In 1889, a man led by revenge becomes a gun-for-hire loner after having suffered from the merciless justice of the Oklahoma territory, where people are hanged. In his 1968 revisionist western movie Hang’Em High, Ted Post chose a classic put efficient plot that deals with the cruel context of the capital punishment.
Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood), an ex-lawman turned rancher, is moving a herd of cattle when a group of nine men on horseback ride up and accuse him of having stolen the cattle and killed their owner. Cooper tries to defend himself, but the nine men refuse to listen and hang him, leaving him for dead. It is a quite harsh and surprising way to open a movie, but the story could not continue without the main character. A few minutes later, Federal Marshal Bliss (Ben Johnson) comes to rescue him, not to be friendly with him but to drive him before a real court of justice. He claps him in irons and takes him to Fort Grant, where the territorial judge Adam Fenton (Pat Hingle) determines that Cooper is innocent. He sets him free and hires him as a Marshal, as Cooper wants more than freedom and a “fistful of dollars”. This is the beginning of his manhunt to bring to justice the men who tried to lynch him.
The opening credits with blood-like letters introduce a troubling atmosphere which prepares the audience to watch violence. It is an uncomfortable moment for the viewer, and the tension is intensified by the strident music composed by Dominic Frontiere, that sounds like the music of Psycho. The creaking of the planks, the shifty eyes of the public watching the hangings, the various staccato shots zooming in on faces: all these elements accentuate the stress and make you shudder. The scenes mostly shot outdoors, depict a dry environment, not really faithful to the Oklahoma landscapes as it was directed in New Mexico, but it does not really alter the movie’s credibility.
Clint Eastwood’s performance as the typical impassive lonely man is famous thanks to Sergio Leone’s movies that propelled him to the forefront. In Hang’Em High, clearly influenced by the spaghetti western genre, Clint Eastwood proves one more time how much this role fits him. With his charisma and laconic lines (“Then I’ll get you there dead, boy”), he personifies the archetype of the incorruptible man who is not a villain, but not a gentleman either. The scar on his neck, a proof of his lynching, is a symbol of the tortured and tough man he is; yet, in this whole world of brutality, he will get closer to the main female character of the movie, Rachel Warren (Inger Stevens), a widow with a heavy past. They seem to understand each other as they are both driven by a desire for revenge… but no great romance is to be expected here.
The movie is actually based on a true story: the fictional town of Fort Grant that refers to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the judge Adam Fenton represents the judge Isaac Parker, known as the pitiless “Hanging Judge”, who never attends the hangings but only casts glances from the window of his office.
Clint Eastwood, who produced Hang’Em High, wanted to recreate a film with elements of the spaghetti western. With Ted Post, they succeeded is making an American version that appears harder than Sergio Leone’s movies. It seems to be an underestimated movie nowadays, or at least less famous compared to its success when it came out. However, it conveys another perspective on the western, closer to the dark mood of the cinema of the Seventies, closer to the thrillers, and the theme was especially interesting at the time of its release, as death penalty was about to be abolished in most states.
Hang ‘Em High (1968)
Clint Eastwood as Jed Cooper
Inger Stevens as Rachel
Ed Begley as Captain Wilson
Pat Hingle as Judge Fenton
Arlene Golonka as Jennifer
Ben Johnson as Marshal Dave Bliss
Richard H. Kline
Leonard J. South