Hang ‘Em High (1968)
“The hanging was the best show in town. But they made two mistakes. They hung the wrong man and they didn’t finish the job.”
Director: Ted Post
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Inger Stevens, Pat Hingle
Synopsis: When an innocent man barely survives a lynching, he returns as a lawman determined to bring the vigilantes to justice.
Had Sergio Leone directed Hang ‘Em High as Clint Eastwood (The Dead Pool, Unforgiven) had wanted we would undoubtedly have had a horse of a different colour but, instead of Leone, journeyman director Ted Post was assigned to the task and it’s clear that he just wasn’t up to the job. It’s obvious that Post is attempting to mimic the style and pace of Leone and Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns but he fails in virtually every department. Where Leone can stretch the tension arising from the stand-off before a gunfight to breaking point for the best part of a quarter-of-an-hour, Post somehow manages to make a mass-hanging boring; where Morricone’s soundtracks added immeasurable atmosphere to the events unfolding in the movie and still sound fresh today, Dominic Frontiere’s intrusive attempts simply clash against what we are seeing on the screen and are an unmistakable product of the 60s.
Taken on its own terms, Hang ‘Em High just about passes muster. It’s around 20 minutes too long — largely because of Post’s attempts to emulate Leone’s relaxed pacing — and doesn’t really hijack the viewer’s outrage at the wrongs done to Eastwood’s Jed Cooper or have us rooting for him to hunt them down like the dogs the film would have you believe they are. The fact is the members of the lynching posse are probably the weakest element of the film. They’re either drunken hoodlums like Miller (a reliably weasel-like performance from Bruce Dern — 1969, Django Unchained) and the guy Eastwood shoots in the bar, or they’re apparently decent if rough-hewn men who became caught up in the moment and made a major mistake. However, instead of showing remorse for what they have done they decide to compound their crime by attempting to finish Cooper off once and for all.
Pat Hingle (On the Waterfront, The Angel Doll) gives the most noticeable performance in the film as Judge Fenton, a hanging judge with strong principles but a resolute determination never to take mitigating circumstances into account when deciding whether a perpetrator should swing. It’s a part that’s written large and any actor of quality would have no problem getting the most out of it. Place this volatile character opposite Eastwood’s typically taciturn hero and Hingle can’t fail to come out on top.
Hang ‘Em High takes an unyieldingly liberal stand on the death penalty which is commendable enough irrespective of your own opinion on the subject, but its anti-death penalty message is rammed home a little too forcefully at times and is weakened by Cooper’s unsuccessful defence of the two young rustlers arrested with Dern. Although the judge is portrayed as being harsh and unfair, for the laws of the time he is probably in the right in refusing to come to a decision based on hearsay.
(Reviewed 1st August 2008)