Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Hang 'Em High" and the lesson about revenge

Title: Hang 'Em High
Released: 1968
Genre: Spaghetti Western Lite
Notable for: Clint's first starring role in U.S.
Clint's subliminal message: There's never a bad time to grab a whore

As proud Americans we are pained to say it but it is true: Clint’s triumphant return to Hollywood was weak compared to his time as an Italian sensation.

“Hang ‘Em High,” the first American film starring Eastwood, is a Western that is Spaghetti Lite. It’s not horrible, by any means. It has impressive casting with early roles by guys like Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern. But, unlike a real spaghetti Western, the only humor thrown in is by bit players whose characters are about to be hung. And we get the impression this movie tries to say something important and we don’t understand what it is.

“That’s the worst ending ever,” Andrew said. “The story is not finished."

No one with a trace of testosterone in his bloodstream ever said any Clint Eastwood movie made by Sergio Leone had a bad ending.

“Hang ‘Em High” starts when a freelance posse mistakes Clint, a former lawman, for a killer and hangs him from a tree.

Clint’s tormentors are incompetent vigilantes. He survives the hanging with just a rope-burn scar on his neck. A roving lawman cuts him down and takes him to jail to sort things out.

When cleared of wrong-doing, Clint is deputized to work for a hanging judge. He takes the job only because it allows him to enjoy revenge by legally hunting down the men who hung him.

All indications suggest the audience is supposed to ponder the nature justice. We did not want to ponder.

Clint, for the first time but definitely not the last, plays a man motivated by revenge. He meets and eventually seduces a beautiful blond woman storekeeper who craves revenge.

This is fine and dandy until, somewhere along the way, things go slightly incomprehensible.

Clint begins to resent his judge boss for handing out the death penalty like candy on Halloween.

When two teenage brothers are hung against Clint’s recommendation, he is so upset he, um, grabs a whore and gets laid while everybody else in town watches the hanging.

Screwing to cope with injustice may have seemed edgy in 1968, but it is a little creepy now.

Clint's most studly line comes after Bruce Dern says, "You'll never get me alive, boy." Clint answers, "Then I'll get you dead. Boy."

Over time, Clint comes to despise the judge. He even complains about "that hole you call a jail” and insists on a pardon for one of the guys who tried to hang him.

At the end, Clint quits his job as a lawman. Then he takes it back. Then he looks uncomfortable about tracking down the last two guys on his revenge list. Clint seems to lose his thirst for vengeance, but we are not sure why. Is it because he is screwing a storekeeper now instead of a whore? And what about the blond storekeeper? Maybe Clint gives her up to wear the badge but we don't know because it is not explained.

Is there a lesson for manhood? Maybe.

Revenge is good up to a point, Clint’s example says, but don’t get carried away.

Either that or he’s telling us a man never has a bad time to grab a whore.

Let’s go with the thing about revenge.

Next up: "Coogan's Bluff."


  1. store keeper are not only the caretakers but they are also the supporters

  2. Wonderful articles! appreciate for sharing your understanding with us! Hope to read more from you!

  3. Just ran across your blog (good idea) after doing my own Clint retrospective over 4th of July. Not sure if this space has been abandoned to internet history, but goddamn did you underrate Hang'em High, although it's not like you're the first person to do so. The rumination on justice in the Old West just works. The ending makes sense because, as the subplot with Inger Stevens implies, Clint has found peace in that he know he can't let his whole life be consumed by revenge. Both Pat Hingle and Bruce Dern are fantastic in this movie and the screenplay just works. In terms of re-watchability, I'd easily group it the GB & U, High Plains, and Josey. Over time, I've come to say I even prefer it to Josey because I really dislike Yoko Locke. I think if Sergio had direct Hang'em High as Clint originally pushed for, it would remembered as an all-time great. Still it's miles better than you give it credit for and easily in Clint's top 10 if not 5.