Good Day for a Hanging

Since when is a young rattlesnake any less poisonous than an old one?

First and foremost, a good film needs to be entertaining. The more interesting ones ask questions and have a clear theme which dominates the plot. For this viewer, the theme is always important as it indicates theΒ  direction the picture is likely to take. As such, I’m always a little disappointed when the theme is underdeveloped or poorly developed. One is left wondering what point the filmmakers are trying to make, what their position really is. Good Day for a Hanging (1959) is an example of this, suggesting that it’s going to offer a critique of justice and the death penalty. However, it loses focus and ends up being neither fish nor fowl, dragging our sympathies in one direction before wrong-footing us and apparently contradicting the line it was initially following.

Ben Cutler (Fred MacMurray) is an ex-lawman living in an idyllic Nebraska town. He’s a widower with a grown-up daughter and only weeks away from marrying Ruth Granger (Maggie Hayes), another single parent. His plans for a peaceful domestic future are thrown into disarray though by the arrival of a five man gang intent on robbing the bank. The heist doesn’t go entirely smoothly, resulting in a shoot-out and pursuit with a hastily assembled posse. The upshot of all this is the aging marshal (Emile Meyer) ends up dead, and the man accused of killing him is a former resident of the town, Eddie Campbell (Robert Vaughn). Cutler manages to wound Campbell and bring him back to town for trial, although the situation is complicated by the fact his daughter (Joan Blackman) was the outlaw’s childhood sweetheart and still carries a torch for him. Well the trial comes to pass, and Campbell ends up convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, principally on the evidence of Cutler who has been drafted in as a replacement marshal due to his previous experience. Throughout it all Campbell maintains his innocence with the support of Cutler’s daughter, who refuses to believe her former love capable of murder. As Campbell’s date with the gallows approaches the discontent within the town grows – Cutler’s isolation also increases as first his daughter, then his betrothed, and finally the citizenry turn their back on him and question his judgment and motives.

Nathan Juran is best known now for his science fiction and fantasy movies but he directed a number of pretty good westerns, notably with Audie Murphy. Good Day for a Hanging was a low-budget affair (recycling the score from 3:10 to Yuma throughout), resembling a TV western in some respects but quite competently handled by Juran. The opening quarter-hour is pretty stylish and tense as the build up to and execution of the bank robbery take place, Juran alternating nicely between wide shots and telling close-ups. The truth is the direction remains smooth all the way and the climactic shoot-out is well done. The script, however, is less satisfactory. One is left with the impression that the writers were unsure or undecided what point they wanted to press home. On the one hand, the whole movie seems to be building towards a condemnation of the death penalty, but then changes tack for the climax. There also seems to be that typical 50s concern with disaffected youth, but again the payoff is at odds with the end result. And then there’s the character of Cutler – the inner conflict of a man of principle is certainly explored, but he’s portrayed as such an implacable and frankly unsympathetic figure that even that doesn’t really hit the mark. All of this amounts to a very average western, and you can’t help but feel let down when you think of the creative and thematic heights the genre had reached by the end of the 50s.

Generally, I like Fred MacMurray in westerns, although I understand he wasn’t all that enthusiastic about doing them. His best roles always had a touch of ambiguity about them, and those where he was downright unsympathetic were probably the strongest. As Cutler, he had the opportunity to play to his strengths, his unbending conviction on the outside causing plenty of internal turmoil. For long stretches it’s hard not to see him as the villain of sorts, apparently oblivious to the mounting pressure from family, friends and community. But I’m not totally convinced that’s how we’re supposed to view him. Once again, I feel the writing is fault here rather than MacMurray – we’re encouraged to see him as others do as opposed to how he sees himself. And then there’s an element of unreality to it all; would any man honestly jeopardize his relations with those closest to him, those he genuinely loves, for what is at best a highly debatable principle? Pitted against him was Robert Vaughn, a man whose place in western lore was just a year away from being cemented in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, but who would find his true niche in TV, particularly as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He’s fine as the troubled youth as far as it goes, but I feel he suffers from the confused scripting too. The supporting cast features, Emile Meyer, Maggie Hayes, Joan Blackman, Denver Pyle and The Virginian, James Drury, all in perfectly acceptable if unremarkable roles.

Good Day for a Hanging was released some time ago in the US by Columbia – TriStar on DVD and should be easily available. The transfer to disc is OK, but nothing more. It’s in the correct widescreen ratio and doesn’t display any noticeable damage, but it’s a lackluster affair for all that. The image is a bit dull and faded, mediocre at best. Even so, this is the kind of film that’s unlikely to have a lot of care lavished on it so I’m happy enough to have it available in acceptable form. Have I been unduly harsh in my overall assessment? Perhaps, and others may disagree. For me, context is the key here; 1959 saw the release of some of the best films the western genre had to offer, and Good Day for a Hanging looks weak when set against them. I don’t think it’s a bad movie, MacMurray and Vaughn are very watchable and Juran does all that’s asked of him, but it promises a lot more than it ultimately delivers.

47 thoughts on “Good Day for a Hanging

  1. I know exactly what you mean – there is little as crushingly disappointing as something that seems to be heading in an interesting direction and which then just reverts to type – if I have seen this one, I’ve forgotten it, though given the cast and director it’s a title I would have made an effort for. Ah well – really enjoyed your review though πŸ™‚


    • Thanks, Sergio. As a low-budget western, this is passable enough and the opening and closing sequences are well-staged. The knowledge that it could have a whole lot better is something i can’t get past though. Somebody else may well chime in with a robust defense of the movie, and I’d be interested to know what anyone else though worked. For me though, it’s a lower mid-range effort at best.
      It’s also a bit frustrating that MacMurray and Vaughn were well suited to their respective roles but the script does them no favors at all.


  2. I’ve seen it and found it unremarkable as well. Less so for the questions you say if fails to meet but rather there is not much to it. I recall, hopefully correctly, that MacMurray’s “A Face of A Fugitive” is better. Different but better. His real strength lies in 30’s comedies and cynical character dramas. Your comment about his not being fond of westerns may, along with finding work as an older actor, account for this brief venture.


    • Chris, Face of a Fugitive is a much better film and, along with Quantez is easily the best work MacMurray did in the western genre. The latter is pretty easy to find – the German Blu-ray is a real beauty – but I’d give a lot to see a decent edition of the former released.


  3. I agree with what you have to say in your review Colin. It’s not a bad western but I’m afraid that it is rather unmemorable. And made to appear more so, unfortunately, compared with some classics that were being made at around the same time. You refer to the recycling of Duning’s score to “3:10 To Yuma” and this was, for me anyway, the most annoying aspect of the film. Hearing this great music score applied to something other than the true classic for which it was composed just struck me as plain wrong. I felt irritated thoughout the film every time the music started up and, I’m afraid that this coloured my opinion of the film.
    One other thing…regarding the U.S. DVD. I seem to recall that a few U.S. Columbia Tri-Star discs released at this time – and this was one of them- had playback problems on some non U.S.DVD players, This wasn’t a fault but some extra encoding that they deliberately included, in addition to the usual Region 1 encoding. Some misguided attempt to make it even more difficult to crack the R.1 code! The upshot was that some non-U.S.players (even region-free ones) had trouble with some of them. I can’t remember the full details unfortunately. I myself never had trouble with any of the titles that were said to be affected but I remember some internet complaints about it, about 10 years or so ago. So just a cautionary note for people who may still be using an older region-free player in Europe.


    • Indeed, Dafydd. Duning’s score for 3:10 to Yuma leaps out at you and is a constant reminder of the Daves movie, something which, I guess, tends to emphasize the ordinariness of this film even more.

      That extra layer of coding you refer to was known as RCE. It only seemed to affect a very small number of discs and then was quietly dropped. Personally, I never came across a disc I couldn’t play – I think a lot of region free machines were able to override it. Still, you’re right to draw attention to it as there might be a chance it could prove an issue for some.


  4. So pleased to see you review this film, Colin. Thanks for doing it.

    I certainly take your points about certain facets – film is no classic certainly and the script could have been stronger but I find quite a lot to like about it. My feelings are probably coloured by the fact I first saw it on General Release in 1959 on the big screen and really enjoyed it. Seeing it many years later I can see its faults but overall it still does it for me.

    Obviously, our opinion of Cutler was meant to vacillate throughout the middle section but my sympathies stayed with him throughout – he was trying to do the right thing even though family and friends’ pressure was heavily against him and, of course, finally he was vindicated.

    Fred MacMurray was a natural for comedies and I think that was where his preference lay (right up to his long TV run in ‘MY THREE SONS’) but, as you say, there was so much more to him than that. He was unpleasant in ‘THE APARTMENT’ and his playing against type was a highlight of a very good movie. I think a fading career in the 50s saw him take westerns but whether he liked doing them or not, I nearly always find him excellent in them (‘FACE OF A FUGITIVE’ particularly).
    Have you ever seen him in Episode One of “CIMARRON CITY” in the title “I, The People”?? Here, he was really fine, apparently pleasant and easygoing but in reality not the good guy at all. At his best.

    I really enjoyed the review and the comments following it. The fact that there were some really classic westerns around the same time and this film lacks that quality does not, for me, take away from it. After all, they could not all be classics. The “little” westerns are some of my most favourite.


    • Thanks, Jerry. I guess much of my problem with the character of Cutler was largely down to the fact he was so darned rigid throughout. I do get the point about his trying to do the right thing but I think if we’d seen a little more soul-searching on his part, then the result would have been a lot more satisfying. I thought the post-trial scene with the drunken and ashamed prosecutor in the saloon was going to lead into that, but it never played out that way.

      Never seen that Cimarron City episode but I’ll look out for it now you’ve made me aware of it.


  5. I’m in the middle of a post on this, oddly enough. I like it a bit more than you do, but you nailed its shortcoming and strong points. My main problem with it is that MacMurray’s 50s Westerns are often so good (Quantez, Face Of A Fugitive) that I feel let down when it’s just a solid little cowboy movie.

    So often, these films have one or two scenes that really shine, reminding you just how much talent was involved in these things. In this one, it’s the scene where the Marshall’s widow (Kathryn Card, probably best known as Lucille Ball’s mom on I Love Lucy), approaches her husband’s body draped over the saddle. With no dialogue, and just a few hand gestures and facial expressions, she says so much β€” you know she’s seen this day coming β€” more than pages of dialogue could ever do.

    It’s stuff like that that make these movies so rich β€” and why I can’t get enough of them.


    • I look forward to seeing how you tackle the movie, Toby – hope I haven’t inadvertently stolen your thunder on it.

      Sometimes I think expectations are the bane of the movie fan – when you see the best that an actor or director can produce, then it’s almost inevitably a letdown to see them in lesser works. As Jerry pointed out above, the “little” films have much to offer and I generally like them. In this case though I still feel the writing is the big weakness rather than its budgetary limitations for example.


  6. I believe the reason for the recycled “3:10 to Yuma” score is the musician’s strike at the time. It affected a lot of movies, with canned scores, music reused. “Wind Across the Everglades” is a kind of striking example because director Nicholas Ray had so different a score in mind originally and yet somehow the canned music works surprisingly well in that one, along with the songs (including one that Ray wrote)–I may be in a minority in liking that score though, and having no trouble at all with a movie that had a troubled production but is somehow a masterpiece anyway. I must say I don’t like the whole score to be so familiar from a much better movie as the present one we are discussing. Probably the most significant thing that happened with any score during this musician’s strike involves the score for “Vertigo”–plainly Hitchcock wouldn’t settle for recycled music and wanted that Bernard Herrmann score, which most agree is one of the best ever. So that’s why it was recorded in London with Muir Matheson conducting.

    Like Toby, I’m more indulgent overall of “Good Day for a Hanging” then you are, whatever its limitations. It’s not one of the great Westerns of 1959, and this was a peak year with more than its share of those; but I tend to like even the lesser Westerns of ’59 like this one pretty well. And whether he liked making Westerns or not, Fred MacMurray was always good in these late 50s ones. Of those where he places a principled hero on the side of law, “At Gunpoint” or “Day of the Badman”
    are both better I believe, but his other roles are more interesting, including “Gun for a Coward” where he is again stalwart but at least is involved in some genuinely troubled relationships. But I think a lot of us agree he flowers as the outlaw or gunman who the narrative will carry to redemption, meaning that “Quantez” and “Face of a Fugitive” are easily his best Westerns, and both outstanding.

    Anyway, I guess you’re not too hard on it but I liked it pretty well the second time after I got used to the idea of that music being in it. I like Juran overall and though he was best at fantasy films, especially the classic “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” I too am a fan of his earlier Audie Murphy Westerns, all very good and more satisfying than this one.


    • I like the MacMurray westerns I seen so far, some of them quite a lot. Quantez and Face of a Fugitive are really top flight stuff and represent some the best work the actor did in any genre. I also like At Gunpoint, which also sees MacMurray taking up a largely isolated stand in a small town, and it comes off much better than in the case of Good Day for a Hanging in my opinion. Gun for a Coward is a fine movie, I’ve written about it in the past, with good work by MacMurray.
      Of the actor’s other westerns, I’ve yet to see Day of the Badman and The Oregon Trail, although I understand the latter isn’t that highly regarded.


  7. I’ve written today over at Laura’s site (under ‘Dark Passage’) about first impressions and how well they stand up over the years.
    Referring to your overview above, Colin, about MacMurray’s westerns, I can tell you that I was fortunate enough to see both “DAY OF THE BADMAN” and “THE OREGON TRAIL” on the big screen on their General Release. My first impression of each – loved the first named but disappointed with the second (his last). I had already seen “DAY OF…”, “FACE OF A FUGITIVE” , “GOOD DAY FOR….” on the big screen and loved all three. So maybe my expectations for “OREGON TRAIL” were too high but……… When I view them now my first impressions stand, more or less.

    Add in “QUANTEZ” , “AT GUNPOINT” and “GUN FOR A COWARD” and we have a fine body of western work all told.


    • Thanks, Jerry. I’ve yet to hear much praise, faint or otherwise, for The Oregon Trailbut I’ll have to check it out for myself sooner or later.
      You’re spot on of course about MacMurray’s western work overall – a lot more good than bad in there.


  8. Your review hit the nail on the head. After enjoying, Face of a Fugitive and Quantez, I was disappointed with Good Day for a Hanging. Best regards.


  9. Always fascinated by how Vaughn tends to be so often cast as villains or heels when he is not the lead – and when he is, then he’s a hero. Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan (all COLUMBO villains of course) seem to fall into this off category. SHame this isn;t a better vehicle though …


    • Good point. Vaughn was in that Columbo episode set on board a ship, wasn’t he? A pretty good entry as far as I recall.
      Actually, I’m wondering if that phenomenon you mention applies more to actors for whom TV work made up a more significant part of their output than the big screen variety – Vaughn Culp and McGoohan are all arguably better known for their TV roles.


      • Well, I think you may have a point there about that small screen / big screen dichotomy. Rather nicely in LAST SALUTE TO THE COMMODORE, which at one point was looking like the last ever COLUMBO and which McGoohan directed (but did not appear in), they have Vaughn as the obvious villain but then subverted the whole formula by knocking him off and turning it into whodunit!


  10. Just finished watching Good Day for a Hanging and very much enjoyed it. It had a lot going for it – good cast though a pity Emile Meyer is only in the first five minutes. I didn’t find MacMurray’s sheriff unsympathetic . He is struggling , similar to Will Kane in High Noon. He isnt in any doubt that Vaughan was the murderer yet everyone is turning against him.
    I like the scene where he goes to see the widow (Kathryn Card), to try and get a little of her strength.
    But I’m afraid Fred MacMurray didnt convey the emotion that Gary Cooper brought to Will Kane.
    And I agree with Toby that Kathryn Card was very touching in her few scenes.
    Robert Vaughan was so convincing in his own defence in the court scene, I almost believed him myself!
    And that’s some final shot of Vaughan at the end.
    Interesting too that the law said a fence had to be erected around the gallows to prevent it being a public display.
    I’m glad you got me onto this western. It isnt up there with the greats, but it’s one I will watch again.


    • Good to hear you gave the film a chance and ended up enjoying it. You’ve highlighted a few more good points in the film – the final shot, and Meyer’s brief role among them.


  11. Another one I recall from the mid 60’s at the drive in. Dad never missed a chance to load us in the car for a Friday night trip if there was a duster on the bill. Great review.


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