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Thursday, April 19, 2018

THE HANGING TREE (1959)

When Voltaire said, ‘better is the enemy of good,’ he could have had this Delmer Daves Western, a late vehicle for the aging Gary Cooper, in mind. (Voltaire a Western fan?) But it’s true: Daves not long off the ‘better’ 3:10 TO YUMA/’57; Coop’s ‘better,’ his previous film, Anthony Mann’s MAN OF THE WEST/’58; cinematographer Ted McCord just off his ‘better,’ Michael Curtiz’s largely unheralded THE PROUD REBEL/’58, with its unusual yellow-tinged palette. Still, pretty strong work most of the way, only seriously falling off at the climax. It’s Gold Rush Days in wide open, lawless Montana as bitter doctor-with-a-past Gary Cooper shows up in a Pop-Up mining town, quickly blackmailing Ben Piazza’s wounded young thief into being his bond servant. And with only fierce, drunken faith healer George C. Scott on hand to interrupt his doctoring and nighttime poker games by making trouble. (The debuting Scott is mesmerizing, lean as a whippet/scary as Satan.) But then Maria Schell shows up, injured & orphaned in a runaway stagecoach robbery, nursed back to health only to become an unwitting catalyst to a host of deadly sins: greed, lust, jealousy, vicious town gossip, drawing out everyone’s worst nature. Especially longtime prospector Karl Malden, partnering Schell & Piazza on a grubstake claim secretly financed by Cooper. And it's success, not failure which brings on inevitable catastrophe not only for the characters, but also for the film which collapses into forced melodramatic conflicts & personal confrontations Daves is unable to make much sense of. But worth a look, with Coop in exceptional form.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, 3:10 and WEST are classic Western achievements. Alas, PROUD REBEL only available in lousy Pan & Scan Public Domain editions.

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