Clint Eastwood returned to America after his amazing success in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy as a star to be reckoned with, forming his own production company (Malpaso) and filming HANG ‘EM HIGH, a Spaghetti-flavored Western in theme and construction. Clint was taking no chances here, surrounding himself with an all-star cast of character actors and a director he trusted, and the result was box office gold, cementing his status as a top star.
Clint plays ex-lawman Jed Cooper, who we meet driving a herd of cattle he just purchased (reminding us of his days on TV’s RAWHIDE). A posse of nine men ride up on him and accuse him of rustling and murder, appointing themselves judge, jury, and executioner, and hang him. He’s left for dead, until Marshal Dave Bliss comes along and cuts him down, taking Jed prisoner and transporting him to nearby Ft. Grant. Evidence is brought before Judge Fenton, who clears him and offers Jed a proposition – work for him as a U.S. Marshal in the vast, untamed Oklahoma Territory, and legally bring his attempted killers to justice while helping Fenton clean up the territory. Jed accepts, and our revenge tale begins in earnest…
This sets up a series of vignettes that try to capture that Spaghetti flavor. Director Ted Post, who guided Clint through 24 episodes of RAWHIDE, was a competent craftsman who unfortunately lacked the visual flair of a Leone or a Corbucci, though he does give it a game try. The closest he comes is the scene where Clint crosses the desert plain with would-be killer Bruce Dern (at his crazy best). Some of the camera angles and close-ups remind one of Leone, but Post just wasn’t up to the task. He would direct Eastwood again in MAGNUM FORCE, and among his other features are BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, the cult horror film THE BABY, and the Chuck Norris vehicle GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK. Post’s episodic TV credits include GUNSMOKE, WAGON TRAIN, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and 179 episodes of the prime-time soap PEYTON PLACE.
That all-star cast I mentioned is headed by Pat Hingle as Judge Fenton, the only law in lawless Oklahoma Territory, representing the establishment. Fenton is a politician through and through, and is constantly at odds with Jed, who’s not too happy about being a pawn to get his justice served. Ed Begley is Captain Wilson, upstanding citizen and leader of the lynch mob that tried to hang Jed. Western veteran Bob Steele plays one of the lynchers who turns himself in; his scene with Eastwood in prison is a symbolic passing of the cowboy torch. Other stars appear briefly: Bert Freed, Jonathan Goldsmith (the original “Dos Equis” guy!), Arlene Golonka , Roy Glenn, Alan Hale Jr. , Dennis Hopper (as a madman called The Prophet), Ben Johnson (Marshal Bliss), Charles McGraw , Joseph Sirola, Russell Thorson, and Ruth White. A special shoutout goes to stage actor Michael O’Sullivan as the condemned alcoholic murderer Duffy.
Inger Stevens plays Rachel Warren, who is granted permission to observe all prisoners brought in to try to identify the men who raped her and killed her husband. Like Jed Cooper, Rachel is a damaged soul, and the two are destined to get together. Stevens, too, was a damaged soul; a Swedish immigrant whose mother abandoned the family, she ran away at age 16 and hooked up with the Midwest burlesque circuit. By 18, Inger was working as a chorus girl in New York, and began learning at the Actors’ Studio under Lee Strasberg. She gained notice in 1957’s MAN ON FIRE opposite Bing Crosby, and won a Golden Globe for her role in the TV sitcom version of THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER (1963-66), co-starring William Windom. Her other films include THE BUCCANEER, THE WORLD THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL, MADIGAN, and FIVE CARD STUD. Stevens was secretly married to black actor Ike Jones in 1961, a move that would’ve been career suicide in those pre-Civil Rights days. In 1970, she was found on the floor of her Hollywood home, overdosed on barbiturates. Inger Stevens was just 35 years old at the time of her death.
HANG ‘EM HIGH was just the beginning for Clint Eastwood. He has gone on to become one of our greatest filmmakers, a true renaissance man of movies: acting, directing, producing, even writing some of his own music scores. And the Spaghetti Western genre he helped usher in would make its mark on Hollywood Westerns for years to come.