GOOD DAY FOR A HANGING (director: Nathan Juran; screenwriters: story by John Reese/Daniel B. Ullman/Maurice Zimm; cinematographer: Henry Freulich; editor: Jerome Thoms; cast: Fred MacMurray (Marshal Ben Cutler), Maggie Hayes (Ruth Granger), Robert Vaughn (Eddie ‘The Kid’ Campbell), Joan Blackman (Laurie Cutler), James Drury (Paul Ridgely), Wendell Holmes (Tallant Joslin, Prosecutor), Kathryn Card (Molly Cain), Emile Meyer (Marshal Hiram Cain), Edmon Ryan (William P. Selby, Attorney), Bing Russell (George Fletcher), Russell Thorson (Harry Landers), Denver Pyle (Deputy Ed Moore), Phil Chambers (Deputy William Avery); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Charles H. Schneer; Columbia Pictures; 1959)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This moody Western is engrossing due to the intelligent script by Daniel B. Ullman and Maurice Zimm, but falls apart with its unconvincing climax and exaggerated characterization of the towns folks that rings a false note. Busy studio director Nathan Juran (“20 Million Miles to Earth”/”The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”), mostly known for sci-fi films, does a first-class job with the film based on John Reese’s story and influenced by High Noon; that is, until too many unrealistic scenes begin to pile up and the above average film takes a turn for the worse.
In 1878 the Springdale, Nebraska, bank is held-up by George Fletcher’s five-man gang. In the process a teller, an outlaw and Marshal Hiram Cain are killed. As part of a posse immediately formed former lawman turned rancher, Ben Cutler (Fred MacMurray), grazes the forehead of Eddie ‘The Kid’ Campbell (Robert Vaughn). The outlaw goes on trial for the murder of the marshal. Complications arise because Eddie’s a local boy and as an orphan he was raised by Ben. His daughter Laurie (Joan Blackman) has fallen for him and realizes he’s gone bad, but doesn’t believe he’s a murderer.
The town council president (Russell Thorson) begs Ben to become the new marshal. Ben is reluctant because it has been twenty years since he was a lawman and he’s about to marry dressmaker Ruth Granger (Maggie Hayes), who would rather see him as a rancher.
Warning: spoiler in next paragraph.
The prosecution seems to have a slam-dunk case, but think O.J. Simpson trial and the case that seemed so sure is now questionable, as slick high-priced out-of-town attorney William Selby (Edmon Ryan) takes the case and manipulates the naive town against the marshal and riddles holes in the testimony of the five posse witnesses. Even the marshal’s daughter turns against dad, whose eyewitness testimony is eventually needed to convict. Eddie on his sentencing to be hanged, gives an impassioned manipulative plea for mercy claiming he’s innocent. Laurie has a falling out with dad and even tries smuggling a gun to Eddie. Her punishment for that crime is that she’s not allowed to visit the jail anymore. The dumb town falls for Eddie’s crocodile tears and force the marshal to ride to Lincoln with a petition signed by everyone in town but the marshal to get the death sentenced reduced by the governor. The marshal returns with the petition approved and resigns, but Eddie’s gang bust him out of jail and there’s a final shootout between the town and the outlaws. The marshal is vindicated, as it’s clear now that Eddie was guilty after all. Everyone shrugs it off as a foolish mistake and Ben is talked into wearing the badge again.
The reason the townspeople act so foolishly is explained away that there hasn’t been a capital case in Nebraska for a long time. Everyone seems to be playing politics, as Ben’s friend the governor agrees to the petition because it represents a lot of votes; the lawyer defends the outlaw because he believes most people in the state are against capital punishment and if he wins this highly publicized case it would give him a leg up in his run for governor. Laurie’s belief in Eddie can only be explained that she has sawdust in her head. But despite all the flaws, the film had its head in the right place and does wonders with the small details; such as, going out of its way to show how difficult it is to build the gallows by following the new laws to make sure the hanging isn’t a public spectacle.
REVIEWED ON 9/21/2005 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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