The Hanging Tree, In 1873, on the Gold Trail, Montana, the mysterious and controlling Dr. Joseph Frail arrives in the small town of Skull Creek with miners in a gold rush. Dr. Frail buys a cabin on the top of a hill and he sees the smalltime thief Rune wounded and chased by a mob that wants to hang him. Dr. Frail helps and heals Rune; but in return, he demands that the young man becomes his bond servant. The alcoholic healer and preacher George Grubb tells to the locals that Dr. Frail, who is an excellent gambler and gunfighter, is a devil and has a mysterious past but nobody gives attention to his words. Soon the stagecoach is robbed by thieves that kill the passengers but the coachman survives and three days later he reaches Skull Creek. He tells that the horses had speed down the hill with a young woman inside the stagecoach. The men organize a pursuit and the rude Frenchy Plante finds the Swedish Elizabeth Mahler burnt and blind.
The Hanging Tree, Little known, this Western gem has not attracted the attention or appreciation it deserves. Gary Cooper’s Doc Frail is to me the most interesting of his Western heroes, much more complex than the Will Kane of “High Noon.” He is a man of sharp contrast, kind but domineering, compassionate but unyielding, a healer but a killer, strong but at the same time frail. He draws people towards him, only to keep them at a distance when they get too close because of a tragic incident in his past, one he can neither forget nor allow to ever happen again. He is a vagabond, moving from gold camp to gold camp to set up his services as a doctor, without hope of ever settling down. Into his life come two key figures bound to change it. One is Rune, a young thief whom he rescues from the hanging tree, and they are bonded together. The other is Elizabeth, a young woman from Switzerland who has come with her father to find a new life in the gold camps. After a stagecoach accident, Doc Frail must cure her, both body and spirit, and she loves him for it, a love he cannot accept. He would send her back to her country; she stubbornly refuses and eventually partners in a gold claim with Frenchy (played by the marvelous Karl Malden), a man with lust in his heart for both gold and women. The emphasis on character lifts this film above the realm of the ordinary. Add to that a memorable title song sung by Marty Robbins, an appealing music score by Max Steiner, a no-nonsense script based on a story by Dorothy Johnson and on location filming in the mountains outside of Yakima, Washington, and what you have is one really fine Western.