“Hang ‘Em High”
Directed by Ted Post
8 out of 10
Director Ted Post ( Gunsmoke, Magnum Force) and TV writers Leonard Freeman ( Hawaii Five-O ) and Mel Goldberg (Bonanza) brought to the screen one of Actor / Director Clint Eastwood’s (Million Dollar Baby, Firefox) more memorable westerns about revenge and injustice. It isn’t by far the most seminal of Eastwood’s westerns of the 1960’s but it is an interesting character study and has enough juice to demand we stick around and find out what becomes to the men that run afoul of Eastwood’s main character named Jed Cooper. Cooper is a no nonsense type like many of Eastwood’s cowboys who happens to be herding some cattle in Oklahoma in the year 1889. As he does he is approached by a posse of nine men looking to get to the bottom of the murder of the Herd owner. Apparently, Cooper purchased the Herd not from it’s owner but from a rustler who had killed him and posed as it’s owner during the sale of the herd to Cooper. Even as he shows the posse his receipt he is still met with hostility from the men. Only one, Jenkins (Bob Steele) shows a bit of concern and doubt as to Cooper’s culpability in the alleged robbery and murder. This though does not stop the men from taking the law into their own hands and it is this plot device that propels the story and movie forward in an entertaining fashion despite a bit of laziness from director Ted Post here and there.
2 men named Reno and Miller (Bruce Dern) steal a saddle and wallet from Cooper. The men then grab Cooper, hang him and leave him to die painfully as they ride away. Well, as it happens, a Federal Marshal named Dave Bliss (Ben Johnson of Terror Train) sees Cooper hanging and cuts him down barely alive. Bliss helps out Jed and gets him on a horse and takes him to Fort Grant to let a frontier Judge named Adam Fenton. Fenton is loosely based on a true life Judge named Issac Parker who in real life was called “The Hanging Judge” and didn’t get that name from selling cookies. Fenton finds Cooper innocent and he then lets him free to re-coup in Fort Grant. Eventually he is offered the position of a Marshal and Cooper accepts. On one condition from Fenton: That he does not hunt down and kill the men that wronged him. Later in the film things get hairy for Cooper as finds his saddle on a horse in a small town saloon. He finds Reno who tries to shoot Cooper but not in time and he is shot dead. Jenkins on the other hand gives himself up. As more men are found Cooper is drawn into a moral battle with himself and tries to do what s right by the law. The film straddles those gray areas and Eastwood and Post, both in good form, deliver a decent western with some drama, wry levity and great performances.
“Hang em High” can at times seem a bit like a carbon copy of previous Italian westerns and Eastwood has indeed done better but I felt that the story, while a bit dated even for 1968, was cool enough to keep me interested. This is done by the good performances here by the large cast which includes Bruce Dern, Pat Hingle, Eastwood himself, Ben Johnson, Alan Ladd Jr., the beautiful Inger Stevens (The Twilight Zone) and a young Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet, Waterworld) as “The Prophet” who is gunned down by Bliss in a foiled escape attemot. The cast all work well within the revenge tale and Bruce Dern stands out as an especially slimy bad guy to oppose Eastwood. Clint here is stern, gravelly voiced and dead serious. Eastwood the way Eastwood should be. Being Eastwood’s first american western and the first Malpaso Company production, the film is a good indicator from which to forsee some greatness being born for Eastwood’s future movies. The film is indeed under-appreciated and plays out true to form. I feel the film may be a bit under-estimated as well. It isn’t a magical western like “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” or the seminal “Unforgiven” but it is thought provoking and features solid action and style. Some of the convictions and motivations fall by the wayside though when some characters make strange decisions but these things never distract Post, Eastwood and the writers from spinning a cool and stable revenge yarn. Eastwood finally puts a name to his fabled image of the cowboy with “no name” and here we get a truly interesting side to this mythos. It’s not magical like the Leone pictures but it just fine. Richard Kline’s (Body Heat, The Andromeda Strain) photography is nice and engaging with frames filled with great costumes, grit and dusty landscapes. I thought Dominic Frontiere’s ( Color of Money, Chisum) music was a bit underwhelming but appropriate in the right places. All in all this Eastwood western entry is not bad but it isn’t great either. It strives to work though. I appreciate it’s ability to remain an under-appreciated and oft overlooked movie in Eastwood’s body of work. It’s just that it is eclipsed, appropriately, by better fare like the Leone films and the director’s own powerhouse, “Unforgiven.”