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Monday, March 25, 2013

Hang 'em High (1967)


Dir: Ted Post - Cast: Clint Eastwood,  Inger Stevens, Ed Begley, Pat Hingle, Ben Johnson, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, L.Q. Jones, Bob Steele, Charles McGraw

The first western Clint made back in his home country after his Italian adventures, often called the first stateside spaghetti western. It was produced by his own Malpaso Company and he knew both director Post and composer Frontiere from his Rawhide days. According to some sources he co-directed it, and this wouldn't surprise me a bit. Hang 'em High announces some of the rather complex ideas about personal revenge versus legal justice, that would become a recurrent theme in Clint’s movies.

Set in 1899, at the brink of a new millennium and era, Hang 'm High depicts a West in which personal revenge is gradually being replaced by a still rudimentary legal system. The process is presented as ‘natural’, as ‘in the line of things’, so when Clint survives his own hanging by a blood-thirsty lynch mob, and wants revenge, it seems only natural that he picks up the Marshal's star, offered to him by a hanging judge. He reckons that as a Marshal he can work within the law, but still wreak vengeance upon the men who wanted to hang him without a precess. But the times they are a' changing, and he'll have to learn that legal butchery is unacceptable.

At the same time we see the first signs (and drawbacks) of bureaucracy, when ‘the system’ shows no mercy for two young men, who would have been pardoned by the classical, ‘personal’ avenger. It doesn't even help when Clint pleads for their lives in court. There’s also a hanging sequence that shows the procedure in all its grimness and brutality. It's a bizarre, unsettling scene, most probably conceived with the famous public hangings of the French Revolution in mind, creating an almost carnival-like atmosphere including communal hymn-singing to get the crowd in the right mood.

Although a revenge story lies at the base of it, it’s a typical American western. However, visually it is indebted to Leone in a couple of scenes, and the loud, obtrusive score by Dominic Frontiere is an example of what critic Philip French has called an 'overloaded soundtrack', and one of the things the Italian film industry gave in return for the myth they took (1). Clint is surrounded by a fine ensemble of veteran character players like Ed Begley, Pat Hingle and Ben Johnson, and there also a few newcomers (who would soon become familiar faces) such as Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper, but the movie never lives up to its full potential. It is interesting, but it's also flawed. The story is too drawn out and the script too episodic. Unlike some other critics (for instance Phil Hardy) I don’t think the uneasy relationship between Eastwood and Inger Stevens does the film any good. Stevens suffers from frigidity after being gang-raped and therefore rejects Clint's advances, but one stormy night is enough for our hero to cure her - not very subtle, if you ask me. With all this attention for hanging, the movie's also a bit short on real western action.

Note:

Philip French, Westerns, p. 106 : "What [the Italian film industry] returned to Hollywood, was a taste for ultra-violence, a strong line in calculated sadism, a penchant for over-emphatic images and overloaded soundtracks (...)"

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