Hangman’s Knot

I just realized the other day that I’ve reached a small landmark as far as this site is concerned – this post will be the 100th western that I have written about. I had to think about what movie I ought to feature to mark the occasion, and it left me with something of a dilemma. My first instinct was to go for a big, important, genre defining picture, one which has stamped its authority all over the western landscape. But then I paused and thought again: is that really representative of the kind of movies I usually turn my attention to? Well not really. For the most part, I’ve written up the films that don’t always draw the attention of the critics, that don’t get ranked high in the “Best of” lists. Sure there are a few heavyweights in there, but they tend to be the exception. So in the end, I opted for something low-key, a bit of a sleeper and an imperfect work – Hangman’s Knot (1952). This might seem an offbeat choice but it reflects what I’d like to think of as the spirit of this site by being a movie from my favourite decade in cinema and featuring two of my favourite performers.

The plot concerns a dreadful mistake and its consequences for those involved. Major Stewart (Randolph Scott) is in charge of a small band of Confederate soldiers who we see setting up an ambush for a squad of Union troops. The aim is to relieve the Yankees of the gold shipment they’re guarding and thus shore up the war effort. The plan goes almost like clockwork and Stewart’s men wipe out the enemy. The sting in the tail though comes in the form of the dying words of their victims’ commanding officer – the war has been over for weeks. In that moment Stewart sees himself transformed from heroic military tactician into common criminal. A discussion with the surviving troops, and the reckless killing of the one man who could be made to testify to their innocence, leads to the decision to head home with the spoils in tow. However, gold is always a powerful draw, and it’s not long before others are on their trail. A self-appointed posse, bounty hunters in reality, have caught the scent and are in pursuit of Stewart’s little party. In desperation, a stagecoach is hijacked and the fugitives head for the temporary shelter of an isolated swing station. It’s here that the second part of the drama is played out, as Stewart and his men find themselves holed up in the stage halt and under pressure from both without and within. The posse have hemmed them in with little hope of a clean escape, while the atmosphere is growing ever more poisonous as both the hostility of the hostages and the men’s own personal differences raise tensions.

Roy Huggins is most famous as the writer of some highly successful and influential television shows (including The Fugitive and The Rockford Files), but his solitary effort as a cinema director plays out like a rehearsal for the Boetticher/Scott pictures that would come later in the decade. The theme, casting, locations and structure of Hangman’s Knot all contribute to the feeling that you’re watching a kind of unpolished Budd Boetticher movie. The opening scenes of the ambush shot around Lone Pine, with their bleak, fatalistic tone, immediately evoke such thoughts. This is especially true when the gung-ho mood abruptly turns into one of horrified realisation. Then there’s the theme of greed and it’s corrupting influence that is gradually expanded upon as the story progresses. With the second act, comes a change of location – the restrictive, almost suffocating, confines of the swing station – where the pressurized atmosphere brought on by greed for gold intensifies for those trapped inside and those laying siege outside. These rising tensions are further exacerbated by the presence of Donna Reed’s Northern nurse, provoking a three-way contest for her affections between Scott, Lee Marvin’s hot-headed subordinate, and Richard Denning’s would-be fiance. This brings to the surface a sentiment that can often be detected in westerns of the period; the contrast between the essential nobility of the southerner (personified by Scott) and the base materialism of the northerner (Denning in this instance), although it’s tempered somewhat by the fact that Marvin is also thrown into the mix to represent the less savoury side of the Confederacy.

It’s hard to find fault with the casting of the movie, though the oversimplified characterization is one of the main weaknesses. I’ve already tried to draw attention to what I see as the parallels between Hangman’s Knot and Scott’s later work with Boetticher, but the reasons why the movie isn’t quite in that class need to be addressed too. One of the features that distinguished the Ranown pictures was the complexity of the characters, both the heroes and the villains. In truth, there was a blurring of the lines defining the good and bad men in those films. That’s not really the case here, where everyone’s development follows a much more traditional path. Apart from a sense of guilt over the ill-timed ambush, Scott’s character carries none of the emotional baggage that made his best roles so memorable. That’s not meant as a criticism of his performance though – an actor can only play a part as it’s written, and the script doesn’t offer much opportunity to add depth. The same problem arises with Lee Marvin; where Seven Men from Now gave him the chance to play a layered and subversively attractive villain, Hangman’s Knot demands a more straightforward, and far less interesting, portrayal. Similarly, the posse in pursuit of Stewart’s band is a collection of stereotypical figures without charm, and lacking the necessary menace too. Perhaps the most successful character is the green youth played by Claude Jarman Jr, whose innocence symbolizes hope for the future and the possibility of a new beginning. Both he and the operators of the stagecoach stop are suggestive of the idea of America as a family torn apart by the Civil War. Of course they also represent the prospect of reconciliation, the offer of “adoption” at the end emphasizing this.

The R1 Columbia/Sony DVD of Hangman’s Knot, which has been available for a long time now, presents the movie in the correct academy ratio, and the image is reasonable although there are some issues with the transfer too. Colours are generally strong throughout but there is some damage to the print. This is most obvious during the indoor scenes in the second half of the movie, the earlier exterior work looks to be in much better shape. Even so, it’s not what I’d term a major distraction at any point. It’s a fast paced film which packs a lot of story into its brisk 81 minute running time and concludes most satisfactorily. I think it’s an underrated western, but I can understand the reasons why that may be so. Still, whatever deficiencies it has, there are plenty of positive points too, not least the way it looks ahead to the Ranown cycle. In fact, and I’m going to stick my neck out here, I think it’s a better and more rewarding movie than something like Westbound – others may disagree of course. Anyway, I recommend any fans of Randolph Scott, or Budd Boetticher for that matter, check this one out if they haven’t already done so.