After the huge success of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, Clint Eastwood returned to the US and quickly made an American western, Hang 'Em High, that bears quite a resemblance to the basic style of the spaghetti westerns. I've avoided watching Hang 'Em High for years for a couple reasons, I always figured it could never live up to the Dollars movies, and reviews were always mixed. While I enjoyed the movie, my worries were pretty dead on. It was an average western that would not be remembered if Eastwood wasn't starring.
Eastwood is Jed Cooper, a small rancher who has recently bought 100 head of cattle. As he's driving the herd home, Cooper is stopped by a nine-man posse who say he stole the cattle and murdered the rancher even though he's got a bill of sale. They string Cooper up and leave without making sure he's dead. A marshal happens to be riding by and cuts the man down before he dies. After his innocence is proved, Cooper takes a job as a marshal in the Oklahoma territory and starts to hunt the men down one-by-one.
Very much influenced by spaghetti westerns, this movie just doesn't live up to what it could have been. Looking at the cast, I was blown away by all the names, but I guess I should have learned by now. Big cast full of big names: characters aren't developed much at all. Ed Begley plays Capt. Wilson, the leader of the posse who is terrified of Cooper's revenge, but he basically disappears for huge chunks of the movie. Inger Stevens is the obligatory love interest, a woman with a past who's also looking for revenge. Stevens is gorgeous, but her part is as bland as they come.
The rest of the posse is similarly underwhelming despite some big names including L.Q. Jones, Bruce Dern, Alan Hale JR, and Bob Steele. These parts could have been great, add Strother Martin, Dub Taylor, and Warren Oates and you've got a perfect posse.
Three parts, along with Eastwood, stand out. Pat Hingle, always a good slimy villain, is an ideal counterpart to Cooper as Judge Fenton, a power-hungry official who wants statehood for the territory no matter what he has to do. He becomes so obsessed with justice you're not sure if his mind is all there. Ben Johnson, a real-life cowboy, makes a brief appearace as Dave Bliss, the marshal that rescues Cooper. Just by being in the movie, Johnson gives it credibility. Gravelly-voiced Charles McGraw plays Sheriff Ray Calhoun, a peace officer who may be working both sides.
But that's just three supporting roles, Dennis Hopper makes a bizarre one-scene cameo as the Prophet, a crazed, bearded prisoner, and James MacArthur shows up to lead a crowd in prayer at a hanging as the Preacher. It's just all too weird. The movie tries too hard to be a great western. The music is overdone and loud, although some good parts sound like Morricone's soundtracks, but it takes away from the movie overall.
The DVD is cheap with a somewhat grainy widescreen presentation and a trailer I've included the link for that's pretty revealing. Don't watch it if you haven't seen the movie. Overall, I was disappointed with this 1968 western, but there's enough to recommend, especially Eastwood, Hingle, and Ben Johnson.
Hang 'Em High (1968): **/****