The Hangman

the_hangman_posterGrowing up, I wasn’t always a fan of Robert Taylor movies. As I look
back now, I figure it’s because I just didn’t see many of his movies.
I was too busy with John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood
flicks. I’ve caught up though in the years since and have definitely
come to appreciate Taylor, especially in his western and war movies.
He gives an interesting turn in a flawed 1959 western, The Hangman.

After several years and hundreds of miles on the trail, Marshal
Mackenzie Bovard (Taylor) has put all but one member of a gang behind
bars from a notorious stagecoach robbery. His last man? Johnny
Butterfield, a former cavalry trooper who Bovard can’t identify. How
do you arrest a man you’re not sure what he looks like? His leads have
led him to an isolated town when he finds out a woman, Selah Jennison
(Tina Louise), who worked at the outpost Butterfield served at, may
know what Butterfield looks like. Offering her a large reward and
telling her where to meet, Bovard heads off looking to close the book
on the case and retire as a successful peace officer and move to
California.

This western from director Michael Curtiz aired recently on Encore
Westerns. I’d never heard of it – much less seen it – so I gave it a
shot. Filmed in black and white, ‘Hangman’ doesn’t have much in the
way of action (there’s basically NO action), and the majority of the
story is set in a town. In several ways, it reminded me of an extended
TV western, a la Bonanza, Gunsmoke or The Rifleman meets The Twilight
Zone. It surely is not a traditional western which isn’t a
deal-breaker in itself. The deal-breaker? Slow pacing, kinda dull and
an odd tone at times.

What drew me in here was the casting. Taylor, Louise, Fess Parker and
Jack Lord headline the cast. How’s that for an eclectic quartet?
Taylor gets the archetypal western peace officer, looking to retire
and close out his career by getting the stagecoach rivalry off the
books. Louise proves what a great actress she was, even though she’s
remembered almost solely for playing Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.
Parker is solid too as amiable Sheriff Buck Weston, potentially
hurting and helping Bovard’s case. Lord plays Johnny Bishop, a mule driver who Bovard believes is the man he’s looking for.

It’s four main characters that never quite click because of that too
slow-moving story. The potential is there, and I especially liked the
build-up over the first 30 minutes. The last hour though drags once
Bovard arrives in town. Then we get a kinda cat-and-mouse game that
feels repetitive at best and downright dull at its worst. Then there’s
the shifts in tone to comedy – an older woman in town constantly
pursues Taylor’s Bovard – and an ending that (to me at least) feels
like a romantic comedy that could have starred Rock Hudson and Doris
Day. By the time ‘The End” popped up on-screen I was both extremely
pleased and extremely confused. So be it.

Also look for Gene Evans, Mickey Shaughnessy, Jose Gonzales-Gonzales,
and Lorne Green. Fans of The Andy Griffith Show should watch out for
Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn) as a waitress who serves Bovard and Weston.

Not an awful western, but one I didn’t enjoy that much. The biggest
thing going for the proceedings is Tina Louise, a strong female
character, something all too rare in the western genre. A budding sex
symbol, ‘Hangman’ has its fair share of Louise in low-cut, no-cut,
swimming shots to play up the sex kitten status – never a bad thing,
have you seen her?!? – but the character itself is a welcome addition
to the story, even if things fall apart in the end.

The Hangman (1959): **/****

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