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With: Robert Taylor, Tina Louise, Fess Parker, Jack Lord, Shirley Harmer, Mickey Shaughnessy, Gene Evans, Mabel Albertson, Lucille Curtis, James Westerfield
Written by: Dudley Nichols, based on a story by Luke Short
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 87
Date: 03/05/1959

The Hangman (1959)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Marshal Matters

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Every so often, someone tries to make a case for Michael Curtiz as one of the great directors. He was a superb craftsman, no doubt, as is evidenced by his expert work on such disparate movies as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945), among others. But at the same time, he was comfortable, working for Warner Bros. for most of his life, and never exhibited much of an individual personality in his films.

The Hangman is an interesting case, because it came late in Curtiz's career, and made at a different studio, Paramount. Curtiz had made his fair share of Westerns, perhaps most notably the slick, full-color Dodge City (1939). Comparatively, the black-and-white The Hangman feels rather low-budget, and it results in some inspired moments.

Robert Taylor (Devil's Doorway) stars as U.S. Marshal Mackenzie Bovard (known as "the hangman"), on the trail of a robbery suspect, Johnny Bishop (Jack Lord). The marshal has no description of Bishop, and so he goes to a former girlfriend of Bishop's, Selah Jennison (Tina Louise, of "Gilligan's Island"), offering her $500 to rat out her old flame. The marshal arrives in the small town where Bishop is now residing and confides in the local sheriff, Buck Weston (Fess Parker, of The Jayhawkers). He believes that all humans are basically corrupt and that Selah will show up, even when she said she wouldn't.

Just when the marshal starts to believe that some good might exist in the world, Selah does turn up, and he takes out his disgust on her. Yet, she's not so corrupt, as she pretends that Bishop isn't Bishop and tries to warn her old friend away; this is done purely out of goodness, and not romance, since Bishop is newly married and with a baby on the way.

In one remarkable scene, the marshal buys Selah new clothes -- she works as a clothes washer and can't afford anything nice -- and sends her walking across the street. All the men in town stop dead in their tracks, make comments and wolf whistles, or just simply crash into one another. Tina Louise is certainly beautiful, but Curtiz portrays the scene as uncomfortable for her, as if she's trapped. She takes no pleasure in this attention, and it's powerful stuff.

Likewise, Curtiz plays funny games with interiors in this movie. In many Westerns, the hero wouldn't be caught dead checked into a hotel, but the marshal gets a room for himself and one for Selah. The movie introduces an old busybody who develops a crush on the marshal and tries to sabotage him out of jealousy; it's the interior version of the Old West.

Indeed, Curtiz keeps his Western slightly off-kilter throughout. Some of the typical Western thrills we have come to expect are slightly subverted, up until and including the ending, when Selah must make her choice between the marshal and the adoring sheriff. Yet the black-and-white cinematography, music, and editing are all classically pristine, just like in any other Curtiz production. Dudley Nichols, a sometimes heavy-handed writer best known for his collaborations with John Ford, adapted the screenplay. W.R. Burnett reportedly also worked on the screenplay, without credit.

Not long after, Curtiz made a very good John Wayne Western, The Comancheros, which would make a good double bill with The Hangman. Olive Films has released this rarity from the Paramount vaults on a nice-looking new Blu-ray with no extras. Western fans should not pass it up.
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