With the successful American release of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, the time was right for Clint Eastwood to re-emerge on the domestic movie front with this western tale of vigilantism/revenge, which more than any other work up to this point in the actor’s career would set the template for his cinema persona for years to come. While it is true that the Leone films established Eastwood as the lone-wolf western version of the ronin of chanbara movies, with “Hang ’em High” many of the characteristics which would define decades of Eastwood portrayals- both western and modern dress -would be cemented, in particular his recurring role as character of Police Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, which not unlike Eastwood’s role of Marshal Jedediah Cooper walks the fine line between defender of the law and vigilante, though in the case of “Hang ’em High” the instigation of Cooper’s zeal is entirely personal: he is mistakenly lynched as a murderer and cattle rustler in the opening minutes of the film, and once retaining a new appointment as a Marshal of the Oklahoma territory (he is a former lawman as well), he spends the majority of the movie in pursuit of the nine men who wronged him. Unlike the later Harry Callahan films, there is an effective authoritarian voice- who keeps Cooper’s actions from spilling into anarchic vengeance at the drop of a hat -in Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle), whose judicial power oversees the entirety of the Oklahoma territory, or as the Judge describes it: “a happy hunting ground filled with bushwhackers, horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, counterfeiters, hide peelers, marauders- they’d kill you for a hat band.” It is the continuous tug of war between Cooper’s primitive impulse toward revenge (regardless of the trappings of legal pursuit) and Fenton’s idealized goal of a metamorphosis from badlands to civilization (the granting of statehood, in this context) which informs “Hang ’em High” with a latent sense of extended consequence which penetrates every character and major action in the film. Within the context of Fenton’s running discussions (arguments would be too inexact a description as the scenes between the Marshal and the Judge are surprisingly intelligent and contain an openly philosophic density uncommon in the average western), the heart of the film is revealed to be a drama of civilized people damaged in some way by the corrosive effect of the inhospitable environment in which they dwell.
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