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"THE HANGING TREE" by Roy Frumkes

Updated: Oct 4, 2018

THE HANGING TREE (WB Archives) 1959. 107 mins. AR: 1.85:1. Technicolor.

Directed by Delmer Daves and Karl Malden. Screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles. Music by Max Steiner. Cinematography by Ted McCord. Edited by Owen Marks. Art Direction by Daniel Cathcart. First Aid – John Gaston.

With: Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, Ben Piazza, George C. Scott, John Dierkes.

To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold

Blu-ray review by Roy Frumkes

This is one of my personal faves. There’s no rational reason behind it. It just has that magic grip on me. It starts with a song by Marty Robbins. Very Frankie Lane-ish, but some of the lyrics are movingly elegiac. Then, right up front comes the film’s most phenomenal camera move as Gary Cooper, establishing himself as the guarded, morally ambiguous ‘Doc’ Frail, rides his horse along a precipice, looking far down on the ersatz mining town below. It’s one of the great sub-textual locations.

THE HANGING TREE was out of distribution for over twenty years due to entanglements with the Dorothy Johnson estate. Beyond that, estimates were upward of half a million to restore the negative, which existed on Eastman stock with yellow layer failure. In 2012 a color inter-negative was found that had been made in the 1970s. This version was released on DVD in 2012. Using laser graphics, and by separating out the base color records, this unique piece of work, the only film Gary Cooper’s production company completed before his passing, was restored by the Warner Archives.

I like the film enough that I’ve been buffeted through a number of copies: tv-masked ones, weakly mastered ones, until finally Warner chose to give it this Blu Ray restoration treatment. Compared with the previous release, it’s rewardingly improved, not always by great strides, but many scenes are noticeably improved, colors are often less ruddy, skin tones are truer in dark interiors, and the score is steadier. Of all the HANGING TREES out there, this one takes the prize, and we’re liable never to do better.

They say Gary Cooper’s facial overhaul made him look unlike himself. I think he looks great, and he has simmering power stored up in that lanky, low-key frame. The other actors don’t measure up to him, not Maria Schell, not Karl Malden (who took over the directing chores for a week when helmer Delmer Daves got sick), and particularly not George C. Scott who, in his first motion picture role, is too loud and straightforward.

‘Doc’ Frail has a habit of cropping up at doomed little gold-towns, ministering to the populace by day and playing cards at night for their dough. He has some sort of secret that most everyone knows at least part of, which keeps him isolated and dressed in black. He takes in an errant youth (Ben Piazza) as a kind of indentured servant, and cures Swiss newcomer Schell whose character was suffering from sun blindness. But as soon as anyone comes emotionally close, he slips off into the shadows.

While the color never seems like Technicolor, and the direction can be a bit over-the-top, still much of the film is compelling and re-watchable. It was the fifth from the last for Cooper, and he did four of them that year (the others being THEY CAME TO CORDURA, THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE, and a cameo in ALIAS JESSE JAMES). In these, and a few previous, he seems as fragile as Montgomery Clift became after his car accident. Still, he never ceased to command the screen.

There was another film in 1959 which made good use of a ‘hanging tree’ – Budd Boetticher’s RIDE LONESOME, starring Randolph Scott. The tree only appears in Act Three, but it’s a major unifying element that ties the various threads of the screenplay together. It was released as part of a 5-film Boetticher collection, with an intro by Martin Scorsese. A double-bill might be interesting.


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