Western movies unlike other types of films reflect a more pure form of humanity and a more innocent time in history, despite the guns and violence, making it a genre open to more types of stories perhaps than any other. Perhaps because of its simplicity and the lack or reliability upon nothing more than oneself, that made the western the most popular type of film for decades. Whatever the case, watching a western is like eating comfort food – it feels right and feels like home.
The Hanging Tree starring Gary Cooper is one such western. Cooper is an actor that can pretty much raise the status of any film he appears in. He is one of those actors that other actors look up to due to sheer professionalism and the fact that he can take any part and make it his own, almost like a pre-Daniel Day Lewis. Starring in movie classics like High Noon, one of the greatest westerns ever made and Mister Deeds Goes to Town, you cannot help but have high expectations when going into any film featuring the veteran actor. The Hanging Tree proves itself to be a great western drama worthy of attention.
Cooper as Doctor Frail comes to a small gold-rush town in the hopes of starting life anew. While doing so he saves a young thief named Rune and indentures him into being his manservant. Things are going well until he meets a new patient played by Maria Schell with whom he falls in love but will not permit himself to feel as such and drives her away. She and Rune get in league with Karl Malden’s character and strike it rich with their claim. That of course leads to further problems and a showdown between Malden and Cooper and a run-in with the hangman’s noose.
It is a simple story, a tale of love and greed that most, if not everybody can relate too. Cooper and company gave excellent performances but the show stealer had to be Karl Malden playing the effectively creepy panhandler with an almost obsessive crush upon Elizabeth played by Maria Schell. Malden has played many roles throughout the years and is chameleon-like in his abilities, but one of the things he does best is playing the guy you love to hate. Through and through the film ended up with a great cast doing a really great job.
While there are many westerns one could choose from, The Hanging Tree stands tall as a great example of the genre featuring riveting performances and a tale as old as time that never gets tired in the retelling.
4.5 out of 5