Friday, November 18, 2005

HANG ‘EM HIGH (1968) - Ted Post

Sorry. Not to be unpatriotic but…Americans just can’t do spaghetti like the Italians. Hang ‘Em High, Clint Eastwood’s first movie back in the states after the Dollars trilogy, is celluloid proof of this, a big studio attempt to cash in on the operatic Leone style but with a lackluster American TV director at the helm. Sadly, it’s egg noodles and ketchup next to Leone’s meaty, garlic-drenched, robust pomodoro style.
The premise is promising. Eastwood plays a man with a name this time, Jed Cooper, who unknowingly buys a herd of cattle off a man who just slaughtered a family and took possession of their livestock. A posse then tracks Eastwood down mistaking him for the murderer and decides to hang ‘em without trial. The noose is quickly tied and Eastwood does swing, but only for a few seconds before the posse rides away and Ben Johnson rides up to his rescue and pulls him down. I guess the noose was a little too loose…and the posse’s quick ride-away a little too convenient. But that’s only the first problem.

The second comes when Eastwood is taken into town with a group of other prisoners to be given a “fair trial.” The judge (played by the great Pat Hingle) decides Eastwood has been unfairly convicted and allows him to walk even though he knows Eastwood will be looking for revenge on the posse that tried to kill him. This could have set up a great tension between the two, the judge knowing that he will eventually have to take Eastwood out too. But what does the judge do? He goes and gives Eastwood a badge…he deputizes him! Allowing him to take his revenge lawfully! Would you like any more water for those limp egg noodles?

Therein lies the problem. Hollywood does not know how to do anti-heroes, which is what the Man With No Name Trilogy was all about. Hang ‘Em High makes a half-hearted attempt at giving Eastwood some grey area, but then sabotages the effort by giving him a badge. They might as well have just castrated him right there.

There are still some pleasures to be had in the scenery and the supporting cast, with everyone from Dennis Hopper to Bruce Dern to L.Q. Jones to Alan Hale Jr. (the Skipper!). But just when the movie gets your taste buds going, there’s the faux Morricone-light score, the cramped TV-land framing, and the last minute attempt at a love story between Eastwood and Inger Stevens to remind us that, cinematically speaking, we’re not eating at a fine Italian restaurant…but at the Olive Garden instead.

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