Monday, September 3, 2018

From the Rental Vault: The Hangman (1959)

So once upon a time, Ginger Grant, Davy Crockett, Steve McGarrett, Ben Cartwright/Commander Adama and Thelma Lou were all in a movie together, which starred Robert Taylor and was directed by Academy Award nominee Michael Curtiz.

The movie, The Hangman, was billed and marketed as a Western, but it was really more of a character drama than an oater, with no gunfights and only one outing of Ye Olde Fisticuffs to speak of. Taylor plays U.S. Deputy Marshal Mac Bovard, who is out to track down the last man accused of a Wells Fargo holdup that resulted in murder. Bovard has a reputation as dogged and merciless, bringing in the worst criminals to face justice at the end of a rope, so he has gained the nickname "The Hangman." The problem is that he's never seen the man, John Butterfield, and has no way to identify him. When Bovard gets a lead on a town where Butterfield might be, he finds a woman who knew him when he was serving in the Army who can identify him. But Selah Jennison (Tina Louise) owes Butterfield and is reluctant to betray him to the law, even for the $500 reward Bovard offers. She refuses, but he cynically predicts she will come around.

Once at his destination, Bovard becomes suspicious of a man named Johnny Bishop (Jack Lord), but local sheriff Buck Weston (Fess Parker) says he will have a hard time convincing anyone that Johnny Bishop is any kind of criminal. Bovard counts on Selah Jennison to make the identification, but when the days drag on without her arrival he grows frustrated. When she finally does arrive she doesn't identify Bishop as Butterfield, but the suspicious Bovard doesn't trust her.

Taylor is far and away the biggest name in the cast, with his co-stars either best known for TV roles like Parker or Lord, or relative newcomers like Louise. He displays Bovard's bitter cynicism well, blaming it on all of his years of hunting and moving among the worst of humanity. Fess Parker's easygoing manner offsets him well, as his Sheriff Weston seems genial even when expressing frustration at Bovard's obsession and mistrustful nature. Tina Louise was said to have hated the impact her three-year stint as airheaded actress Ginger Grant on Gilligan's Island had on her career. She demonstrates here that she did have a pretty good range, handling the different layers of Selah Jennison's pivotal role with more than a little skill.

Hangman, based on a story by Western writer Luke Short, tends to be a little talky in spots and sometimes tells when it should show, as though Dudley Nichols' screenplay doesn't trust his cast to act instead of read exposition. It swerves Taylor back and forth between the cynicism that he claims to hold and regretful ruminations on that same attitude without as much foundation as it should have built. It suggests a relationship between the 48-year-old Taylor and 25-year-old Louise that makes little sense and has even less foundation. But it's still interesting, and offers some food for thought on what can turn an idealist bitter, and what might also manage to make a bitter person rediscover his or her ideals.

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