Feb 15, 2018

On Blu-ray: Gary Cooper, Maria Schell and Karl Malden in The Hanging Tree (1959)

As Gary Cooper neared the end of his career he appeared tired, ill, and not quite himself due to a facelift that might not have turned out the way he’d hoped. While he no longer had the bashful, baby-giraffe-lashed sex appeal of his youth though, he was still magnetic. He aroused different emotions, but they were no less intense. It is this Cooper that you see in his final western, The Hanging Tree (1959), which has now made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

While Cooper spent much of career in a cowboy hat, it was as a rider of the plains, not as a doctor lancing a carbuncle on Karl Malden’s behind. That’s just what he does here as Dr. Joseph Frail, a medical man with a dark past who sets up shop in a Montana gold camp.

The mysterious Frail has lives by a varied moral code, frequently giving in to his anger, but protective in his own way of those who are vulnerable. When he takes a sluice thief on the run Rune (Ben Piazza) into indentured servitude, it seems a foul move, until you realize the boy would probably die without the protection and productive life Frail offers him. His protection of stagecoach hold-up victim Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) is less complicated; she arouses his sense of chivalry, and while a romance must inevitably develop between the star and leading lady, his paternal impulses as well.

With her wet, icy blue eyes and soulful demeanor, Schell is out of place in the Wild West. She also seems a better match for Rune, who matches her energy and naivety. While the pair bond over their determined and businesslike pursuit of gold, they are both beholden to Frail, to whom they are aware they owe their survival.

In a complicated role that inspires a mix of amusement and revulsion, Karl Malden injects much-needed energy as a miner who is capable of decency, but imprisoned by his desires. George C. Scott is also a stand-out, in his debut role, as a fiery preacher who is Frail’s nemesis.

The film is ultimately an intriguing oddity. It doesn’t quite gel, but its disparate elements entertain in their own way. It is a decent farewell to cowboy Cooper.

The disc includes a trailer for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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