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This is a film that deserves to be better known, particularly by those
of Randolph Scott's later work with director Budd Boetticher (The Tall T,
Commanche Station, Ride Lonesome etc). It is a fascinating transitional
work, and a one-off vehicle for Huggins, who went on to direct the
Files for TV.
As Scott grew older in his acting career, he made predominately Westerns. At the same time his face grew harder, more sinewy and austere. Something of his matinee idol looks and southern accent remained, but age brought something else - a moral gravitas than added immeasurably to his on-screen presence. Finally the 'Scott character' achieved a magisterial quality - a characteristic that added immeasurably to the ironic resonance of his last film Ride The High Country.
In Hangman's Knot, Scott plays a Confederate officer who only learns that the Civil War is over after a successful action in which his group take a gold shipment from Union soldiers. He and his men agree to return home, each with their share of the booty, but run across some outlaws who corner them in a way station, laying siege to them.
This is a situation familiar to those who know those later Scott-Boetticher masterpieces, and the familiar hallmarks are already in evidence. Even the same locations are utilised. Like the later films with a different director, this is a morality play, almost a chamber drama, where Scott makes a dignified stand of principle. In Hangman's Knot, those with the dark hearts are both outside the way station's walls waiting to pounce, as well as inside (a characteristic performance by Lee Marvin, reminiscent of that he gives in The Big Heat). These are the men that Scott's character, Stewart, cannot relate to: those without honour or moral courage, greedy, cruel men. For Scott, as he says in one of those later films, 'there are some things a man can't ride around' and these are the choices that have to be made. A man needs to face up to his options in life and live with himself on or off the trail. When he tells Marvin here that he 'never really knew (him) at all', we know the moral battlelines have been drawn, just as distinctly those that existed between the warring states.
At first the gold is merely the spoils of war. Then it becomes a short cut to happiness, an unexpected reward for the men's trouble, and a compensation for the loss of the War. Finally it is just a moral encumbrance, both to body and mind. By the end of the film, as Scott and the boy let the heavy saddle bags slip off their shoulders, the sense of relief is tangible - one which isn't just physical.
A film well worth investigating, full of artistic resonance and anticipations. And if you haven't seen the later Scott-Boetticher vehicles, some of the greatest B-Westerns ever made, see this as a taster.
Randolph Scott leads a group of Confederate raiders who rob a gold
shipment and kill the Union Cavalry escort. Before one of them dies
though, he informs the group that the Civil War's been over for a few
weeks. They're outlaws now.
That fact is brought home when a group of "deputies" lead by Ray Teal and Guinn Williams go out hunting the Confederates. They're not law officers in fact, but raiders looking to steal the gold and kill Scott and his crew. Scott and his crew take shelter in a stagecoach station and the fun begins.
Everybody's in conflict here. Randolph Scott has eyes for stage passenger Donna Reed and her fiancée Richard Denning doesn't like it. Lee Marvin, who's one of Scott's men, also has eyes for Reed and willing to take a direct approach. The folks who run the station, Clem Bevans and Jeanette Nolan, don't like being caught up in the shooting at their station, but don't like the Confederates in particular as their Union sympathizers and Nolan's husband and son have both been killed in the war. Even the bad guys are arguing over just what approach to take in dealing with the Confederates and none of them trust the others. All this with the two groups shooting at each other.
For 81 minutes a lot of plot is packed in and it's nicely done. Very tight editing, not a word or action wasted. Randolph Scott stands rigidly as the moral centerpiece of the film. Donna Reed, a year away from her Academy Award in From Here To Eternity, does well as a former Union Army nurse going west with her fiancée Richard Denning whom she learns is not all he seems. Lee Marvin gives a harbinger of things to come with his portrayal of a man quite ready and eager to become an outlaw.
One of Randolph Scott's best westerns.
1952 saw the Columbia release of one of Scott's best - Hangman's Knot.
They don't come much more taut than this, and its success only brings into question as to why director Roy Huggins never made another film as director. This one really begins to approach the later Boetticher films, being set in an isolated way station, as several of Budd's films happened to be, with Randy as a Confederate officer, who has stolen Union gold, not knowing the war is over.
Outlaws, learning of the loot, besiege the soldiers at the way station, but just as much danger comes from within - the menacing soldier played by Lee Marvin. The cast is better than those in the then most recent Scott vehicles, including Donna Reed, Claude Jarman, Jr., Richard Denning and Guinn "Big Boy Williams. Randy's son C.H. Scott, in the book "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott" speaks fondly of Donna Reed, as if she was a second mother, and says that she and his father never lost touch over the years, and were devoted to each other.
Omitting the Boetticher films, this one is clearly the strongest Scott offering of the 1950s. That Huggins never directed a feature film again (he did direct a 1970 TV movie) is more our loss than his. Huggins did quite well in the long run, with items like Maverick, Rockford Files and The Fugitive in his future.
With much of the film set within the way station, Huggins manages to keep the tension high as Scott has to deal with the group of bounty hunters outside (led by Ray Teal in a rousing performance) and the wayward loose cannon Ralph, the Lee Marvin character. Lee must have impressed producer Scott as he got a much showier role in the first Scott-Boetticher classic SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. Meanwhile, Scott must serve as surrogate big brother of Claude Jarman Jr, no longer the little boy of THE YEARLING and in fact nearly as tall as the film's lead star.
Richard Denning also impresses in his part as Donna Reed's fiancée, a character as weak-willed as the fiancée in the later Boetticher film THE TALL T. At first willing to call attention to an attempted escape by Scott and company (despite giving his word otherwise), he later bargains to give them an alternate plan of escape - in exchange for two bars of the captured gold.
My favorite of Scott's 50's westerns prior to his Boetticher films and dollar for dollar, the equal of many much bigger budgeted items from the likes of Wayne and Cooper.
Harry Joe Brown and Randy Scott produced some of the best westerns
Hollywood ever made. This is one of them, one of only two films
directed by the brilliant writer-producer Roy Huggins, who ended up
devoting much of his time to some fine TV series, including "Maverick"
and "The Rockford Files." A person can only spread himself so thin yet
it's unfortunate that Huggins didn't direct more movies. There is so
much highly creative work here, both on and off the screen.
The story written by Huggins concerns the final days of the tumultuous Civil War that not only split the nation asunder, but families and friends as well. Major Matt (Scott) is in command of a small band of rebel soldiers whose assignment is to hijack a union gold shipment in far off Nevada and take no prisoners. They succeed only to learn that Lee surrendered to Grant several weeks earlier. What to do? The major and his rebels decide to keep the gold and determine what to do with it later. The only rascal amongst the rebels is Ralph, an early role for Lee Marvin, who as usual steals the show. It seems his meanness has only grown as a result of all the violence he has experienced during the war. His killer proclivities have come to dominate his psyche. Though old pals in the saddle, Ralph and the Major are continually at each other's throats. Also a member of the rebels is a youngster who has not yet tasted blood, Jamie (Claude Jarman Jr. who first scored big as a twelve-year-old in "The Yearling").
As the rebels make their getaway, knowing that they will be hunted down as murderers and traitors by the Yankees, they are set upon by a gang of outlaws who claim to be seeking justice but who really want the gold. The rebels are chased to an outpost via stagecoach where they hold up in what turns out to be a standoff. The leader of the outlaw gang is Quincey, portrayed by veteran actor Ray Teal in one of his best roles. He was always a reliable actor who could be counted on to give a good performance. But this time he goes beyond the expected and turns in one of the best acting jobs ever. Today he is most famous for playing Sheriff Roy Coffee in the ever popular "Bonanza" TV series. Another surprise is to see Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, who usually played good old boy types, half-comic, half tough guy, as one of the meanest hombres around, Smitty. He is more sadistic and cruel than Lee Marvin in this film, which is saying a lot. Sweet Donna Reed is, well, sweet, but handles the part of a nurse, Molly, engaged to a slime ball, Lee Kemper (Richard Denning of TV's Mr. North fame), beautifully. Jeanette Nolan and Clem Bevans are effective as daughter and father of a young man who died in battle after his father had been killed in the war. The lead role is filled admirably by Randolph Scott. He captures all the nuances and contradictions of Major Matt while remaining charming enough to capture the heart of Nurse Molly. The rest of the cast including the redoubtable Frank Faylen provides the necessary support for this excellent western.
The title "Hangman's Knot" is metaphoric. Literally, the knot is tied to hang Cass (Faylen), but the knot also stands for the symbolic noose around the neck of each character for various reasons explored by the interaction of a great cast.
In 1865, a troop of Confederate soldiers led by Major Matt Stewart
(Randolph Scott) attack the wagon of gold escorted by Union cavalry and
the soldiers are killed. The only wounded survivor tells that the war
ended one month ago, and the group decides to take the gold and meet
their liaison that knew that the war ended but did not inform the
troop. The harsh Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin) kills the greedy man and
the soldiers flee in his wagon driven by Major Stewart. When they meet
a posse chasing them, Stewart gives wrong information to misguide the
group; however, they have an accident with the wagon and lose the
horses. They decide to stop a stagecoach and force the driver to
transport them, but the posse returns and they are trapped in the
station with the passenger. They realize that the men are not deputies
and have no intention to bring them to justice but take the stolen
"Hangman's Knot" is a simple but effective Western in the after American Civil War period mainly about lack of communication and greed. Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin in the beginning of his career perform their usual type of characters, a fair rough man and a bad character. The story is engaging with many conflictive situations and the screenplay is very tight. My vote is seven.
Title (Brazil): "O Laço do Carrasco" ("The Hangman's Noose")
This was the only film directed by Roy Huggins, after that he went to television where he was responsible for Maverick. This film came out so good, that if Maverick would not have been such a success he probably would have made more films with Scott.Lee Marvin is excellent, already showing us he had quite a future. The story is about confederate soldiers on a special mission, attacking the Union soldiers and taking their gold, only to find out the war was over. They hide themselves in a house together with Donna Reed. Most of the film is about them resisting an attack while inside the house. There are many shootouts, a tense atmosphere throughout the film. The films made later by Boetticher had a lot in common with this one.
A unit of Confederate soldiers out on a special mission attack a Union
troop that is carrying a cargo of gold. The idea being that the gold
will be used to better the Confederate cause, but upon finding a barely
living Union survivor, they learn that General Lee has surrendered and
the war finished a month prior. The men, now guilty of murder outside
of war regulations, are hunted by suspect deputies, taking a stagecoach
hostage and holing up at a stage line way station, inner conflicts and
murderous thieves are the order of the night.
Incredible to think that this fine Western was the only effort to have been directed by Roy Huggins; because it's exactly that, damn fine. He would go on to direct notable work in TV such as The Virginian, The Rockford Files, Maverick and The Fugitive, but it seems that he wanted to put down a marker that he could in fact direct a feature length film, and although it only runs at a respectable 80 minutes, he must have been real satisfied with the finished product. Huggins is backed up by genre legend Randolph Scott in the lead role of Major Matt Stewart, with Scott providing the sort of performance that reminds us of his excellent work for Budd Boetticher in Ride Lonesome, The Tall T and Comanche Station etc. Donna Reed (lovely as ever), Lee Marvin (another fine loose cannon job), Richard Denning and Frank Faylen all beef up the cast, and although some of the other supporting players do not quite shine so bright, they do, however, earn their corn and don't harm the movie.
The film itself is structured real well, we open with a fantastic sequence as the "Rebs" attack the Union troop, with Charles Lawton Jr's photography expertly capturing the Lone Pine vista in Technicolor glory. From here we are centred inside the way station in what at first appears to be your standard Rio Bravo set up, this set up could easily have failed if the characters inside the building were dull and very uninteresting. Thankfully Huggins, who wrote the story as well as directing it, gives us characters of interest with little offshoots of conflicts to further enhance the plot. This makes for a tense build up until we lurch towards the inevitable showdown where the rouges gallery of thugs outside - who want the gold at any cost to life - plot with hungry menace.
It's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, as some B movie traits and budgetary tone downs are evident, but the quality is still impressively high. From the direction and photography to the performances of the leads; Hangman's Knot is an essential viewing for the discerning Western fan. 8/10
Some of Randolph Scott's Westerns are shown regularly on British TV,
but I hadn't seen this one before, and it lived up to my expectations.
The colour was good, the cast strong and the plot better than for most
Westerns of this period. Lee Marvin was strong in an early role, and
Claud Jarman jnr was also good (I wonder why his film career seemed to
peter out?) I suppose a pedant might nitpick at the Union cavalrymen's
uniforms appearing to be standard wardrobe issue, rather than the sort
one might expect to see Civil War men wear. As a heavy, Guinn Williams
was cast contrary to his usually semi-comic type, but over the years he
hadn't lost his curious way of firing a revolver - almost as if he were
tossing bullets out of its muzzle with a flick of his wrist.
The jarring note was the obligatory romance for Westerns of this period, this time between 54-year-old Scott (in the beginning of the film at least almost looking his age) and 32-year-old Donna Reed (as delightful as ever).
Confederate special ops are sent to the Gold Country in Nevada to rob a gold shipment and then take the gold to Confederate Texas. After killing everyone, they find out that the war was over a month ago and now they are nothing more than robbers and killers. That description fits Lee Marvin's part fairly well, as when confronted by the leader of the squad played by Randolph Scott about killing the guy who was supposed to be helping them escape, Marvin answers that that's what they've been doing through the whole war. Chased by a posse of guys who are far worse than they are, they hijack a stage coach with young Donna Reed who plays a nurse, and her coach mate played by Richard Denning. The posse is led more or less by Ray Teal in another one of his classic cutthroat roles (see him in Along The Great Divide). The posse's problem is that there is no honor amongst thieves and their greed as much as other factors gets the better of them, but not before several tense scenes unfold in the way station where Scott and his men are holed up with Reed, Denning, and the father and daughter (who have their own issues) who run the place. Gold subverts just about every one in the movie, especially the cold opportunist played by Denning. That Confederate genteelness that you hear so much about in 50's westerns seems to contrast well with the greed and violence that seems about to erupt. It really doesn't extend much to Marvin's part who gets carried away with Donna Reed's good looks as he has her up against the fireplace, provoking a great fist-fight scene with southern gentleman Scott. Though the script doesn't always stand out and at times is a distraction, (maybe the story itself has some problems) this is still a western worth watching for a lot of reasons.
Believing that the Civil War is still in progress, eight Confederate
raiders in Nevada, led by Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott), ambush a
ten-man Union gold shipment. When the shooting is over, the Union
soldiers are dead, along with three Confederates. Before a mortally
wounded Federal trooper expires, though, he tells Stewart that the war
ended over a month earlier. (The war in the East ended with the
surrender of Lee's CSA army in early April 1865 and Joe Johnston's
larger army later that month.) Stewart is concerned that his troop
could be considered as outlaws and hanged for armed robbery and murder
if no one believes their true circumstance. What is more, the men are
split as to what to do with the gold, but they decide to keep it for
the time being. Now Stewart and his remaining men are hounded by nine
riders masquerading as deputies, but in reality they are lawless
drifters after the gold. After capturing a stagecoach (with two
passengers), Stewart's band makes a successful run for a stage depot,
manned by an elderly man and his middle-aged daughter. They are pinned
down by the marauders, and it is this large forthcoming time period
that focuses on character development.
The level-headed Stewart has a couple of problems: (1) the murderous thieves outside and (2) hostility brewing inside the station between three different groups. They include Stewart's men (one is a domineering trouble-maker), the two stage passengers (Molly Hull = Donna Reed and Lee Kemper = Richard Denning), and the two relay station attendants (Plunkett = Clem Bevans and Mrs. Margaret Harris = Jeannette Nolan). Margaret Harris lost both her husband and her son to the war, so she is understandably bitter; Plunkett is her father. Lee Kemper is a businessman whose marriage proposal was turned down by Molly Hull, a union nurse. To protect Molly, he tells Stewart that Molly is his fiancée; nevertheless he is not genuine. The rebel firebrand is the unhinged Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin, in a standout performance). Of course, to the detriment of the drifters, tensions will build outside. The bad guys outside, led by Quincey (Ray Teal) and Smitty (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams), decide to tunnel under the station and burn the structure. While this is happening a fierce rainstorm ensues with lightening, clouding the action but making for an exciting gunfight at the denouement.
Hangman's Knot was made a few years before the famous collaboration between director Budd Boetticher and Scott ("Seven Men from Now," "The Tall T," "Ride Lonesome," "Comanche Station," etc.: they are all good), but Hangman's Knot is very well-crafted. It certainly packs a lot of action in its 81 minutes. There is one brief scene that involves a hangman's knot, but perhaps it is a metaphor for the potential fate of Stewart's Confederate squad. Dynamite is used although Nobel did not patent it until 1867. Square-jawed Randolph Scott, both tough and gentlemanly, is the second greatest western star of the silver screen (after the Duke, John Wayne, of course). Tom Mix and William S. Hart were of the bygone silent age. Donna Reed is appealing as usual although her role is not too demanding (catch her performance in another fine western, "Backlash," 1956). She picked up an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in 1953 in "From Here to Eternity." Hangman's Knot is a good-quality western shot in glorious Technicolor with high entertainment value.
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