The Hangman (1959)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

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There aren’t any shootouts in The Hangman, and save for a couple of errant gunshots near the end, there might as well be no firearms in the film at all.  The film isn’t exactly contemplative either, as it concerns the practical aims of an out of town bounty hunter of sorts, but the story has more to do with degrees of compassion in a ruthless world than it does with any supposedly thrilling plot device.

Mackenzie Bovard (Robert Taylor) is sent out to find a criminal, Johnny Bishop (Jack Lord), who lives in a small town where he is much adored.  Despite any possible reformations of Bishop’s character, Bovard insists he needs to pay for his crimes.

In this story the ‘bad guy’ is incredibly likeable, and the ‘good guy’ is the hangman who has no time for shades of grey.  His philosophy is that everyone must do what they need to survive, and the capture of Bishop being his job, he has no choice but to bring the man in.

Because Bovard has never seen Bishop in person, he enlists the help of Bishop’s old friend, Selah Jennison (Tina Louise).  She agrees to a $500 payment, helping her out in a time of need, but soon she tries to warn Bishop even if it jeopardizes the money she so desperately needs.

Jennison is there as the exception to Bovard’s rule that “everyone has a price.”  She’s a character with whom he will ride off into the sunset at the film’s conclusion, and she will point to a higher way of living, one beyond just survival.

The Hangman isn’t centered around any kind of chase or shootout like in Stagecoach or The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  There are no large set pieces, and there is a refusal to boil the plot down to simple good versus evil.  The film asks us a question from the start, about the righteousness of Bovard’s enterprise, and as we watch him go along this journey we are meant to wonder if it’s at all worthwhile.

As Bovard, Robert Taylor plays a self-possessed but slightly creepy protagonist.  He seems to be followed by a darkness that the film never explores or intended to portray.  Instead it’s just the complex nuance of a character doing his best John Wayne impression.

There is something about self-confident masculine heroes that is as ingrained in this genre as shootouts and alcoholism.  Bovard is a man who believes so firmly in his way of viewing the world, but he never transcends it.  He can point out the ways people live and then live that way himself.  In that way he’s like a film noir hero with a jaded perspective on life.  By the end he will push through this and adopt a sense of sympathy that would seemingly jeopardize his own life.

Bovard’s journey is similar to that of Rick Blaine’s in Casablanca, another Michael Curtiz-directed film.

Up Next: The Salesman (2016), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Time Machine (1960)

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