Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Hangman (1959)

The Hangman is a slightly odd but interesting 1959 Michael Curtiz-directed western starring Robert Taylor.

Taylor plays U.S. Deputy Marshal Mackenzie Bovard who finds that bringing in a wanted man presents a few problems. For starters Bovard has no idea what the fugitive, an ex-cavalryman named Butterfield, looks like. It’s also a certainty that Butterfield will have changed his name.

There is one person who could identify Butterfield. That person is Selah Jennison (Tina Louise). She’s a pretty young widow eking out a miserable existence working in a laundry. She and Butterfield had been sweethearts but he married another girl. Bovard is confident that the $500 reward will be sufficient to persuade Selah to turn Butterfield in.

Bovard is cynical, hardbitten, ruthless and unsentimental. He has no love for the human race. He believes that everyone can be bought. You just have to offer them the right price. Bovard himself is scrupulously honest. His cynical view of human nature is so extreme that it may have distorted his view of reality. As a lawman Bovard has gained such a reputation for remorseless efficiency that he has gained the nickname The Hangman.

Bovard has a lead. He believes he knows where Butterfield is. It’s a peaceful small town. Bovard soon picks out a likely suspect, a teamster named Johnny Bishop (Jack Lord). Everyone in the town is aghast at the idea that anyone could suspect the popular Johnny Bishop of being a desperate criminal involved in a stage coach robbery that ended in several murders.

The sheriff, Buck (Fess Parker), is an easy-going kind of guy and he also refuses to believe that Johnny Bishop could be a criminal.

Bovard however is convinced that he has his man and he’s convinced that Selah can identify him. His only doubt is whether Selah will go through with it.

There is some action but this is far from being a blood-drenched western. The emphasis is on the characters, not the action. Principally the emphasis is on Bovard and Selah. And there are all sorts of complex emotional undercurrents involving the four main characters.

Bovard is honest but the job has made him hard and cynical. He’s forgotten how to trust people. The job has become an obsession. He grows steadily more obsessed with a touch of paranoia thrown in. He thinks everybody in the town is conspiring against him to stop him from bringing a guilty man to justice. He’s also bitter towards Selah but in a complicated way. First he despises her for agreeing to help him find Butterfield, because it makes her like everyone else he has ever encountered - willing to betray an old friend for money. Then he gets angry at her when he thinks she won’t help him. His conflicted feelings about Selah reflect his conflicted feelings about himself. Maybe she’s right. Maybe he’s become just as bad as the bad men he hunts.

This is the kind of complicated conflicted rôle that Robert Taylor did so well in the 50s, when he shed his lightweight matinee idol image and started taking on much darker rôles. Not necessarily villains. He came to specialise in worldweary morally compromised characters and brought a great deal of depth to such parts. Taylor has never achieved quite the recognition he deserves.

I must confess that when I hear the name Tina Louise I immediately think of Gilligan’s Island. Her character here is a million miles away from movie star Ginger. In her own way Selah Jennison is just as worldweary and cynical as Bovard. She doesn’t want to be an informer but she needs the five hundred dollars. She hates herself for being tempted by the money, and Bovard despises her for betraying her ex-lover for money. In her own way she’s as conflicted as Bovard. Tina Louise does a pretty impressive job in a demanding part.

There’s no real good vs evil theme in this movie. There are just people who have landed themselves in difficult situations and they’re struggling to figure out what they should do.

This is a very low-key western. There are no spectacular action sequences, no sweeping western panoramas, no epic feel. And, unusually for 1959, it was shot in black-and-white. It feels like a B-movie in some ways but that works to its advantage. The viewer is not distracted by spectacle and has to focus on the intimate psychological dramas. With an intelligent script by Dudley Nichols and fine performances by Robert Taylor and Tina Louise it’s an intriguing movie that deserves more attention. The ending breaks many of the rules of the genre but while it won’t please everybody I thought it worked. The Hangman is highly recommended.

The Olive Films DVD release looks just fine.


  1. It is years since I saw this and I remember liking it quite a lot then. I've been meaning to revisit it and this has given a much needed nudge to my memory.

    1. This is another movie I discovered through your blog. So far all the movies I've been led to you by your blog have been very much worth seeing.