The Hangman (1959) is not a well-regarded Western drama, though it's certainly not without interest. Its story offers an intriguing subtext, possibly rumination about finking and, indirectly, the Hollywood Blacklist. The star of the film, Robert Taylor, was one of the founders of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and a "friendly" witness who enthusiastically named names (including Howard Da Silva and Karen Morely). Although journeyman Michael Curtiz ended up directing The Hangman, the original director was to have been Edward Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten who later named names himself in order to save his career.
The movie held this reviewer's interest throughout and it has a good cast, though ultimately it doesn't live up to its full potential. Critics at the time took exception to co-star Tina Louise's two superfluous bathing scenes (and more cheesecake when she hides a key in her stocking), tame though these scenes were, even then. I suspect audiences generally liked the film but were so disappointed by its last moments that it tainted their overall impression. More on this later.
Filmed in black-and-white and presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, The Hangman's transfer is all over the place. The penultimate reel sources inferior elements with a lot of speckling, while the rest of the picture varies from just okay to above average.
Cynical, ruthless deputy U.S. Marshal Mackenzie "The Hangman" Bovard (Taylor) has after two years tracked down three of four men accused of robbing a Wells Fargo stage. Two have already been hanged and the third, Zimmerman, is to be executed within a few weeks. Bovard wants to apprehend the fourth man, John Butterfield, before Zimmerman's hanging so that he can identify his accomplice thereby leave no doubt of Butterfield's guilt.
Bovard knows Butterfield is hiding out in a nearby town (played by Paramount's Virginia City backlot street) but has only a vague description. Bovard's superior (Lorne Greene, just as Bonanza was getting underway) insists Butterfield first be identified by someone that knows him. Bovard visits Butterfield's former U.S. Cavalry post, but the commander there refuses to release any of his men. However, he gets a tip about Butterfield's ex-girlfriend, Selah Jennison (Tina Louise), now a destitute widow denied her soldier husband's benefits and reduced to living in a hovel as a laundress. Bovard offers her $500 to identify Butterfield but she refuses. He leaves her a ticket for the stagecoach, certain she'll change her mind.
In town local sheriff Buck Weston (Fess Parker) greets Bovard, who later surprises Buck when Bovard pegs local teamster and freight driver Johnny Bishop (Jack Lord, pre-Hawaii Five-O) as Butterfield. Buck explains Johnny is happily married and with his wife is expecting a first child. What's more, Johnny is well liked and admired by virtually everyone in town. Bovard thinks Johnny merely has everyone fooled.
The first half of the film builds suspense as to when or even if Selah will show up and, later, whether or not she will identify Johnny, or if Johnny is even the man Bovard wants to arrest.
Fundamentally, The Hangman is about Bovard reclaiming his faith in humanity and losing the ruthlessness and misanthropy he's stubbornly held to for years. He's certain everyone has a price, and more than willing to throw their best friend under the proverbial stagecoach to save their own necks. He tells Buck, "There are always more rats to run down. The world is full of 'em. It gets so that you don't trust anybody." Outlaws have given him the nickname "The Hangman" which he dislikes. "I only arrest them," he insists.
If the film, adapted by Dudley Nichols and an uncredited W.R. Burnett from a story by Luke Short, really intended to address the Blacklist in a Western movie setting, things got muddled along the way. Actor Robert Taylor, one of the most passionate and finkiest of finks here plays a character that considers such behavior utterly reprehensible, if inevitable, given the circumstances. Selah only considers identifying Butterfield to escape abject poverty, but sanctimonious Bovard has no sympathy even for her desperation. As originally conceived it's possible director Edward Dmytryk wanted to dramatize his agonizing decision to name names, an act some of his peers never forgave. (Dmytryk and blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky both taught at the University of Southern California in later years. They weren't exactly best friends.)
Taylor was nearing the end of his leading-man days, and as much of the script pairs him with a much younger, taller, more handsome, and (in terms of character) much friendlier Fess Parker, Bovard contrastingly comes off as an old, disagreeable grouch. Audiences probably hated the ending.*
Tina Louise made her film debut in God's Little Acre (also starring Jack Lord) the year before, and received third billing in The Trap, released earlier in 1959. However, after Day of the Outlaw she left for what she probably hoped would be greener pastures in Italy. She was gone for about a year, long enough to halt her Hollywood momentum. After two lesser films, Armored Command (1961) and For Those Who Think Young (1964), Louise mainly did TV, with Gilligan's Island (and her iconic Ginger Grant) typecasting the actress for many years to follow, though she's worked hard to successfully overcome this.
Video & Audio
The Hangman, presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, looks just okay. Around 7:30 there's some damage and the film even goes out of synch for a second, then at the 69-minute mark an entire reel is full of speckles and notably softer than the rest of the picture, which is reasonably sharp generally but obviously not restored and certainly not sourced from the original camera negative. The mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is okay. No Extra Features.
Though largely forgotten, The Hangman is an interesting Western with some intriguing political content of historical interest, and it's fascinating to watch Tina Louise and Jack Lord so early in their long careers. Recommended.
* (Major Spoilers) Throughout the film, it's clear sweet, kindly, and gentle Sheriff Buck is in love with Selah. In the last scene he sweetly proposes marriage but she announces her intention to leave town with a delighted Bovard, who for the last 87 minutes was never anything other than surly, bossy, and petulant toward her. I can imagine the audience booing at the end.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.