Accused of cattle rustling, cowboy Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven) is hung by the neck by an angry posse. Cooper survives the ordeal, and when a judge (Pat Hingle, Norma Rae) offers him a job as a marshal, the bitter cowboy uses his position as a lawman to seek revenge on the people who nearly killed him.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“When you hang a man, you better look at him.”
Gritty, bleak and provocative study of frontier justice and the high cost of revenge. The film’s simple yet psychologically complex narrative rides on the back of a truly interesting anti-hero, sturdily realized by actor Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood took a huge risk here. He turned down what promised to be a surefire hit, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a time in the West (1968), to make Hang ‘Em High. Leone’s “The Man with No Name Trilogy” had made Eastwood an international movie star, but he quickly found out that worldwide recognition doesn’t necessarily translate into Hollywood stardom. Eastwood needed an American hit. The gamble paid off: Hang ‘Em High was a box office hit and the rest is history.
Technically speaking, Hang ‘Em High is a fascinating marriage of European and Hollywood sensibilities. With Hang ‘Em High, audiences got the best of both worlds: a Spaghetti western made in Hollywood. It’s pretty obvious that this film is trying to emulate Eastwood’s movies with Italian maestro Leone. The rapid zoom-ins, the Ennio Morricone-like music score, the film’s revisionist attitude, etc., all elements make you feel you are watching a Spaghetti western and I mean it as a compliment.
Directed by Ted Post (Good Guys Wear Black and Go Tell the Spartans) and written by prolific TV writers Leonard Freeman (co-creator of the Hawaii Five-0 TV series) and Mel Goldberg, Hang ‘Em High isn’t all bells and whistles; the film has an intriguing plot. It’s revisionist the way most counterculture westerns are.
In the 1950s, movie westerns began re-evaluating the mythology associated with the American Old West. Filmmaker Leone put the re-evaluation in overdrive. The film’s main theme is the symbiotic relationship between violence and justice, a recurring motif in revisionist westerns. The irony is, of course, that violence is often used to achieve peace. Hang ‘Em High explores this paradox incisively and intelligently.
Hang ‘Em High does falter during its last third. The romantic subplot didn’t work for me (it came out of nowhere) and the final shoot-out wasn’t all that thrilling. But as an actor’s reintroduction to the public, this is a must-see film! You can trace an imaginary line from Hang ‘Em High to Eastwood’s last western, the Oscar-winning Unforgiven, and see twenty-five years of development of the western film hero.
Eastwood is rock-solid, but Pat Hingle, who plays a no-nonsense judge, nearly steals the movie. Inger Stevens (A Guide for the Married Man) is excellent as a rape victim seeking justice. The film sports some of the best character actors of the era: Ed Begley (Sweet Bird of Youth), Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show), Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin), L.Q. Jones (Ride the High Country), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) and Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight). Cowboy legend Bob Steele has a small role. James MacArthur (Swiss Family Robinson) has a cameo as The Preacher. Trekkies will recognize Mark Lenard (Sarek in Star Trek) as The Prosecutor.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Hang ‘Em High was the first Malpaso production, the film company founded by Eastwood. Hang ‘Em High is also a darn good movie. Part of me wishes that Eastwood had done Once Upon a time in the West, which is in my opinion one of cinema’s best westerns. Career-wise, though, he did the right thing. And Eastwood’s decision inadvertently created a new superstar, a little-known guy named Charles Dennis Buchinsky (aka Charles Bronson). Color, 114 minutes, Rated R.