Hangman’s Knot—Randolph Scott, Donna Reed, Lee Marvin, Claude Jarman, Jr., Frank Faylen, Ray Teal, Guinn Williams, Jeanette Nolan, Richard Denning, Clem Bevans (1952; Dir: Roy Huggins)
A Civil War Confederates-after-Yankee-gold film, and one of Randolph Scott’s best from his pre-Boetticher period. (Note that the producers here are Scott and Harry Joe Brown—later the combined “Ranown” of the Boetticher-Scott films. At this point they still needed to find a reliable director and writer for their team, although Roy Huggins does well in both those roles here.)
Eight Confederate soldiers from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia are in Nevada, led by Major Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott). As the movie starts, they’re planning to steal a shipment of Union gold to save their all-but-defeated southern cause. They waste no time in carrying out that plan, killing the Yankee soldiers and taking the $250,000 in gold the Yankees are transporting. Unknown to them, however, the Civil War has ended a month before the attack, and they just hadn’t heard about it. Now they’ve killed a bunch of Union Nevada volunteers, are in possession of a lot of gold in the middle of hostile territory, and are liable to be hung when they get caught. The five survivors of the raid agree to try to get back south with the gold and perhaps split it up. Stewart doesn’t want to become an outlaw, but Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin in one of his first significant movie roles) wouldn’t mind at all.
They can trust no one, and Rolph impulsively kills Capt. Peterson, their contact who he thinks has been holding out information on them and plans to take the gold for himself. They take Peterson’s medicine wagon with Stewart driving. When they encounter a posse, Stewart tells them the Confederates have already been captured in a town behind them, and they move on.
That’s fine until the wagon is ruined in an accident. The Confederates flag down a stagecoach and take it over. The two passengers inside are Molly Hull (Donna Reed), a former Union nurse, and her fiancé Lee Kemper (Richard Denning), a cattle trader who is not all he seems. They all take refuge in a stage line way station in a rocky mountain pass and are trapped there by the posse of “deputies” (read: gold-hungry drifters) led by Quincey (Ray Teal). It’s pretty clear that they intend to kill the remaining Confederates and anybody else in the station and take the gold for themselves. They capture Cass Browne (Frank Faylen), one of Stewart’s men, and drag him nearly to death.
Stewart’s men are now besieged in the way station, with the aging stationmaster Plunkett (Clem Bevans) and his middle-aged daughter Mrs. Margaret Harris (Jeanette Nolan), whose husband was killed at Gettysburg and whose son was in the Union patrol guarding the stolen gold; he’s now dead, obviously. Molly helps care for a badly wounded Confederate while the others try to figure out how they’re going to escape. Stewart, under the guise of trying to make a deal, plants the seed with the posse that the gold is back where they left the medicine wagon.
After taking their captives’ word not to yell out, the Confederates try to escape through the back door. But Lee breaks his word, and Stewart’s men are forced back inside. In exchange for two bars of gold, Lee gives Stewart a token that he says will enable them to get horses, supplies and passage from the local Paiute Indians. Molly isn’t really his fiancée, but now she’s even more disgusted with him. Both Stewart and Rolph have eyes for Molly, but Stewart is much more gentlemanly in his approach, as we would expect from Randolph Scott.
At one point, the “deputies” put a noose around Cass Browne’s neck, and Stewart uses dynamite for a distraction to rescue him. (Anachronism alert: Dynamite wasn’t patented until 1867 and was not used during the Civil War.) Some backstory emerges on young trooper Jamie Groves (Claude Jarman, Jr.): he watched his family killed and their farm burned by Sherman’s men in Georgia, and, although he was in the raiding party after the Yankee gold, he’s never shot any one during his brief military service. Rolph tries to seduce/attack Molly, until Stewart pulls him off. They fight, and Rolph, when he’s losing, tries to shoot an unarmed Stewart. Jamie shoots Rolph—the first man he has ever shot. Now they’ve lost one of their best (but most unscrupulous) fighters.
The “deputies” now try a short tunnel under the station’s floorboards, but that doesn’t work. The second night they set fire to the station, just before a brief downpour cuts visibility. The first out the door is Lee, who is shot down while trying to make a deal. Taking what they can of the gold, the three remaining Confederates make a break for it. Some of the deputies leave to hunt for the gold supposedly left by the medicine wagon; Quincey shoots Smitty (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) and is shot and then dragged himself. Cass Browne is shot while trying to get to the posse’s horses, but he gets another posse member.
Finally, it’s only Stewart and Jamie left. Now that they could actually get away with it, they choose to leave the gold at the station for Molly to turn in. Plunkett and Margaret give them a couple of stagecoach horses for their escape and offer Jamie a place with them if he wants to come back. Stewart and Molly make plans to reunite, too.
The film is very well-cast, and the writing (by director Roy Huggins) is very good. Randolph Scott looks good in his dark clothing, light-colored neckerchief and worn leather jacket. That leather jacket is one of the trademarks of Scott’s later career, like his dark palomino horse Stardust; look for him wearing it in many of his movies from this period, including Ten Wanted Men and Ride the High Country (his last film). Marvin is very effective as a villain in an early screen role, and even Claude Jarman, Jr., known principally as a child actor in The Yearling, does well with his small part, in one of his last significant movies. All the Confederates seem well-defined and distinct, with their own personalities, and some of the posse as well. This is a small gem, one of the best of Randolph Scott’s pre-Boetticher years. This is rare for a movie from the early 1950s in that it allows Stewart and Jamie, at least, to get away without having to surrender to the authorities, if not with their loot intact.
The action is good, since the stunts were overseen by second-unit director Yakima Canutt. The stunt double for Scott during his fight scenes with Lee Marvin is a little too obvious. Writer-director Roy Huggins never directed another movie but took his talents to television, with Maverick, Cheyenne, The Fugitive and eventually The Rockford Files. Shot in the Alabama Hills at Lone Pine, in color, at just 81 minutes.
For other Confederates-after-Yankee-gold westerns, see Virginia City (1940) with Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott, Westbound (1959), also with Randolph Scott, and The Black Dakotas (1954). Even Rio Lobo (1970), Howard Hawks’ last movie, may fit into that category, although it’s not a very good film. For more Lee Marvin as a bad guy, see him in Seven Men From Now (1956), again with Randolph Scott, in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), with Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan, and The Comancheros (1961), with John Wayne, before he gets to his ultimate villain role: as Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).