Monday, August 24, 2020

Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High

Clint Eastwood's first American film after achieving international stardom in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy was predictably a Western. What is surprising is that Eastwood chose to ignore the qualities that made Leone's Western pictures unique. I wouldn't call Hang 'Em High (1968) conventional--it's a downright odd mix of revenge drama, political statement, and uncomfortable romance. And yet, it's all Hollywood--no Spaghetti.

Eastwood plays Jed Cooper, a rancher on the trail with his small herd of cattle. He is confronted by an unofficial posse who suspects him of murder and theft. Despite producing a bill of sale, Jed cannot convince the posse of his innocence and he is hanged and left for dead. Jed doesn't die, though, and is rescued by a federal marshal who takes him to Fort Grant. 

Pat Hingle as Judge Fenton.
Judge Adam Fenton (Pat Hingle) aims to enforce law and order over the entire Oklahoma Territory with a small team of marshals. Learning that Jed was once a lawman, the judge convinces him to pin on the tin star again. Jed's motive is driven by revenge--he wants to track down the nine men that hanged him. In the meantime, he also takes note of a young attractive woman named Rachel Warren (Inger Stevens). Strangely, she is given the opportunity to view every new prisoner brought to Fort Grant. As Jed later learns, her motives are also driven by revenge.

There's a lot--indeed, too much--going on in Hang 'Em High. Jed's quest for revenge is overshadowed by Judge Fenton's relentless pursuit for justice. The judge resides over so many trials that there's just no time to get into the details of every case. That gets under Jed's skin when a teenage boy is hanged instead of given an opportunity to reform. Likewise, Jed can't tolerate how the mass hangings are turned into entertainment spectacles that attract almost every resident of the community.

Inger Stevens as Rachel.
There are the makings of an interesting political Western here, perhaps along the lines of Kirk Douglas's clever Posse (1975). However, just as it gets interesting, Hang 'Em High changes direction and focuses on the awkward romance between Jed and Rachel. Their relationship allows her to overcome her need for vengeance, but Jed still jumps at the chance to capture or kill the men who wronged him. I'm sure the screenwriters intended to make some major statement on this plot development, but I totally missed it.

The cast is adequate, with Pat Hingle taking over the film by the sheer force of his personality. Clint  grimaces and looks irritated, but lacks the humor that made his Westerns with Sergio Leone so entertaining. As Clint's love interest, Inger Stevens has a better-developed role than her usual ones. The Swedish-born actress with the compelling eyes was wasted in many films during her short career. She died at age 35 of an apparent suicide.

In fact, my recommendation is to skip Hang 'Em High and opt for any of Clint's Spaghetti Westerns or later quality efforts like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider.

5 comments:

  1. "Too much going on." I've never been able to get into Hang 'Em High and I think you've hit the nail on the head as to why.

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  2. Inger Stevens was so beautiful as a person. Too bad she died so tragically at such a young age

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  3. Good advice. I just re-watched The Outlaw Josey Wales recently and it is a nearly flawless film. A masterpiece, I might say.

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    1. It's easily my favorite Clint Eastwood Western.

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  4. I like the thought of political westerns, and I'll give this one a go – although I won't expect much. I have been duly warned.

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