The Hanging Tree ★★★★½

Kent Jones writes of Delmer Daves, “[he] is an absolute rarity in cinema, an artist of the good,” and The Hanging Tree might be the best articulation of that, but not because his films are idealistic in the sense of Capra, to name an old adage. Instead, it is because his films are always pragmatic and cynical in their worlds, building existence as it is instead of how it should be, only eventually coming to find a radical transformation of a few characters who find their only personal solace in one another. We know Doc Frail has his cynical and his manipulative side, but when he throws away Ben Piazza’s bullet the day he “tricks” him into working for him, we know this man means to do good in this world.

The Hanging Tree involves itself in the classical promises of the West: monetary, romantic, and that idea of justice, as seen by those who are bred and hardened by the American spine and the outsider (Maria Schell’s astonishing performance) who reads the myths as actual promises. She is literally blinded (a nice inverse to Pride of the Marines), and thus sees only the good in Cooper’s Doc, who wants her to see the reality of the fiery hell she has come to. This is Cooper’s best performance by far: I’ve always felt somewhat ambivalent to his non-acting acting style, a bit too lumbering and over pronounced to the method. Here, Daves dials it just back enough, and gives him a character who is dependent on his illegibility, closely toeing those lines to make him both fascinating as much as he is unknowable. I fell in love with him as much as Schell, and when she makes the greatest sacrifice—her fulfillment of her dreams for the promise of something even less tangible but more transcendent—I can’t lie that I did not have a tear in my eye. This is a happy ending, and possibly a wish fulfillment one, but there are only three people who walk away with their beauty intact, a trademark of many Daves films (Al and his family in Pride, Stewart in Broken Arrow, Ford in 3:10). It is a personal victory, one that sacrifices everything else, that can mean more in this world (cinematic or otherwise) than any other form of desire. I wish they cut that awful song at the end, especially when each shot composition is as meticulously crafted and haunting as the final shots in The Searchers.

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