The Rumour Round
Having arrived in a new mining community, Dr. Joseph Frail (Gary Cooper) sets up business and blackmails Rune (Ben Piazza), a young man who he treats when he is shot for stealing gold out of a minor's sluice box. It soon becomes clear that many know of Frail and his past with the doctor showing his violent side when he confronts local preacher George Grubb (George C. Scott) who proclaims the doc as evil and then again when he ends up flooring a man who mentions that he burned down a house. Soon whispers lead to suspicion especially when a stagecoach is robbed and the only survivor, Elizabeth (Maria Schell), ends up not only being treated by the doctor but ending up in a romance with him.
I watched "The Hanging Tree" for the first time around 2010 and have watched it a couple of times since. Strangely I don't think that "The Hanging Tree" is a great western or at least not a great western for those just looking for western entertainment. There is drama, violence, romance, mystery and some beautiful scenic shots with director Delmer Daves using the backdrop of wooded mountains magnificently to give a sense of scale. It is a solid western which is enjoyable for those who enjoy the genre.
And much of what makes "The Hanging Tree" work is Gary Cooper as he owns every scene he is in, bringing to life the character of Dr. Joseph Frail so that we quickly understand he is not as he seems. Right from the word go he seems to be a man looking to escape, to go where the law doesn't go and whilst he will treat those in need he always seems to have some sort of hidden agenda for his actions, from being kind to a man whose child is sick to blackmailing the young man who he removed a bullet from. And then thanks to the way Cooper is cold to others we suddenly get to see he has a short temper and a violent streak.
But whilst I wasn't even born in 1959 when "The Hanging Tree" came out I bet those who watched it back then were quick to see the sub context and put it into context of those involved in the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Hollywood Blacklist. As such we have this man dealing with the whispers of speculation over to who he really is and what he has done until it builds up to a point where not only he had had enough but others are ready to lynch him because of the rumours.
What this all boils down to is that "The Hanging Tree" is an entertaining western with a good look, some nice depth and some good performances with George C. Scott making an impression with his big screen debut. But I have a feeling that this is a western which had a greater impact when it was released due to its symbolism.