Gold Fever

THE HANGING TREE is a fairly late Gary Cooper movie with “the Montana mule” atypically cast as a doctor treating a gold rush community (a ghost-town-in-waiting) and haunted by a dark secret. His past may not be as shady as in the startling MAN OF THE WEST, but it’s a more convincing fit for the man we see before us — the movie keeps it deniably ambiguous, but it’s pretty clear the Doc murdered his cheating wife and her lover before moving out to the badlands to gamble by night and heal the sick by day.

Since Gary is by now a touch long in the tooth (he’d just had a facelift but still looks rumpled), there’s a young sidekick in toe, a failed thief Coop saves from justice and blackmails into being his indentured servant. Ben Piazza (?) is excellent in this role, and I don’t know why he didn’t get bigger follow-up roles. Maybe because, when Hollywood paired its aging stars with young up-and-comers, the young u.a.c.’s always had to play callow, dopey characters, which isn’t good star-building experience. (The line “It’s nice to meet a SMART kid,” in RIO BRAVO seems to me to be a comment on this tendency.)

Anyhow, Maria Schell, Karl Malden and a debuting George C. Scott are also on hand, playing what you might expect, and Daves shoots the hell out of the thing. I first noticed his almost excessive zeal for getting the most cinematic value out of every scene in 3.10 TO YUMA. I use “cinematic” in its dumbest sense, I suppose: landscape spectacle, crane and tracking shots, looming close-ups, lots of coverage (but smart, impactful coverage, nothing wasteful or sloppy). So the movie is a feast for the eyes: Ted D. McCord shot it, and the compositions are frequently stunning. So although the plot development is mainly predictable, the few genre variations (by way of original author Dorothy M. Johnson, also the source of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE) and the visual splendour kept me riveted, even though one would think some of the cast would be able to predict oncoming plot developments, what with Max Steiner signalling furiously to them with his baton.

 

TERRIBLE song at the start and finish does quite a bit of damage to an intriguing outcome.

Featuring Beau Geste; Helena Friese-Greene; Sheriff Dad Longworth; General Jack D. Ripper; Drunken doomsayer in diner; Morgan Ryker; Jack Belicec; and Darryl F. Zanuck.

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2 Responses to “Gold Fever”

  1. revelator60 Says:

    I’m very fond of this film, which exemplifies many of the best qualities of the 50s Western. As you note, Cooper convincingly portrays a character with a dark past (and gives a correspondingly prickly performance) and Daves’s direction is pleasingly “cinematic.” In his hands this quality enhances the story instead of providing ornamental flash. The last shot is hard to forget, despite the silly song. I suspect the film is a popular sleeper–the Warner Archive released on DVD and then rereleased it on Blu-Ray.

    On the topic of intelligent, gorgeous-looking 50s Westerns, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on The Bravados (1958), directed by Henry King.

  2. I’ll watch out for it!

    More Daves soon, hopefully. He really brings more than production values to everything he does.

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