But there’s a dark side to this quiet physician that wears his holster like a gunfighter. There are rumors about his past involving a man and a woman killed when a house burned to the ground. There’s also his treatment of Rune (Ben Piazza), a young man shot while trying to rob a sluice. Frail saves the embittered young man’s life, only to make him work as his bond-servant for payment—threatening to turn over the bullet he removed as evidence.
When a stagecoach is robbed, the townspeople divide into groups to look for its crew and passengers. They agree to fire two shots if someone has been found dead and three shots if alive. Karl Malden plays the sleazy prospector Frenchy, who finds the only survivor: an attractive young woman named Elizabeth (Maria Schell), who has been badly sunburned and temporarily blinded. Frenchy fires twice, waits for dramatic effect, and then fires a third shot in the air with a sly smirk on his face. This sets the tone for Frenchy’s questionable character, which comes into play again.
As Elizabeth recovers under the care of Doc Frail, she, Rune, and Frail form something of a modern family—complete with the usual frictions. The “father” has trouble expressing his emotions. The “son” thinks he hates his strict father. The “mother” tries to make peace between the two of them. Still, it’s a functional unit until Frail’s stubbornness—and perhaps guilt from the past—breaks up the family.
The Hanging Tree shares many similarities with the great Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns like Winchester ’73, The Far Country, and Bend of the River. The hero is a man with a questionable past who is given another chance at life. In the Mann-Stewart films, the heroes are often redeemed by communities (as in Far Country and Bend of the River). In The Hanging Tree, redemption comes in the form of a woman’s love and, to an extent, a boy’s respect for his father figure.
Yet, while it plays like an Anthony Mann picture, The Hanging Tree is a testament to its underappreciated director, Delmer Daves. A graduate of Stanford University’s law school, Daves broke into the movie business as a highly-successful screenwriter, working on the scripts of The Petrified Forest, An Affair to Remember, and many others. As a writer and later director, he proved capable of making great films in almost any genre. Who else could take credit for making a war film with Cary Grant and John Garfield, a film noir with Edward G. Robinson, and a big screen soap with Troy Donahue? What Daves brought to all those films—and The Hanging Tree—was strong story-telling and an eye for great visuals. (He also seemed to have a knack for working with great composers like Max Steiner.)
The cast of The Hanging Tree is impeccable, led by Cooper’s simmering restraint and Maria Schell’s understated charm. George C. Scott, in his first film role, makes a strong impression in his brief scenes as Grubb. Karl Malden shows his versatility once again, revealing Frenchy’s sliminess in subtle layers.
There are plenty of Westerns with great title songs, such as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and 3:10 to Yuma. My favorite, though, is the Oscar-nominated The Hanging Tree, which was written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David. It nicely summarizes the moral of this Western tale: that “to really live, you must almost die” and “when a man is gone, he needs no gold.”
The Hanging Tree is a Western without shootouts at the bar, although guns point the way to life and death. It is a story of survival in challenging times, where sometimes you have to lend a hand, regardless of the cost. And where, in the end, family and love are more important than a lifetime of riches.