The Hanging Tree (1959) Blu-ray Review: Hangin' with Mr. Cooper

The Warner Archive Collection knots it up with this captivating western starring Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, and first-timer George C. Scott.
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Several years before a more somber wave of performers rode into town, Gary Cooper was ‒ as he had done so eloquently before ‒ pioneering a unique protagonist who would fit right at home in a '70s revisionist western. In Delmer Daves' The Hanging Tree, released two years before one of the genre's quintessential heroes passed away, we witness the stalwart High Noon icon delivering his final lead performance in a cowboy picture. This time, however, Cooper does not play a man haunted by what he must do. Rather, he's tormented over what he has done.

Set in the tiny makeshift mining town of Skull Creek, Montana ‒ the likes of which popped up all over during the Gold Rush ‒ the story opens with a would-be thief named Rune (Ben Piazza) being caught in the act of stealing a little of that ol' valuable ore from a sluice belonging to local gold digger Frenchy (Karl Malden, The Cat O' Nine Tails). Pursued throughout the barely-civilized, lawless community by an angry mob of murderous (I guess you could call is "sluicide"?), Rune finds a (relatively) safe place to hide in the hands of an enigmatic doctor named Joseph Frail (Cooper), who agrees to conceal his crime under the condition Rune becomes Doc Frail's unquestionably loyal servant.

Were that not already far from the norm of a pre-Spaghetti Western, The Hanging Tree raises the bar ‒ or perhaps the rope, as it were ‒ that much further by adding in a female force to be reckoned with in the form of co-star Maria Schell. Cast as a Swiss immigrant who is badly burned and temporarily blinded following a stagecoach holdup which leaves her aloof under the blazing sun for several days, Schell's Elizabeth Mahler becomes the unwitting main attraction on the scene once Frail begins to treat her. The miners become resentful of his newfound "guest"; and pent-up sexual frustrations only worsen when a busybody (Virginia Gregg) starts up the proverbial small-town gossip about the pair.

Alas, Frail is no ordinary country doctor, as his insinuated past reveals to those who pay attention to Cooper's subtle, sometimes violent, and almost always manipulative changes in his character which should be simultaneously respected and feared. But fear is no match for the affection Elizabeth starts to feel for the seemingly benevolent doctor; feelings the mysterious physician refuses to return when things become too obvious. Further tensions mount as a drunken faith healer in town named Dr. Grubb ‒ played to the hilt by the one and only George C. Scott, making a grandiose film debut here ‒ who is determined to unmask Frail as a big fat phony he wants everyone to think he is.

A powerful drama marred only slightly by Marty Robbins' silly theme song, The Hanging Tree was unavailable for decades due to various rights issues, making a way-overdue debut to the world of home video via the Warner Archive Collection in 2012. But whereas that release was culled from an acceptable Standard Definition master, the WAC has gone back to the film's original camera negative for this Blu-ray incarnation. Scanned in 4K and meticulously restored for this release, the matted 1.78:1 MPEG-4 AVC 1080p presentation is nothing short of incredible, and captures the beauty of Yakima, Washington's Oak Creek Wildlife Area, where the film was shot on location by cinematographer Ted McCord (The Sound of Music).

The accompanying DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono soundtrack (including a score by the one and only Max Steiner) for this Warner Archive release is equally impressive, which has also been lovingly restored for this presentation from the original magnetic master. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are included, and the only special feature to be found here is the film's original theatrical trailer ‒ the sort where the stars of the movie break character to address the audience, presumably to promote the project on a more personal level ‒ which is presented in High-Definition. Even though the lack of any meaty bonus materials may be considered a Hanging offense by some, rest assured there's still plenty of gold to be found in the movie itself.

Highly Recommended. Even with that Marty Robbins song.

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