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January 19, 2007
Hang 'Em High

No, this isn't another post about Saddam Hussein. Last night, I decided to relax and watch an old movie that happened to be on at just the right time, Clint Eastwood's Hang 'Em High. This was Eastwood's first film at his Malpaso production company, an attempt to create an American "spaghetti western" of the kind that Sergio Leone had made so successfully. While it's easy to dismiss Eastwood's early career in Westerns as cartoonish and overly stylized, Hang 'Em High deserves more consideration as an early Eastwood masterpiece.

It starts off as a simple vengeance story. Eastwood, as Jed Cooper, gets lynched by mistake when a party of vigilantes mistakes him for a criminal. After being rescued, he is determined to find the men responsible for his near hanging and becomes a lawman to do it legally. However, he wants them brought to justice, which means the court of Judge Fenton, whose enthusiasm for his job leads him to create spectacles out of executions and railroad people into death sentences.

It's a remarkably nuanced movie, where all of the characters get fleshed out to more than just single-dimension caricatures. Even the supposed bad guys get some sympathy for their fate, and while you want to hate Judge Fenton at times (played well by Pat Hingle), his dialogue with Cooper at the end makes his challenges more understandable, and show that he is trapped by his position to some extent. It serves as neither an endorsement nor a protest to capital punishment, at least not explicitly, but it argues against the kind of vigilantism that some of Eastwood's other movies tend to glorify.

If nothing else, viewers should watch it for the memorable score by Dominic Frontiere and the performances of a talented cast, including the doomed Inger Stevens. Even if Eastwood isn't your cup of tea -- and I'm not a great fan of his spaghetti westerns -- Hang 'Em High deserves special consideration. Paired with Unforgiven, it shows that Eastwood has always had a much more subtle approach to moviemaking when allowed creative freedom.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 19, 2007 4:55 AM

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