Hang 'Em High Review
Hang 'Em High holds an extremely important place in Clint Eastwood's career. Not only was it the first film to be produced by his own production company, Malpaso, but it was the first American film in which his name was above the title. Released in Summer 1968, it rode the popular wave of Sergio Leone's trilogy of films with Eastwood, and demonstrated the influence that Leone's films had exerted on the genre of the Western. It's a pretty standard revenge Western, but quite well made and has one scene that raises it far above the average genre entry.
Eastwood plays Jed Cooper, an ex-lawman who is mistaken for a brutal killer by a posse led by the deranged self-appointed Captain Wilson (Begley). Taking the law into their own hands, the posse lynch him, despite the objections of one of their number that they may have the wrong man. Before he dies, however, Cooper is cut down from the tree by a Marshal (Johnson), who takes him into the nearest town to get a fair trial. Once it is established that he is innocent, Cooper accepts the offer of employment from the local hanging Judge, Fenton, (Hingle), and sets out to find the men who lynched him and gain his revenge. The Judge warns him to stay within the law, but Cooper has his own agenda which does not necessarily involve the judicial process. Mixed into this is a sort of half developed rape revenge story involving Inger Stevens, which looks like it was only included to get the name of an actress on the poster.
Most of the film is pretty predictable - Eastwood sets out as a vigilante but becomes a man of the law and develops a conscience along the way. However, what makes it more memorable than it should be is the lengthy scene, around the middle, which recreates a "Hanging Circus", in which people assemble to see the hanging of six men at once. The director, Ted Post, directs the film in anonymous fashion for the most part, with more zooms than a Fulci Fest, but this one scene is something special. We see the crowds sentimentally joining in with "Shall We Gather At The River" (a revivalist hymn used memorably the following year by Sam Peckinpah), the platitudes of the preacher, and the contrasting reactions of the men about to die. Some cherish the moment, one taking the time to chew some tobacco reflectively, while others evince stark terror, and one man tries to justify his crime through a lengthy denunciation of the demon drink. When the moment of hanging comes, it's horrible and memorable and strangely eloquent. This is probably the best single scene that Post ever directed, although considering the mediocrity of his subsequent career, that's not exactly high praise.
Otherwise, it's brutal and exciting and well played by a cast of Western veterans. Eastwood is, of course, a natural star beloved by the lens of the camera, and he's surrounded by great characters like Ben Johnson, Ed Begley (doing an entertaining variation on his senile rant from Billion Dollar Brain and a thousand other films) and the undervalued Pat Hingle. It's also fun to see early work from Bruce Dern, already oozing duplicity from every pore, and Dennis Hopper, who dies too soon after only one insane monologue. Hopper was an experienced player in Westerns by this point, and managed to get along well with John Wayne, despite the elderly star chasing him with a gun screaming, "Where that Commie Bastard Hopper, I'm gonna kill him." The film was shot on beautiful locations, but doesn't look particularly impressive because of a TV Movie blandness that probably comes from Post's experience shooting episodes of "Rawhide". The attitudes in the film are rather confused - it can't decide whether or not it is in favour of capital punishment, and some interesting observations about the development of Hanging Judges into State governments are left as something of an afterthought. There's also a certain gloating sadism that negates any serious thoughts the film has on the immorality of killing. Having said all that, though, the BBFC '18' certificate is a joke and completely baffling in view of the '15' granted to numerous films with considerably more violence.
The Leone influence is not noticable in the visual aspects, since Post has none of the visual strength of the Italian director. But it is visible both in the immediacy and brutality of the violence, and in the central Eastwood character. He's not a "man with no name" of course, but he is decidedly vicious, single minded and not entirely sympathetic. You could also see some influence from Anthony Mann's films here, although I suspect Mann's anti-heroes also influenced the Italian Western. This being Hollywood in the sixties, rather than Cinecitta, Eastwood's character is softened up and given a love interest, but the tone of the film is considerably darker than, say, the previous year's The War Wagon or Hawks's El Dorado, pointing forward to Peckinpah's triumphant explosion of the genre in The Wild Bunch.
This is a typical MGM back catalogue release, matching a mediocre transfer with equally unimpressive extras.
The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, but it's disappointing. The image has a bland, dull look which exaggerates the original weaknesses of the photography and tends to make different exterior locations look like identical bits of waste ground. It's reasonably sharp with acceptable detail, but colours are muted and there are a considerable number of artifacts which tend to become distracting in the darker interiors and night scenes. Grain is constantly present, although this is not a serious problem.
The soundtrack is the original mono mix, which is fine. The music lacks punch though, and the dialogue is occasionally a little difficult to hear.
The only extra on the disc is the original trailer, which is quite amusing in a sixties sort of way. We are offered, however, a rather nice booklet with some background material on the film. There are a generous 32 chapter stops and static menus.
This enjoyable Western is well worth seeing, whether or not you are a fan of the genre, but the DVD release is average at best. MGM really do need to take a long, hard look at the products they are offering to R2.
Since I first wrote this review back in 2001, I have to say that MGM have shown signs of improvement. A few nice Special Editions have emerged and the other product is now available at bargain prices. But they still shovel out the back catalogue products with a speed which suggests that less care is being taken than should be.