Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Hanged Man (1974)

          Borrowing a gimmick from the Clint Eastwood Westerns High Plains Drifter (1973), this enjoyable telefilm was designed as a pilot, although no series resulted. Starring square-jawed Steve Forrest (later of S.W.A.T. fame), the movie includes a pulpy mixture of pop-psychology existentialism and Saturday-matinee violence. Forrest plays James Devlin, a gunfighter condemned to die based on sketchy evidence. Resigned to paying for past crimes even if he’s innocent of the current charges, Devlin endures his hanging with dignity—but survives because of faulty execution equipment and the dosing of his last meal with laudanum by a sympathetic doctor. Given a second chance at life, Devlin stumbles into the affairs of Carrie Gault (Sharon Acker), a widow being preyed upon by avaricious businessman Lew Halleck (Cameron Mitchell).
          The twist of the story is that because Devlin was legally “killed,” he’s got a blank slate as far as the law is concerned—at least until he commits a new crime. Therefore, Devlin must mete out justice without reckless gunplay. This is a solid setup for escapist entertainment, even if the filmmakers make the obvious mistake of portraying Devlin as a saint—despite the lip service given to past misdeeds, he’s never shown doing anything less than noble. Nonetheless, because The Hanged Man runs only 73 minutes, the one-dimensional characterization gets the job done.
          It helps, of course, that Forrest cuts an impressive figure, with his booming voice and imposing frame. Furthermore, director Michael Caffey lends more visual pizzazz to key scenes than one usually finds in workaday telefilms of the era. Caffey’s best flourishes occur during the final showdown between Devlin and Halleck, which is set inside a darkened foundry. By having Devlin drift in and out of clouds of smoke, and by having Halleck linger in the glow of blazing yellow and red lights, Caffey conveys the strong sense of a supernatural avenger delivering a damned man to hell. In fact, theological allusions appear throughout The Hanged Man. When this aspect of the picture doesn’t work, clumsy scenes such as the bit of Devlin screaming “Why, God?” result. Yet on several occasions—for instance, the scene when Devlin shows his noose scar to the widow Gault’s incredulous son—The Hanged Man approaches questions about what obligations people have to spend wisely the time they’re given by larger forces.
          That said, I freely acknowledge my occasional tendency to give movies credit for what they almost achieved, and The Hanged Man is a beneficiary of this generosity. In other words, consider these laudatory remarks to be praise for the better film lurking inside The Hanged Man, since the actual movie is in the most important regards quite ordinary.

The Hanged Man: FUNKY

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