Release Date(s)1968 (December 11, 2018)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM/20th Century Fox (Shout Select/Shout! Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
An ex-lawman is brought to undeserving vigilante justice – left hanging for dead before being saved and retrieved for trial. Once cleared of the charges, he’s given a badge and told to go out and retrieve wanted criminals, including those who attempted to hang him. So begins Hang ’Em High, arguably one of Clint Eastwood’s most enduring westerns from this era post the Dollars films.
Hang ’Em High is an interesting film in many ways. It was the first production chosen for Eastwood’s newly-formed Malposa Company and was directed by Ted Post, who Eastwood brought in after working with him on the Rawhide TV series. Due to its disjointed nature, the film’s structure suggests that it could have been, at one time, in the works as an anthology western TV series before being developed into a feature film. Characters slip in and out of the story while events that occur later in the film don’t fully line up with those that take place early on, leading to some out of place moments in the story. Add to that some rather fast cutting and TV-worthy dialogue and it’s clear that it may have been originally planned for the small screen.
The film also manages to merge the new with the old, mixing together the relatively new and profitable spaghetti western genre with more traditional American western tropes and traits. However, some of those clichés were subsequently turned on their head. In fact, only one script revision was purportedly made at the insistence of Eastwood himself who claimed it to be far too formulaic, and since he called the shots (perhaps even ghost-directing to some degree), he managed to get his way – despite the change not entirely making sense on a character level.
The cast is also littered with a number of familiar faces, a facet that would be a major focal point for many westerns made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some of these names include Inger Stevens, Ed Begley, Pat Hingle, Ben Johnson, Charles McGraw, Bruce Dern, Alan Hale Jr., Dennis Hopper, and L.Q. Jones, among others. Some are only given a handful of lines, if any, but their presence surely enriches the cast, which wasn’t entirely out of the norm at the time.
Hang ’Em High was a big financial success for United Artists upon release, even receiving some positive critical appraisal. It also gave Clint Eastwood the chance to step outside of Sergio Leone’s shadow. Although he had put plenty of time in as a TV actor, he wasn’t quite the star that he would eventually become. Not only would he appear in more westerns, but he would also carve out his own creative path in years to come with the Dirty Harry series, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Mystic River, and what many consider to be the greatest western ever made, Unforgiven.
Shout Select brings Hang ’Em High to Blu-ray for a second time with the same transfer as before, which is a fairly good one. It contains some leftover scratches and speckling, but it’s a mostly stable and problem-free presentation. Grain is well-managed with high levels of detail while the color palette, although not thoroughly timed, is quite potent in a number of shots. Blacks are a tad too bright in some of the darker scenes and other areas of the frame, and overall brightness and contrast could have used some adjustment as well.
The audio selection features English 5.1 and 2.0 mono DTS-HD tracks (the latter presented in Dolby Digital on the previous Blu-ray) with optional subtitles in English SDH. The 5.1 adds little to the film’s aural personality, mainly spreading mono-sourced audio out a tiny bit without adding anything substantial, making the exercise fairly pointless. The 2.0 mono track is a bit more ideal, with good dialogue reproduction and a strong score from Dominic Frontiere. Sound effects tend to sound a bit thin and dated, and on both tracks, some mild hiss is present.
The extras are short and sweet, but you do get two great new audio commentaries, one with the late, great documentarian and film historian Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs, and another with filmmaker, film historian, and former Bits contributor Jim Hemphill, all of whom cover many facets of the film and its cast and crew in extensive detail. In addition, there’s the film’s original theatrical trailer.
Hang ’Em High is always going to be one of those perennial watches for many people, particularly those who grew up seeing it on TV over and over again. It’s a little problematical, but entertaining nonetheless. Shout Select’s release of it bumps the previous Blu-ray by adding a couple of extras and a lossless mono soundtrack, but the presentation could do with a fresh scan in the future. Regardless, it’s still a recommendable package overall.
– Tim Salmons