OUT in the great Montana country in the Eighteen Seventies, when men were mostly prospectors for gold and women were either grubby housewives or frank purveyors of certain special services, the arrival in a community of a woman who was neither of these was usually cause for excitement, consternation and eventually a brawl. At least, that's how it is in Martin Jurow's and Richard Shepherd's new film, "The Hanging Tree," an outdoor drama set against a noisy gold camp. The picture opened at the Roxy yesterday.
At the outset, the good folks of Skull Creek are keeping themselves happily occupied with panning gold, drinking whisky, playing poker and jostling the girls, when somebody holds up a stagecoach and kills all its occupants save one, who turns out to be a woman who curiously flees into the hills. A search party goes out to find her, finally does so and brings her in suffering severely from exposure.
Now this mysterious female is taken over by Doc Joe Frail, the resident physician of Skull Creek and a bit of a mystery himself. The Doc, who resembles Gary Cooper so much you can be sure it is he, is a gentle and charitable healer but he tends to push people around. He has in his service a young fellow he is practically keeping in thrall as the result of having saved him from hanging for being caught robbing a sluice.
Well, the Doc gives a home to the young woman, nurses her tenderly, cures her of temporary blindness and draws the suspicion of all Skull Creek upon himself. Who is this strange foreign woman? They know she's foreign because she's played by Maria Schell) What is she doing up at the Doc's place? Where-and how-does she fit in?
Especially suspicious and resentful is Big Frenchy, a cowardly brute, who happens to have been the man who found the female and now would like to have her for his own. His eyes gleam and he licks his lips lustfully Once he makes a slurring comment, and the Doc gives him a beautiful thrashing. (Karl Malden plays Big Frenchy, so you should know!)
Things reach a climax, however, when the Doc turns the woman out-no reason given, except his curious coolness and perversity-and she and the young man and Big Frenchy work a claim and strike a "glory hole." Then, with his hands full of nuggets, Big Frenchy gets arrogant and bold. He challenges the Doc. And the drama concludes with that titanic brawl.
This is not a sharp or searching picture. Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles have not drawn a script of major meaning from Dorothy M. Johnson's long short story "The Hanging Tree." There is no particular theme or moral to it, except that bread cast on the waters will be returned. The haunting symbol of that tree, which is presented at the outset, is even neglected until the very end.
However, Mr. Cooper, Mr. Malden, Miss Schell and Ben Piazza as the lad held in thrall by the Doc perform expertly, as it they were acting "High Noon" Delmer Daves has directed the gold camp action for a great deal of clatter and bang, and it all looks rambunctious and authentic on the vividly colored screen.
Indeed, what with one thing and another, the story is absorbing to the end. It keeps you wondering and wishing-finally wishing it were a little better, that's all.