Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 8.56.17 PMIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant and/or through the iTunes Store?  Hang Em High is not available for rent at Netflix Watch Instant, but it is available for rent at the iTunes Store.

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Pat Hingle, Inger Stevens, & Ed Begley

Directed by: Ted Post

Screenplay by: Leonard Freeman & Mel Goldberg

Clint Eastwood seems to have had many rebirths. He has done Westerns (both here and overseas), action cop movies, comedies, dramas, and he has been an Academy Award-winning director (oh, and a mayor). Hang Em High is one of many watershed films for Clint Eastwood. Until the release of this now-classic film, Eastwood had been mostly known to American audiences for his 8 seasons as Rowdy Yates on the popular cowboy TV series, Rawhide (you can read my review of the show’s first season here: https://voiceofcinema.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/rawhide-1958-tv-series-season-1-4-out-of-5-stars-starring-clint-eastwood-eric-fleming/). He was not yet a film star and Eastwood desperately wanted to discard his Rawhide image so he took a big chance and signed up to star in then-unknown Italian director Sergio Leone’s foreign spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars. This and other Leone films made Eastwood into a huge film star in Italy and he became one in the U.S. as well once those films were later released in the U.S.

The Spaghetti Westerns were influential toward the characters Eastwood created in his later American westerns. Although now cliché, the Spaghetti Westerns popularized the anti-hero, loner persona embodied in Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character. Quite different from his white-hat Rowdy Yates character in Rawhide, The Man With No Name was a man of few words. His actions and gestures spoke for him and very little was known of the character’s past. Eastwood correctly predicted that offering such a spare character would be more enticing to the audience and it would allow our imagination to fill in the details of the character.

The Spaghetti Westerns were influential in another way for both Eastwood’s American Westerns and the entire Western genre. Up until Sergio Leone’s classic Western trilogy, the West was mostly portrayed as a friendly frontier where basically white people sought to create a new life for themselves and the only enemy they had to beware of was the Native American or the occasional gang of bandits that would run through town. However, America’s growing cynicism over its involvement in the Vietnam War bled into its mythology of the American West. Western films depicted an environment that was harsh, desolate, and every man was for himself. The difference between good and evil was no longer cut and dried. Even the lawman had a self-interest and looked out only for himself. Corruption pervaded all aspects of society, including law enforcement and the government.

This is the background for Hang Em High, Clint Eastwood’s first U.S. Western after doing the Leone trilogy. Eastwood plays Jed Cooper, a former lawman who is mistaken by a group of vigilante citizens, led by Captain Wilson (Ed Begley), as a thief who murdered a rancher and his wife and stole their herd of cattle. Despite his protestations that he bought the herd fair and square, the gang of vigilantes hang Cooper for his “crime.” However, Cooper survives and he is appointed by Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle), known as “the hanging judge,” to be a deputy marshal for the Oklahoma Territory. Cooper wants to find Captain Wilson and his gang and bring them to justice. However, Cooper soon finds out that his sense of fair justice conflicts with Judge Fenton’s harsher brand of justice.

Hang Em High is basically a revenge film, but a decidedly more Hollywood version than the grittier and darker Leone trilogy of films. Director Ted Post and writers Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg seem to have blended some of the episodic and lighter aspects and narrative elements of the Rawhide TV show with Eastwood’s Man With No Name character and the grayer morality and harsh landscape present in the Leone films. The result is not as strong as Sergio Leone’s films, but Hang Em High still manages to be a memorable Western about injustice and revenge and it delivers some very strong performances.

No punches were pulled in pulling together a great cast for this film. Many of the actors in Hang Em High are regular staples of the Western genre and many came from television. The strong supporting cast includes Bruce Dern, Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton Batman films), Ben Johnson, Ed Begley, Alan Ladd Jr. (the Skipper from the Gilligan’s Island TV series), Inger Stevens, and a very brief appearance by Dennis Hopper, who is seen very early in the movie and plays a crazed “prophet” who is gunned down by a deputy marshal.

Especially noteworthy and interesting is Pat Hingle’s Judge Fenton character and his uneasy relationship with Eastwood. The judge believes it of paramount importance that the Oklahoma Territory be granted statehood and toward that end, he feels it necessary to convince the federal government that law and order exists in his jurisdiction. The judge is perfectly willing to sacrifice peoples’ legal rights for the higher purpose of gaining statehood. With the recent Boston Marathon bombing and the call for suspending the bombing suspect’s Constitutional rights in the interests of securing justice, such a belief is not far-fetched. Also toward that end, the judge does not believe that the residents of the territory deserve the same full rights that U.S. citizens do and so he is free to mete out his own brand of justice on those who are alleged to commit a crime. The judge has earned his nickname “the hanging judge” due to his tendency to sentence criminals to a hanging. Eastwood’s Jed Cooper opposes this viewpoint, believing that everyone, including criminals, deserve a full and fair trial.

What makes the judge and Cooper’s relationship so complex and fascinating is in how it resolves itself by the end of the film. When Cooper quits and hands over his marshal badge to the judge, the judge seems to convince Cooper to reconsider and to accept his point of view. I don’t know whether this resolution is meant to illustrate the corruption in our government and its power to corrupt even those whose intentions are noble. Or perhaps the filmmakers were attempting to make a liberal point about capital punishment. The film’s message is unclear on this point. Or maybe this resolution was not meant to mean anything and it was simply a conclusion that the writers felt appropriate to end the film on.

A big problem with Hang Em High is that it feels episodic. This is not at all surprising considering that the director Ted Post (Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Twilight Zone) and the screenwriters Leonard Freeman (creator of Hawaii Five-O) and Mel Goldberg all came from television. I wanted to see Jed Cooper methodically plan out how he would exact revenge on Captain Wilson and his gang and then see him carry it out. Instead, we see Cooper begin to find the vigilantes only at first and really only by accident when Cooper just happens upon them. Afterwards, Cooper is wrangled into a completely different assignment to find a trio of cattle thieves and murderers. The film rambles through this sub-plot before Cooper is again returned to his original mission of finding the vigilantes. Even then, the scenes are set up almost like self-contained sub-plots rather than a flowing succession of scenes that build upon each other.

Given Clint Eastwood’s matinee looks, it must have seemed ridiculous to not have a love interest in each of his movies. In Hang Em High, the love interest is Inger Stevens, a widow whose husband was killed by a couple of bandits who were never found. The love story between Stevens and Eastwood completely fails to work. Inger Stevens drifts in and out of the movie and for no apparent reason, she decides to nurse Jed Cooper back to health after he is shot up by the vigilantes. The one romantic sequence that follows isn’t really romantic at all because she explicitly tells Cooper to stop trying to kiss her (because of her continuing grief over her husband’s murder), but he does so anyway.

Hang Em High presents us with a dichotomy of legal law versus natural law. Its message is confusing and contradictory, but you are not meant to judge the film based on its message. Hang Em High is Eastwood’s introduction to the American Western (on film at least) and it is his introduction to American audiences of his (and Sergio Leone’s) vision of the Western genre. The film is not without its flaws, but it still remains a thought-provoking and entertaining gem that belongs in any Clint Eastwood personal collection. You might also recognize the film’s theme, composed by Dominic Frontiere, and which I have posted below. It is one of the best Western theme music and unfortunately it is not used as much as I wish it should have been in the film.

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