregg), the gossipy wife of a local merchant comes to deeply criticize Frail later on; a tone Dr. Grubb (George C. Scott), a bizarre ‘faith healer’, adopts to cast aspersions on his competition. Frail chases Grubb off his property with a blaze of gunfire, more to frighten than wound or kill. Nevertheless, some of the town’s citizenry begin to doubt Frail’s motives. After all, they still need his medical cures.
On a steep pass not far from Skull Creek, a stagecoach is robbed, killing the driver and a male passenger aboard. The coach careens out of control, overturning and tumbling down a rocky canyon with its sole survivor, Swiss immigrant, Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) somehow managing to crawl from under the wreckage. She is discovered by Frenchy several days later, near death and blinded by the intensity of the sun, accompanied by a local search party. Having overheard a rumor about the girl’s beauty, Rune is sorely disappointed by the fragile lass’ distorted and badly bruised appearance. Frail encourages Tom Flaunce (Karl Swenson), Edna’s husband, to loan him the use of his adjacent cabin to help Elizabeth with her recuperation. Frail also appoints Rune as Elizabeth’s guardian. Deviously, Edna spreads lies in town that Rune and Frail are likely ‘having their way’ with the patient, not nearly as sick as she pretends. Frail will have none of their slum prudery however. Indeed, when Edna arrives with a contingent of ladies under the guise of offering their nursing skills, Frail quickly admonishes the lot for their perverted inquisitiveness and sends them on their way.
The lascivious Frenchy sneaks into the cabin while the still blinded Elizabeth is convalescing. Under the pretext of being her friend, and hopefully her future business partner, Frenchy attempts to kiss her. But Frenchy’s unwarranted – and unwanted – aggression is witnessed by Frail. Chases from the cabin, Frail follows Frenchy back into town; the pair engaging in a knock-down/drag-out fight that ends badly for Frenchy. Frail threatens if Frenchy should ever return to the cabin he will surely meet his untimely end at the point of his gun. Elizabeth’s recovery progresses slowly. She is plagued by nightmares, crippled by fear, and haunted by lingering remorse for the male passenger who died as a result – the man just happening to be her father. Transferring her gratitude to Frail into an amorous overture, Frail turns Elizabeth down. Embarrassed, she departs his care in a huff, determined to strike it rich as a prospector in order to pay him for his services. At the Flaunce’s general store, Elizabeth tries to hock a jeweled pin her father gave her, presumed to be a family heirloom. In fact, it is costume jewelry and utterly worthless. But Frail, unbeknownst to Elizabeth, strikes a bargain with Tom to pay for all the supplies she will require to go into business for herself.
Elizabeth forms a mining partnership with Frenchy, whom she misguidedly believes is owed something for saving her life; also, with Rune, having since learned Frail holds no dominion over him and left his employ, very bitter and resentful. These three novice prospectors erect a sluice and work the mine, at first, to no advantage. At some point, Elizabeth goes into town to inquire from Edna whether she might continue borrowing credit on the pin being held as collateral. Edna viciously informs Elizabeth the pin was never the source of her income. Frail has secretly continued to cover all her debts, thus perpetuating the rumor she is his kept woman. Angered by this discovery, Elizabeth is more invested than ever to work the mine until it yields enough money to pay back Frail every last cent. In response to her query about his past, Frail confides that he came home one night to discover his wife and brother in bed together, dead of an apparent murder/suicide. Disgusted and in a rage, he set fire to his house with their bodies left inside. The incident has haunted him ever since.
Elizabeth, Frenchy and Rune are at the end of the line. Indeed, Frenchy’s patience has worn threadbare. He threatens to dissolve their partnership. As fate would have it, an impromptu thunderstorm sends everyone scurrying to their nearby tents; the earth quickly turned to mud, causing a towering pine to topple and flatten a part of the sluice. However, upon examining the tree’s exposed roots, Frenchy finds the stump is littered with gold nuggets – a glory hole, revealing the richest strike in these parts. Mad with excitement, Frenchy, Elizabeth and Rune ride into town with their newfound wealth. Frenchy whips the town into a frenzy, promising drinks and prosperity for everyone. At his behest, the town’s folk start a bonfire and with Dr. Grubb’s manic encouragement they burn down Mame’s Saloon. The looters also wreak havoc all over town while the law-abiding citizenry desperately gather to put out these man-made blazes. Meanwhile, Frenchy has made it back to the cabin where he physically assaults, then attempts to rape Elizabeth. Mercifully, Frail arrives in the nick of time. He pummels Frenchy, who pulls a gun on Frail; Frail, pumping several bullets into Frenchy in self-defense until he is quite dead before kicking his remains over the side of a very steep cliffside as various town’s folk, including Grubb, look on.
Grubb accuses Frail of cold-blooded murder. The citizenry loyal to Grubb and ready to believe the very worst about Frail, already crazed and looking for any reason to lynch him, seize this opportunity to drag Frail to the hanging tree. Society Red gleefully looks on with immense satisfaction as Frail is raised onto a wagon bed, his hands bound behind his back and a noose placed snug around his neck. Emerging from the cabin unharmed, Elizabeth explains what has occurred to Rune. The two grab their gold sacks and hurry to the hanging tree, Elizabeth throwing herself on the town’s mercy to spare Frail’s life. She offers them not only the gold but also the deed to their claim. As Grubb and his followers are not after justice, they greedily accept the trade, pawing and knocking one another down to gain possession of the riches they neither earned nor deserve. As the mob disperses, Rune climbs onto the wagon bed and frees Frail from his constraints. He kneels before Elizabeth, taking her face in his hands, gently caressing her cheeks. She has sacrificed everything for him. He cannot deny his love for her any longer.
The Hanging Tree was photographed amidst the rugged natural splendor of Oak Creek, a wildlife conservation area just west of Yakima, Washington with other location work done at Goose Prairie and Rattlesnake Creek. The picture benefits greatly from this authentic backdrop; also, Marty Robbin’s warbling of the title tune, co-written by Mack David and Jerry Livingston; an uncharacteristically jaunty main title that quickly became all the rage on the hit parade. In 1959, the Hollywood western was at its zenith; both, on the big screen and television; the market thoroughly saturated with the likenesses of cowboys and Indians. After Delmer Daves became incapacitated by ulcers, Cooper and Malden developed a working rapport whereupon Malden, encouraged by his costar to assume the directorial duties, acted out the scenes for Coop’ the way he felt they should be played and Cooper responded in kind, bringing a vitality all his own to their heated exchanges.
While for a good many John Wayne will always be synonymous with the western film, Gary Cooper’s legacy in the genre dated all the way back to 1926’s The Winning of Barbara Worth and 1929’s The Virginian; Coop’, all but inventing the iconography of the laid back western hero, taken from idyllic and refined, at its zenith, to its near antithesis as a reticent lawman in 1952’s High Noon. Unequivocally, Gary Cooper etched his place into the American western mythology. Like the image he worked so hard to convey on the screen, Cooper’s public persona was, in many ways, an extension of his alter egos; noble, patient, abiding in his love of country and mindful of the strength in moral goodness, always in very short supply among his contemporaries then, but virtually depleted by any barometer ascribed to the social castes presently occupying our post-post-modern age. Suffering from a previous hip injury, Cooper developed a curious ‘riding’ style’ to accommodate his scenes on a horse; listing to the left while hanging onto the saddle horn instead of the bridles.
The Hanging Tree fails to stack the cards in Doc Frail’s favor, lending the picture and, by extension Cooper’s depiction of Frail, a curious moral opacity that, at least by today’s standards, appears bracingly candid. Frail is not a heroic figure, though he illustrates spurts of heroism, well-placed and evenly timed, if only to maintain the guessing game. Is he or isn’t he a man to be trusted or, at the very least, taken at face value? The picture is never revealing of anything more or better about the man than a possible ‘maybe’. Lest we forget, Frail’s confession of discovering his wife and brother’s remains together is a little weak to explain away his hot-headed act of arson to conceal their infidelity – or rather, his embarrassment from it. This leaves the denouement (Frail’s near escape from the gallows) a tad unfulfilling. But otherwise, The Hanging Tree is a superb western drama. That it debuted in 1959, a year with so many more prominently featured screen triumphs, including Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, and, William Wyler’s titanic Oscar-reaping spectacle, Ben-Hur has somewhat obscured The Hanging Tree’s reputation as a class ‘A’ movie in its own right. Although it did respectable business it equally failed to be a bona fide box office bread winner.
Regrettably, in the interim the picture was allowed to fade into quiet obscurity; an oversight rectified by Warner Archive’s (WAC) resurrected reissue on Blu-ray. WAC’s devotion to rarer finds among its vast catalog of treasures is commendable. The Hanging Tree certainly benefits from WAC’s care and remastering efforts. Shot in Technicolor, The Hanging Tree in 1080p supports excellent color reproduction, with sumptuous greens and eye-popping reds. Flesh tones are slightly on the ruddy side. Contrast is uniformly excellent. Occasionally, the image can be just a tad softly focused. But overall, this is a highly pleasing hi-def presentation; full-bodied in its reproduced textures and film grain, visually arresting throughout while showing off Ted McCord’s cinematography to its very best advantage. The 2.0 mono is adequate, with limitations inherent in the original mix, as accurate as expected with virtually no hiss or pop. WAC has truly done everything to ensure The Hanging Tree looks and sounds great. One regret: save a theatrical trailer – no extras! For shame! Oh well…can’t have everything. In retrospect, the moral complexity of The Hanging Tree looks ahead to the anti-hero westerns that would soon populate the 1960’s with their more darkly wrought and brooding figures caught in the shadows of late afternoon than the full flourish of noonday sun. Few westerns made before or since have yielded as varied a palette in human drama. This one comes very highly recommended, both for content and quality. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)