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.

39 thoughts on “Hangman’s Knot

  1. As usual, an exemplary film review of a western, Colin. Well done and congratulations on your achievement. You really have a gift at bringing out what makes this genre an interesting one, my friend. Many thanks.


  2. Congrats on a hundred cowboy pictures. The amazing thing is that such a milestone is really only scratching the surface!

    Hangman’s Knot is a film I like a lot for all sorts of reasons.

    But the main one is a personal one: at about 11 years old, I stayed up to watch it on the late late show, huddled next to the TV on the kitchen counter so I could keep the audio low enough to not wake up my parents. Combining such a cool movie with the excitement of doing something I wasn’t supposed to do made it an immediate favorite.

    If my daughter did the same thing (she’s 11 now), I’d kill her.


    • Cheers Toby. It’s both sobering and pleasing to realize that you can write about a hundred western movies and, as you say, only scratch the surface. It just proves the depth and range of the genre I guess.


  3. First off, let me add my congrats for your Western centenary – that’s a really impressive body of work Colin, and this is a great movie to celebrate with. Maybe it lacks the contradictory impulses of the Kennedy/Boetticher/Ranown cycle, though when I recently watched this again on TV I found myself glued none the less. I watched it with my Dad, who is in his seventies now, and remembers going to watch Scott’s movies at the cinema in the 50s. He really enjoyed it too though we both felt that as usual the South tended to be let of a little too lightly.

    For me what I found unexpected and fascinating was how it plays like a Western version of RESERVOIR DOGS with its heist, thieves falling out, and then the confinement of the second part of the narrative all well and truly in place. But Huggins was at home with thrillers and Westerns (he created and produced MAVERICK after all) and you have to hand it to him, despite his questionable acts during the McCarthy era, he was a very talented writer and producer – but yes, clearly less impressive as a director.

    Again, well done Colin – great review.


    • Thanks very much Sergio.

      I always feel a little envious when I hear of people like your Dad who had the opportunity to catch Randolph Scott westerns on the big screen. I had to make do with TV screenings as a kid – usually Saturday morning or matinee slots on BBC2 in the 70s – and I still treasure the memory of those more innocent days.

      I’ve found that Hollywood, in the 40s and 50s anyway, usually tended to be very sympathetic in its portrayals of the Southern point of view in the Civil War. I don’t know whether that comes down to the natural romanticism of a lost cause or if it was a reflection of some residual national guilt. Either way, it’s something that crops up time and again.

      Interesting point about the Reservoir Dogs link; that hadn’t occured to me but I can certainly see what you’re getting at. As for Roy Huggins, his HUAC involvement does appear somewhat unsavoury but, as you say, his writing credentials and achievements are unquestionable.


      • I suspect that for my Dad, having grown up in Italy in the War, the appeal of Westerns set in the Wild West (i.e. in the three decades just after the end of the Civil War) had a lot of appeal, as did for many of those in the generation. He calls them ‘film di Cappelloni’ or ‘big hats’ – no idea if he coined that!

        Sympathetic depictions of the South, with connotations of romanticism as well as of wealth and privilege, were usually the defacto position, which is as frustrating as it is unavoidable. The truth is that it was (is) such a big market that the Studios just wanted to keep them sweet, which does lead to historically insane movie like SANTA FE TRAIL, a wonderfully made but ideologically completely unsound depiction of the Abolitionist cause.


  4. Colin, it was a great choice for 100th Western and a good piece as always.

    I think I like this one a little better than you do–saw it the last time just a few years ago and it held up well. The ways in which it compares to Ranowns make one want to compare it, of course, and that’s the problem; Huggins is just not going to look as good as Boetticher as a director. I say that as one who admires Huggins immeasurably for creating THE FUGITIVE and MAVERICK, my two favorite TV series and I’ve seen every episode of both. Let’s allow that of course he is not trying to directly anticipate Ranown, so it may be unfair to ask for those same virtues; this is his own script with its own qualities, however much it may anticipate Ranown cycle in some ways.

    Getting back just briefly to my feeling on the film. I can’t disagree with anything you say about it–but although the Ranowns took Randolph Scott to the sublime heights, he was wanting to get there, and his best earlier films, like this one, were all Scott-Brown productions I believe. My three favorites before Boetticher–MAN IN THE SADDLE (de Toth), A LAWLESS STREET (Lewis) and this one, none as good as SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, COMANCHE STATION, RIDE LONESOME or THE TALL T and probably not quite as good as DECISION AT SUNDOWN or BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE but comparing reasonably well to those two at least. I heartily agree that it’s much better than WESTBOUND, which we’ve discussed here before–even though Budd Boetticher is Scott’s best director, it’s not so inevitable that every time out he’s the best. If there is a Randolph Scott film on a level with the best Boettichers, and rounding out my top ten Scotts, naturally it is RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, which inspired the name of your blog.

    The most important thing is that this level of Western always deserves more attention than it seems to have had–and thanks to people like you it’s getting it. To say 50s Westerns are a treasure trove within cinema is perhaps to do them less than justice.


    • Blake, I like the film quite a lot too. Perhaps I placed a little too much emphasis on the weaknesses in an attempt to retain balance, or maybe it’s the inevitable comparisons with the best of Boetticher’s stuff that it encourages.

      Sure, Scott didn’t suddenly morph into the conflicted and complex figure of the Ranown films. I agree that watching his work throughout the 50s, arguably even as far back as the 40s and Western Union, does show that the potential was always there even if it wasn’t quite as honed.


      • Scott was wonderful in WESTERN UNION. That’s my favorite of his from earlier in his career. Seems like maybe we agree about that.

        But the weathering of age was just so good for him. And I have to say that someone can really come into their own not only with greater maturity but with a great screenplay, as well as great direction. SEVEN MEN FROM NOW had all three of these things going for Scott. It’s surely one of the best screenplays ever written. As much as the present scenes, it’s the back story (I spoke with Burt Kennedy about this specific thing and he was well aware of it and openly proud that the back story was as good as the present story). When Stride/Scott talks about how his wife had to go to work in the Wells Fargo office because he wouldn’t take a lesser job than sheriff, the way he says “My pride…”

        Well, you know where I’m going with this. Even if Lee Marvin’s flamboyant villain Masters inevitably dominates much of the film, Randolph Scott more quietly became sublime in it.

        By the way I thought your description of Marvin in SEVEN MEN ( “a layered and subversively attractive villain…”) in this piece was absolutely perfect. But we might add this note–HANGMAN’S KNOT was the first of three movies in which he appeared with Scott, and though the comparison you make is apt, I would argue that Marvin’s character here is at least more interesting than in the second film, de Toth’s THE STRANGER WORE A GUN, in which Marvin plays an effective but throughly conventional second villain.

        Just to wrap up re Randolph Scott, don’t know if I’ve said it here or at 50 Westerns from the 50s though I have written it. The top tier of Western male stars for me for their whole careers is four people–John Wayne, James Stewart, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott.


        • Seven Men from Now is a movie of great depth, that backstory really helps to round out Scott’s character and there’s a nice progression. To some extent, the same can be said of the other Ranown titles. I’m extraordinariy fond of The Tall T mainly because of the way Scott’s character grows in both stature and dignity as the plot develops. In both those movies, the charasmatic vilain (Lee Marvin & Richard Boone respectively), just by being there as a counterpoint, helps facilitate this. In this film there’s neither the backstory nor a strong enough nemesis to allow similar development but Scott still assumes a greater moral authority as events play out.

          And it’s hard to argue with your top western foursome.


        • Hangman’s Knot feels like a prototype Ranown picture to me. A lot of the elements are there, but the proportions are a bit off.

          Blake, I couldn’t agree more about Scott and his age. The older he got, the more authority he commanded — and, for the most part, the pictures got better.

          I think the reason the South tends to be a big factor in Scott’s films is his accent. Where else could he be from? As a Western-crazy kid from the deep South, Scott made me like having a Southern accent (though mine has none of the dignity his has).

          But in the Western as a whole, I think some of the Southern romanticism stuff comes from the underdog idea. We Americans love a lost cause.

          Marvin is terrific here, giving us a little hint at what he was capable of in something like Seven Men From Now. His 50s work is interesting to look at as a whole — you can almost watch him and Hollywood try to figure out what to do with him. He’s a pretty standard bad guy in Stranger Wore A Gun, he gets the Irish brogue in Pillars Of The Sky, and finally that perfectly-written role in Seven Men From Now. And before you knew it, he was a Movie Star.

          Sergio, I never thought about the Reservoir Dogs angle, but you’re right! I also agree about Huggins’ skills as a director. As much as I love this picture, there are some places where things don’t seem to cut together quite right, especially towards the end.


          • Lee Marvin has popped up in a number of discussions on this site, and there’s always a lot of admiration for him. I also enjoy seeing his 50s roles and the different ways he was used, While nothing can be said to be inevitable, there was a memorable quality to many of the small and supporting parts he played throughout the decade that distinguished him from others in a similar position. There was just something about his looks, his whole physical shape and demeanour, combined with the instantly recognisable voice that marked him out as having presence.


  5. Congratulations on your 100th western roundup! I wasnt very impressed with Hangman’s Knot when I saw it some time ago. On account of your positive review above, I will have another
    viewing soon. REgards.


  6. Follow up to the above posting and with reference to Blake Lucas’s top tier westerns foursome, I would have voted for Gary Cooper and omit James Stewart after taking into account their strong screen presence and ruggedness.


  7. Congratulations Colin. And many thanks for the like on my write-up on “Day Of The Outlaw”, means a lot as I think your blog is currently one of the finest on Westerns. Cheers.


  8. I had a second viewing and found it to be quite underrated. For your info, I read at Greenbriar’s
    that at The Chicago Theatre, Seven Men From Now was chosen as the double billing on the release
    of The Burning Hills! Regards.


  9. Just finished screening Hangman’s Knot. My take, the film is polished and professional but the depth, charm and romanticism of the Ranown cycle is missing. Nothing wrong with this film, but Huggins for all his ability seems to pitch things at the television level. At that time and somewhat after, but not today, below theatrical standards. I’m talking taste not production value. In any case, the picture gives excellent value, but nowhere near Seven Men…The Tall T…or any of the others in Beotticher’s cycle.


    • Barry, that’s a fair point about Huggins direction, and maybe his vision and ambitions too. His real talent was as a writer and, although he has other (impressive) movie writing credits, perhaps television was the medium he was best suited to at the time.


  10. Colin:

    The writing is good enough and so is the action. A little more intuition or delicacy in handling the cast and Hangman’s Knot evolves into a better class of western. Nothing wrong with what it is, but there could have been refinements made.. A big deal…? Well, the picture was successful, probably not a dollar more to get out of it, still it could have been stronger. Television production did not then require, nor even allow for the seemingly little things I’m thinking about. There were also time constraints. The cast is there for more and better.


    • Barry, I certainly have issue with the action scenes which are all well staged and executed. I still think the writing offers no scope for depth of characterization. I don’t mean it’s poorly scripted or anything (I mean I like this movie quite a bit) but it is very straightforward in terms of how the characters develop. Perhaps a stronger director could have coaxed more nuanced performances out of the cast, but the limitations of the writing remain. Still, the film does what it sets out to do – tell a brisk 80 minute tale effectively and without pretension. In some ways, we’re maybe being a little unfair by comparing this picture to the Ranown westerns. I don’t think the filmmakers were actually striving for complexity in any case with this one. Sure, improvements could have been made, but there’s plenty of good stuff in there too.


      • Colin, I agree that the level of Huggins’ direction may be what keeps the picture form having the depth of, say, The Tall T.

        Here’s Huggins on directing Hangman’s Knot: “The idea, really, is not to give direction to actors unless they are doing something wrong. You hope they will come in with something as good as you wrote, and maybe even better. Scott was able to do that. But I had to keep him from being too much Randolph Scott. Whenever a heroic line came up, he would play it with Randolph Scott zeal, and I would say to him very quietly, ‘Randy, just throw that line away.’ And he was very receptive to that. He was wonderful.” (from Robert Nott’s book Last Of The Cowboy Heroes)

        It doesn’t sound like Huggins was going for a lot of depth — which means he didn’t realize what an opportunity he had!


        • Cheers Toby, that’s a very interesting insight into how Huggins approached the picture. It does seem to confirm that he looked on it as a modest programmer and had no ambitions of elevating it to another level.


  11. I won’t be claiming he’s a great director in saying this but I think Huggins’ comments on directing actors are insightful. Most great directors do not give a lot of direction to actors but rely on them to be professional and find the role for themselves in terms of the director’s vision. If they need to step in and give specific direction they will know when to do so. Both actors and directors themselves have said this. It may have to be taken on faith that directors can impose a style on their actors just by their presence and sheer force of the sensibility they project on the set but it’s true. Just think about it–there is a John Ford style of acting for example, yet he did few takes and apparently did not say a lot most of the time, did not explain their characters to them and things like that. It’s just one example. In the case of Budd Boetticher–because the Ranown cycle has come up here in relation this film and to Huggins’ disadvantage–he plainly saw depths in Randolph Scott and had ideas about the kind of hero he wanted to see, stimulated by the first script for SEVEN MEN FROM NOW and something it’s clear he encouraged as the cycle progressed–and Scott got it. Similarly, he had ideas about villains and about heroines that are realized in the films, but the actors themselves understood these ideas and helped to realize them. An example, both Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy confirmed when the restored SEVEN MEN premiered at UCLA that Lee Marvin himself came in with that bright green scarf, the visual correlative of his character so he knew where he was going to go with it.


    • It’s a little odd to be beating up on the director of a very good movie that we’ve all professed our love for.

      But I don’t think Huggins liked directing — he fesses up to it in his Archive Of American Television interview.


  12. One of the best opening scenes in any film , as each of Scott’s men take their place among the rocks and the camera goes quickly from one to the other and we think they are a band of outlaws.
    The whole cast is good, from young Claude Yarman , and Frank Faylen who just wants to go home, and Lee Marvin who has come to like fighting and killing.
    Clem Bevans practically steals every scene he was in, as he comes round to helping them.
    Only Donna Reed seemed a bit wooden.
    The scenes in the swing station when they are pinned down by Ray Teal and his band of so called deputies are memorable with dramatic lighting effects.
    Scott’s character is simply one of a leader who gets on with his mission, though there is the romance with Donna Reed.
    A neat ending too as Scott and Yarman unload the gold bullion , with a better future ahead.
    A shame Roy Huggins didn’t do more films.


    • This film really seems to have drawn a very positive response from everyone. There’s something quite satisfying about picking a relatively obscure title to feature and then finding out that lots of other people happen to share your enthusiasm.

      There was a fair bit of discussion on the merits of Huggins as a director, and I don’t think I can add much more. However, I think he did have potential. Regardless, I’m happy that he concentrated on his writing – I’d hate to imagine a scenario where we were deprived of The Fugitive.


  13. Good review of a good film, well done, Colin. I wish Miss Reed had been put to more use in films. She was a solid actress who for some reason never got enough A material.


  14. Pingback: The Outcasts of Poker Flat | Riding the High Country

  15. Pingback: Quantez | Riding the High Country

  16. Excellent review. I took this in recently on the Mill Creek blu and really liked it. Not Boetticher (who is) but Huggins does well enough. Scott is wonderful as usual, Marvin is fun, Reed and Jarman good support. Good value of a film overall on the road to greater things.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.