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The Hanging Tree
Warner Archive Collection

The Hanging Tree
Warner Archive Collection
1959 / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 107 min. / Street Date July 17, 2012 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 17.95
Starring Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, Ben Piazza, George C. Scott, Karl Swenson, Virginia Gregg, John Dierkes, King Donovan.
Ted McCord
Film Editor Owen Marks
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Wendell Mayes, Halsted Welles from the novel by Dorothy M. Johnson
Produced by Martin Jurow, Richard Shepherd
Directed by Delmer Daves

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Delmer Daves worked his way up the ladder at Warners as a screenwriter, and started making his mark with impressive original scripts in the 1940s. By the middle of the war he was directing as well, scoring more hits than misses with his sensitive stories, especially about young people caught up in the war. In the 1950s Daves scored several successes in the western genre, catching a trend with the pro-Indian western Broken Arrow and winning praise with the excellent 3:10 to Yuma. In the last 'act' of his writing-directing career Daves embarked on a series of increasingly trashy 'young love sex' movies, beginning with the tawdry but amusing A Summer Place. But first he made what might be his best all-round picture as a director, 1959's The Hanging Tree starring Gary Cooper.

Although unaware of it at the time, Cooper was only a few pictures away from an early death. He had won two Best Acting Oscars and was trying for more quality roles. The Hanging Tree may not be perfect, but it's one of those movies that makes a deep impression. The unusually structured western drama makes the most of Cooper's imposing screen persona.

In the Wyoming territory of 1873 mining camps leapfrog across the landscape from gold strike to gold strike. Whenever some lucky miner hits pay dirt, a roughhouse community springs up that may last three years or only a few months. To the temporary town of Skull Creek comes Dr. Joseph Frail (Gary Cooper). He buys a cabin to receive his patients, charging to lance a boil for the rambunctious Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden) but donating his services to an undernourished child. Doc Frail's dark side comes to the fore when he blackmails wanted thief Rune (Ben Piazza), forcing the boy to serve as an all-round helper. A stagecoach robbery leaves the immigrant "lost lady" Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) severely sunburned, temporarily blinded and suffering from dehydration. Frail and Rune care for her, adding new gossip to the local rumors about Frail's murky past. When Elizabeth recovers she finds herself thoroughly enamored of the Doc. But much to her consternation Frail keeps her at arm's length. He secretly bankrolls her mining partnership with Rune and Frenchy, leading the local wags to assume that she's a kept woman. When Elizabeth finds out she swears to pay the money back --- and challenges Doc Frail to explain why he makes people love him, only to push them away.

Delmer Daves didn't write the superior scripts for Broken Arrow, 3:10 to Yuma or The Hanging Tree, but this movie may be his best work of direction. Almost every scene makes dynamic use of beautiful Northwestern locations. Situations that might be mawkish are visually and dramatically powerful, such as when the sun-blinded Elizabeth stands terrified at the edge of a cliff, overcome by the noises of the mining camp below her. The Hanging Tree has sentimental without being sappy and can be surprisingly tough-minded about human nature. Skull Creek is a concentration of avarice and restless energy, and when the miners get liquored up violent action is common. A celebration for a major strike quickly becomes a riot in which the participants rush to burn down their own town.

The respectable storekeepers the Flaunces (Karl Swenson & Virginia Gregg) are quick to tar Elizabeth with the brush of sin, while gambler Society Red (John Dierkes) spreads stories about the mysterious deaths of Doc Frail's wife and brother, ten years previously. Causing more trouble is a deranged preacher (George C. Scott in a memorable, rather theatrical first screen role) jealous of Frail's medical skills. Representing the 'normal' miners is Karl Malden's Frenchy, whose so-called lusty appetites run to rape when the time and place feel right. Receiving prominent billing but barely visible in the film is favorite actor King Donovan. His role, if he had one, must have fallen victim to the cutting room.

Watching Austrian actress Maria Schell is a joy. Schell made popular European movies but also a number of prestigious art films, including Luchino Visconti's Le notte bianche and René Cláment's Gervaise. Richard Brooks' The Brothers Karamazov was her major Hollywood debut but her "Lost Lady" Elizabeth Mahler in The Hanging Tree is transcendent, one of the most soulful and vibrant women in American westerns. Ms. Schell does not fall back on her sweet smile as she perhaps does too often in some other pictures. See also Maxmillian Schell's engrossing docu on his famous sister, for rare film clips and a candid life story.

The final adornment is Max Steiner's BIG western score, which sounds very much like the tunes WB was cooking up for its TV shows of the time, Maverick, etc.. The orchestration would seem exaggerated if the film's emotional pitch didn't match it right down the line. The film is bookended with a pop western ballad written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David, and sung by Marty Robbins. The song is anachronistic, rather corny, and absolutely right for the movie. Even the lyrics are a perfect fit, especially at the exultant conclusion.

Delmer Daves never got much respect from the first wave of critics, especially after his flaky Sandra Dee and Troy Donohue groaners. Among the grudging compliments for The Hanging Tree, Andrew Sarris (I believe it was him) said that Daves' direction was debased by his over-use of the camera crane. It's a valid point. Especially in the opening, Daves shoots practically everything from a camera that goes up and down as if there were a glass elevator out there in the Montana wild. Not to quibble, but the director really runs wild with the thing.

The Hanging Tree saves most of its violence for the finish. The gunplay and mayhem is short and sweet, as in Johnny Guitar but without that film's political edge. Or one could, I suppose, interpret the movie's town as a representation of America as a lawless madhouse full of greedy, reckless maniacs. The film's ending is sublime, almost Biblical in its purity. What will redeem a man who no longer believes in love or trust? Cooper and Schell make us believe one of the best-earned romantic finishes in the era of the classic Big-Sky '50s western.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Hanging Tree is a very good, partially restored transfer. Color is mostly fine but a few scenes look a bit contrasty, with bluish blacks. The harm to the presentation is less than minimal. This is the picture's first widescreen presentation on video, and it looks even bigger and more attractive. All earlier transfers were flat and horizontally cropped.

This title was an early 'gotta have' for DVD Savant and plenty of other fans of westerns and Gary Cooper. It's his classiest career-end performance this side of William Wyler's very different Friendly Persuasion. Several years ago I was told that The Hanging Tree needed serious restoration work but that progress was hung up by a division in its ownership. A star's estate controlled the lion's share of the film rights, creating a Little Red Hen situation: the various owners were all ready to eat the bread but nobody wanted to shell out for baking it. I don't know how the stalemate was broken -- in a perfect world a wonderment like The Hanging Tree would be restored for a fabulous Blu-ray. But the Warner Archive can be commended for coming through with a very pleasing presentation of this favorite picture -- a shoot 'em up western where one might be smart to keep a box of Kleenex on the side.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Hanging Tree rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Subtitles: None
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 1, 2012

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
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T'was Ever Thus.

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