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Scarecrow on Seattle: THE HANGING TREE

In appreciation and recognition of Seattle's long and illustrious film history, we are proud to partner with the Seattle Office of Film + Music to bring you reviews of movies made in the Pacific Northwest with an emphasis on how these films showcase the region's many filmable locations.

The Hanging Tree (1959)

Warner Archive's newly restored and released DVD of The Hanging Tree will hopefully go a long way in restoring the reputation and renown of the largest (and possibly only) Hollywood production to set up camp in our neighbors 150 miles to the east: Yakima, Washington. Specifically, the Oak Creek Wildlife Area 15 miles north of Yakima (where you can still camp at a place called the Hanging Tree Campground!) stands in for the gold fields of 1860s Montana. The film itself is a pitch-perfect mix of westerns, melodrama, and historical adventure, with a stellar cast, terrific direction, and breathtaking locations. In fact, it has so many things going for it that it's a wonder it's not better known. Robert Altman was surely inspired by it and referenced it many times in his own contribution to the Northwest western genre, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. To begin with, literally and figuratively, it has a kick-ass, Oscar-nominated title song written by Jay Livingston and Mack David and crooned by Marty Robbins. Gary Cooper, in the twilight of his career, wears the seasoned mantle of a western hero whose internal struggle between redemption and deep-seated hostility form the crux of the story. He's a doctor with a secret who sets up shop in the newly formed gold mining camp of Skull Creek. Maria Schell is luminous as a frontierswoman whose beauty becomes a deadly temptation for the lusty miners, especially Karl Malden's Frenchy. George C. Scott, in his film debut, is also very memorable as a crazed faith healer who is challenged by Cooper's scientific ways. The direction, as it should be, is what really brings all these fine elements together. Delmer Daves, (whose reputation would almost immediately sink post-Hanging Tree with a series of Troy Donahue soapers) repeatedly sweeps a camera crane across the stellar, wide-open, pine-covered locations of the Yakima Valley in the outdoor adventure scenes, then contrasts them with intimate, wide-angle-lensed indoor scenes where all the melodrama occurs. By constantly playing with space, Daves creates a dynamism that works the viewer into a frenzy of emotions. By the powerful, climactic final scene, you're absorbed completely as though nothing else matters.

-Mark Steiner

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