Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews as I go through the process of making my own 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Fifty Two: The Hanging Tree
I’ve wanted to see this for a while, highly recommend by those I trust, and directed by the great Delmer Daves. I anticipated good but nothing could prepare me for the power this film possesses.
Here, the director continues the smart, intellectual work he started with 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal. He continues to play with sexual dynamics in a daring way for the time. He uses actors well, in the right parts, and pushes them to new levels. This might be Cooper’s best performance, at least that I’ve seen, certainly in the range of his great work in Man of the West. The tortured Dr. Frail is an unusual lead character for a Western but a refreshing one. His decisions are unpredictable and tragic. Malden is perfect, a character actor who can play the most honest saint or this slimy son of a bitch! Unlike Rio Grande where the entrance of the female character distracts the narrative, Schell only increases the film’s effectiveness. She is wonderful as the recovering stagecoach passenger: sensual and strong.
From the beginning, we know the hanging tree will factor into the narrative and we just don’t know how. When the moment finally came, my heart was beating with exhilarating, I wanted to cry out at the screen. And the conclusion Daves gives us is one of the most cathartic in cinema history, up there for me with Bresson’s endings for A Man Escaped and Pickpocket.
In my assessment, Daves occupies the psychological/sexual corner of the genre. Ford is all about tradition, Hawks concerned with professionalism, Walsh supposedly adventure, and Delmer holds the key to the psycho-sexual side of the Western. His films explore more than any others the complexity of desire in the frontier and the way our minds are as dangerous as our guns.
The Hanging Tree is now one of my favorite Westerns and one of my favorite movies, period.
Seen on the Criterion Channel.