A rarely seen classic Western

Spencer Warren writes:

Tuesday afternoon, from 3:45 to 5:45 p.m., Turner Classic Movies will be airing a truly great Western, The Hanging Tree (1959). This film has not been available on DVD nor to my knowledge has it been seen on TV in many years. The VHS copy is quite poor.

The 1950s were the peak of the classic Western, and one of the great Westerns directors of that period was Delmer Daves. I consider The Hanging Tree his masterpiece. That unsurpassed symbol of the American hero, Gary Cooper, in one of his last films, plays Doc Frail, the strong doctor and most feared man in a mining town. Oddly, he is a penitent, always dressed in black, kind and generous toward the needy (note the early scene in which he tenderly treats a starving girl, one of several in this film demonstrating Daves’s unusual delicacy and sensitivity). Yet he avoids emotional entanglement due to a mysterious hurt in his past.

No one could match Daves in building a crescendo to a really thrilling climax (see for example his Jubal (1956). The one here is his best, as Doc confronts a frenzied mob (stirred up by George C. Scott in his film debut) which goes after this man they had feared so long. The resulting powerful moral catharsis reveals why Doc has been a silent penitent, and he is made whole again.

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Gerald M. in Dallas writes:

As Spencer Warren has made another movie recommendation, I would like to comment on the movie he recommended a week or so ago, Gunman’s Walk.

It was excellent. I enjoyed watching it, mostly for the reasons Mr. Warren cited as the strengths of the film: the masculine, no-nonsense characters, the lean, straightforward plot about the consequences of raising children without sufficient discipline, and the magnificent scenery. Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, and (somewhat suprisingly) James Darren all gave strong performances. As Mr. Warren pointed out, few if any actors could portray a father’s emotional collapse in coming to terms with his mistakes as effectively as Heflin does in the final scenes. I also thought the supporting characters were outstanding because they played their roles as real people, not as the eccentric caricatures so beloved by directors in far too many films about the Old West.

The one thing I didn’t like about Gunman’s Walk was the costumes. They were the typical 1950’s era tight-shirt, crew-cut look. The only way in which Westerns have improved since then is a more realistic look to the characters.

So thanks to Mr. Warren for the heads up on Gunman’s Walk, and I look forward to watching The Hanging Tree.

July 19

LA writes:

I watched “The Hanging Tree” today, and I cannot agree with Mr. Warren’s glowing review of it. While it features a fine, sensitive performance by Gary Cooper, that is literally the only good thing I can say about it. It is a clunky, portentous, overbaked movie with one of the most absurd climaxes ever seen. It was increasingly painful to sit through, until, in the last 20 minutes, it became unbearable and I just wanted it to be over. I have appreciated some of Mr. Warren’s recommendations of Westerns in the past, for example, of the movie “Jubal” with Glenn Ford, but I depart from him on “The Hanging Tree.”

Spencer warren writes:

The entry for the film in The BFI Companion to the Western best sums up the movie’s unique qualities: “This is Daves’ most complex and ambitious film and certainly his finest western. It was also his last … it is a brooding, romantic, opaque work of great dramatic intensity and breathtaking visual beauty. The film is an almost explicit critique of the Bildungsroman schema that underlies so many Hollywood Westerns and has certain interesting parallels with Andre Gide’s novel La Symphonie Pastorale and the 1946 film made from it. Where The Hanging Tree really scores, though, is in its style: few Westerns have been as successful in their dramatic use of space.”

I send you this Larry only because I did not mention the spectacular shots of Cooper alone or Cooper and Maria Schell framed by vast expanse of blue sky or rugged scenery. Also, as I have written on other occasions, many films of this and earlier periods lose impact on the TV screen for two reasons: 1) The director’s compositions and angles lose their impact and 2) the digital tape transfers shown on TV or DVD lose some of the luminosity and dramatic shading one sees on film on a big screen. I have observed this from experience.

With regard to the BFI point, the film’s use of open space and it complex drama also suffer to some degree on the TV screen.

LA replies:

Yes. Also, the color was noticeably faded.

Again, for me, by far the outstanding thing about the movie was Cooper’s performance. I’m not exactly a Cooper fan. I think many of his performances are marred by his mugging (making faces) rather than acting, though when he is good he is among the greats. In this movie, he showed a remarkable combination of authority, sensitivity, and mystery.

Also, he looked very well. I had thought that by the mid fifties he had that sallow, drawn look that presaged his early death at about age 60. But in this movie, made when he was about 59, only about a year before his death, he looks very well, better than he did in other Fifties movies.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 18, 2011 11:53 PM | Send

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