Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Randolph Scott is normally celebrated for his Budd Boetticher westerns, known in critical circles as
the "Ranown Cycle." These include Seven Men From Now, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station and
the Elmore Leonard written The Tall T. Hangman's Knot predates those and hooks Scott
up with Roy Huggins, a talented writer-director who would later make his name on television with
James Garner. It's an okay low-budget item that lacks the finesse of the later Boetticher films.
The Nevada territory, 1865. Confederate Major Matt (Randolph Scott) and his patrol
hijack a Union gold shipment and kill the troops guarding it, only to discover from a dying officer
that the war is over. They're pursued by a local posse until they hole up at a way station with
some prisoners they've inherited while stealing a stagecoach - shifty Lee Kemper (Richard Denning)
and nurse Molly (Donna Reed). The posse lays seige to the station house while tempers rise inside:
the station agent's daughter Martha (Jeanette Nolan) hates the Rebs, and Reb troublemaker Rolph
(Lee Marvin) turns his eye to Molly, who is slowly falling for Major Matt. The posse turns out to
just be common criminals out for the stolen gold, which is quickly becoming a deadly burden.
Hangman's Knot is almost as basic as Roger Corman's pinchpenny
Five Guns West - its action is limited
to some raw territory up by Lone Pine (familiar turf in the later Ranown pictures) and a stage
station that might be the same rental set used for the Corman film. A spirited cast goes through
the motions of a stock script. The desperate Rebels know nobody will believe that their attack on
the Yankees was a sincere military raid. Everyone's after the gold, and north-south enmity is
behind most character motivations. Young Claude Jarman Jr. of
The Yearling fame plays a southern
orphan that bitter northern widow Jeanette Nolan will eventually look to for a substitute son.
The script is efficient and the acting is by the numbers. Randolph Scott is his dependable self and
he has some good tangles with standout hothead Lee Marvin, who at the time specialized in colorful
bad men. Marvin would eventually become the first Ranown-cycle villain for Scott to pair off against
in Seven Men From Now. Richard Denning is his familiar handsome weasel character.
Donna Reed's part is fairly lame - she's resentful at first, she deflects a rape attempt by Marvin and
then promptly falls into Scott's manly arms. Marking time until
From Here to Eternity, this is
no career highlight for her.
Judging by what's on the screen, Roy Huggins is a good writer who wants to make something different.
His violent story does seek opportunities for a more realistic treatment. But as a tyro director
Huggins is without sufficient clout to give Hangman's Knot a visual edge or a distinctive
look, as did Budd Boetticher. The fights are a case in point. When
Lee Marvin and Randolph Scott duke it out the substitution of completely unconvincing doubles is
almost embarrassing. I'll bet that the "more experienced" crew had enough influence to do things their
way, so the fights become a résumé reel for the stuntmen. Likewise, camera angles
seem chosen for production simplicity instead of anything visual. At one point the false posse tunnels
under the shack, but there's no attempt to do anything with the idea. We just see two men with shovels. 1
Some developments are unintentionally amusing. Lee Marvin gets beaten to a pulp for pawing Donna Reed,
and only a few minutes later sees her embracing Scott, who she's supposed to hate. "Awww!" squawks
Marvin in protest, and we understand his dismay - the good guys always get the girls.
Hangman's Knot has a decent reputation with western fans. The color is good and the basic
interesting for the time: soldiers-turned-thieves versus outlaws pretending to be a posse. The posse
leader is played by familiar baddie Ray Teal, backed up by Guinn "Big Boy" Williams from the old
Errol Flynn western days. Scott also rounded up other old timers Monte Blue and Clem Bevans.
The best thing in the film is the calm performance by Frank Faylen, "Ernie" the taxi driver
from It's a Wonderful Life. He's the one who almost gets hung, and he has an engaging spirit
that fits in well with Huggins' serious aspirations.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Hangman's Knot looks just fine; the Technicolor materials are in
fine shape. The stock music score (see the list of music 'donors' above, courtesy the IMDB)
attests to the talent of unsung studio music editors, who were often called upon to dress up yet another
program picture and make it sound as if it had original music.
There are no extras. Instead of a trailer for this film, there's a mix of other western trailers and
video promos. The cover illustration makes Randolph Scott look like Grady Sutton, or an adult Kewpie doll.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hangman's Knot rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 15, 2004
1. This is one major reason
that Sam Peckinpah decided early on to become a real tyrant on the set: Hollywood westerns were so
cut-and-dried that allowing the crew to do things their way often yielded slack and mediocre results.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson