Warner Bros. THE HANGING TREE (1959) is something of an unsung classic western. But over the years cultists have been drawn to it and it just gets better and better with each viewing! A "sleeper" of 1959, nobody thought it would turn out as good as it did. Based on a story by Dorothy Johnson it was fashioned into a splendid screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles. Gary Cooper headed a fine cast which consisted of Karl Malden, the strikingly beautiful Maria Schell, George C.Scott in his first picture and newcomer Ben Piazza (resembling a young Victor Mature). Produced by Cooper's own company Baroda Productions (named after the street where he was raised) it was solidly directed by the ever underrated Delmer Daves and as usual with Daves' outdoor pictures richly photographed in Technicolor, this time, by ace cinematographer Ted McCord ("Treasure Of The Sierra Madre"/"Johnny Belinda"). The lavish Art Direction by Daniel B.Cathcart was superb with a whole mining town built on locations near Yakima, Washington which would double for the mining fields of 1880's Montana.
The story revolves around Dr. Joe Frail (Cooper) who arrives in the rough mining town of Skull Creek to set up practice. Since the area is bereft of any sort of law enforcement the only deterrent to lawbreakers is symbolised at the town's entrance by the presence of a great ugly and ghostly looking tree complete with a hanging noose ("Every new mining camp's got to have its hanging tree - makes folks feel respectable" a new entrant declares).
The enigmatic doctor is a man with a hidden past! Stories abound about him years before setting fire to a house with a man and a woman inside ("The woman was my wife and the man was my brother - and I have no right to forget"). But in Skull Creek things are not working out so good for him in the new life he is attempting to carve out for himself. Firstly he falls in love with a beautiful Swiss immigrant Elizabeth Mahler (Schell) when she becomes his patient after being temporarily blinded by the sun. Then he falls foul of an unscrupulous and licentious town wastrel (Karl Malden giving an excellent performance). The picture ends with an exciting but bloody shootout and Frail being frogmarched by the townspeople to the hanging tree just before Elizabeth arrives and offers the mob her newly acquired riches of gold and even her goldmine to stop the lynching. ("Know what? She wants to buy her man! If she wants him that bad let her have him").
Adding immeasurably to the picture is Max Steiner's extraordinary score! It boasts a wonderful central theme for Doc Frail! Heard in different guises throughout the film it becomes a ravishing love theme and is touchingly rendered in the scene where Frail removes the bandages from the eyes of the blinded Elizabeth. Later when she stands on a cliff edge and opens her eyes regaining her sight for the first time Steiner's arresting theme makes it a remarkable sparkling moment! The great composer also provided some exciting action cues such as those for the townspeople pursuing a sluice robber and also for a stagecoach hold-up. A song by Mack David and Jerry Livingstone was sung over the opening and closing credits by Marty Robbins and was nominated for an Oscar. Steiner cleverly interpolated the song into his score and is heard to best effect in the final scene when Frail is being dragged to the infamous hanging tree.
THE HANGING TREE is a splendid drama in an unusual and atmospheric western setting. Eclipsing his Will Kane in "High Noon" Cooper gives one of his very best and most likable performances in what would be his final appearance in a western. A genre he made all his own! It would also be his third last film!
A FINAL AFTERTHOUGHT - IS THERE ANY ONE OUT THERE THAT MIGHT KNOW THE REASON WHY WARNER HOME VIDEO HAVE NOT RELEASED THIS FINE MOVIE ON DVD??
The Hanging Tree
The Hanging Tree
In 1873, on the Gold Trail, Montana, the mysterious and controlling Dr. Joseph Frail arrives in the small town of Skull Creek with miners in a gold rush. Dr. Frail buys a cabin on the top of a hill and he sees the smalltime thief Rune wounded and chased by a mob that wants to hang him. Dr. Frail helps and heals Rune; but in return, he demands that the young man becomes his bond servant. The alcoholic healer and preacher George Grubb tells to the locals that Dr. Frail, who is an excellent gambler and gunfighter, is a devil and has a mysterious past but nobody gives attention to his words. Soon the stagecoach is robbed by thieves that kill the passengers but the coachman survives and three days later he reaches Skull Creek. He tells that the horses had speed down the hill with a young woman inside the stagecoach. The men organize a pursuit and the rude Frenchy Plante finds the Swedish Elizabeth Mahler burnt and blind. Dr. Frail and Rune take care of her and they learn that Elizabeth and...
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