Character study of a Doctor who saves a local criminal from a mob who are trying to hang him, but then tries to control the life of the young man, realising that he can exploit his secret. Written by
David Gibson <email@example.com>
Unless one wants to count They Came To Cordura as a western which also came out in 1959, The Hanging Tree was Gary Cooper's farewell to the western genre which he did so much to popularize. Although in his career Cooper played a variety of roles, he is probably most identified with the western. Certainly that second Oscar for High Noon cemented that identity.
Cooper is a doctor/gunfighter/gambler, a rather interesting combination of professions. But he needs all of them to survive in the gold mining camp where he's set up practice. It's a temporary home for the camp is a temporary town. Unless a mother lode is found, when the stream is panned out, the miners move on.
The miners are an interesting lot, the usual men with needs, the usual women who satisfy them for a price and some married folk with some puritan like wives. Oh, and there's a crazy religious fanatic walking around played by George C. Scott.
Cooper gets a pair of interesting patients who he takes more than a proprietary interest in. One is a young man who was shot robbing a sluice box played by Ben Piazza. Cooper patches him up and will not reveal who he is to the camp if he acts as servant to him. If The Hanging Tree had been made a decade later, one of those services no doubt would have been sex.
The threat is real for Piazza, with no law of any kind, the miners make their own law and enforce it with liberal use of an old gnarled oak called The Hanging Tree. One apparently is mandatory these camps. These guys aren't the Paint Your Wagon type miners.
Karl Malden does an excellent job playing one of those miners with some real needs. And he thinks he's got it made when he finds a sunburned and blind Maria Schell who survived a stagecoach holdup that killed her father. But she likes the strange and brooding doctor who saves her. She can't get close to Cooper however because of some things in his past.
The Hanging Tree was the first time that George C. Scott and Karl Malden worked together. Eleven years later they would team up for Scott's career role in the title role of Patton. Both Scott and Ben Piazza made their American film debuts in The Hanging Tree.
Karl Swenson and Virginia Gregg run the local mercantile. Swenson is one of the few in the town who befriends Cooper, but Gregg is the self appointed leader of the town morals committee. If Maria Schell wants to live in sin with Cooper, she ought to be with the other working girls at the saloon.
The Hanging Tree is photographed beautifully on location in Washington State serving as gold rush Montana of the 1870s. And the title song, sung by Marty Robbins was Oscar nominated for Best Song, but lost to High Hopes that year. Robbins had a hit record out of it as did Frankie Laine.
Delmar Daves, a most underrated director, does a fine job with his cast and story. This is a must for Gary Cooper fans.
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