Not so Super Cooper for Clint
Having headed across to Spain and Italy to do the immensely impressive Sergio Leone trilogy of westerns, Clint Eastwood was back in Hollywood and back in a western again with "Hang 'Em High". Well "Hang 'Em High" is no "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly", it's more traditional and mainstream covering the obvious western storyline of revenge and to be frank little else. But although a Hollywood movie, directed by Ted Post whose previous work was mainly on TV the influence of Sergio Leone crept in with a sense of brutality, although a slightly restrained sense of brutality at that.
Whilst herding cattle, ex law man Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood - Gran Torino) is lynched by a gang who accuse him of cattle rustling and murder, his punishment is being beaten and hung from a tree to die. Fortunately Cooper is rescued by a passing Marshall and takes him back to Fort Grant with his prisoners where his storyline and credentials check out. Having recovered from his injuries, Jed has only one thing on mind and that is tracking down his lynch mob and exacting revenge, but the only way he can do it is to once more become a lawman, working for Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle) who takes great pleasure in hanging many of those brought in front of him for trial.
As storylines go "Hang 'Em High" is very straight forwards, very traditional with it's tale of revenge and as such the outcome is for the most predictable. The only real twist is that having once more become a law man Cooper feels obliged to do things by the book, bringing his victims in for trial rather than just tracking them down and murdering them. But at the same time you also get a sense that he is almost repulsed by the way that Judge Fenton goes about his business, showing little respect for those brought in for sentencing and his love of public hangings.
In fact the love of public hangings makes for one of the best scenes in the entire movie, with the big showpiece hanging which comes about half way through. Despite a lot of the movie showing evidence of Ted Post's directorial inexperience when it comes to movies the showpiece hanging scene is for want of a better word beautifully crafted. You get the various emotions of those hanging; the sense of pride, the fear, the desperate pleas of innocence all the time the hangman coldly goes about his work making sure the ropes are just right. And then there is the public, the whole town turning out to watch whilst lead in a couple of hymns by the towns Reverend, making it almost feel perverse that the hangings would have a religious undertone whilst those watching are there for the pure thrill of watching people die.
Aside from that one scene "Hang 'Em High" does show signs of Sergio Leone's influence on westerns with a little more in your face brutality. The early lynching which culminates with Cooper hanging from the tree is more visual that previously shown in westerns, although there is still some restraint to it never reaching the violent intensity which Leone happily delivered. But compared to earlier westerns "Hang 'Em High" certainly does feel like a step forward, delivering a little more grittiness than those made prior to the likes of "For a Few Dollars More".
As for Clint Eastwood, well in the same way that you could say John Wayne played John Wayne in his westerns, Clint Eastwood is playing Clint Eastwood, cool, calm, slightly mysterious and with an edge of danger. What is good is that Eastwood manages to deliver that sense of repulsion which Cooper feels towards the public hangings, so you know he disagrees but he doesn't make it in your face obvious.
Aside from Clint Eastwood well "Hang 'Em High" is a traditional western and as such there are a few traditional faces cropping up such as Inger Stevens as Rachel Warren, Ed Begley as Captain Wilson and Ben Johnson as Marshal Dave Bliss all of which do solid work in there stereotypical roles. Add to this Pat Hingle who does a great job of being unpleasant with out being camp as Judge Fenton. And in the background, in minor but solid roles are Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper, who in about the 2 minutes of screen time makes for a very memorable character, the deranged Prophet.
What this all boils down to is that on one hand "Hang 'Em High" is a good western, a slight improvement on the traditional westerns which Hollywood had been producing prior to this. It has some good performances, some nice camera work and a greater sense of brutality than you may expect. But when compared to any of Sergio Leone's 3 westerns which Clint Eastwood made prior to this and it feels inferior, too mainstream and almost safe it's tale of revenge.