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Columbia's Hangman's Knot (1952) was the most successful of the westerns produced by cowboy actor Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown. Forming Ranown Pictures Corporation (aka Scott-Brown Productions) in 1951, the partners' first venture, Man in the Saddle (1951), directed by Andr De Toth, stamped a template from which subsequent films rarely if ever varied. In the vehicles that followed, the over fifty and suitably weathered Scott was cast as the complicated, flawed but decent protagonist whose journey towards redemption and reckoning is blocked by the greed and self-interest of others. Produced early in the partnership, before Scott and Brown's seven celebrated collaborations with director Budd Boetticher (among them, Seven Men from Now , The Tall T  and Ride Lonesome ), the modestly-budgeted Technicolor Hangman's Knot features Scott as a Confederate army major whose squadron intercepts a Union gold shipment, learning only after his men have wiped out the Yankee couriers that the Civil War has been over for a month. Deciding to bring the gold home to aid in southern reconstruction, Scott's men soon find themselves on the run from a lynching party less interested in justice than in keeping the spoils of war for themselves.
Hangman's Knot was the perfect vehicle for Scott to develop his onscreen persona as a man of honor challenged by complicated times, miscommunication and the liquid loyalty of those around him. The filmmakers made it easy for audiences to support Scott's conflicted Major Matt Stewart by surrounding him with such dyed-in-the-wool shitheels as Ray Teal (as the leader of the faux posse), Glenn Langan (as the comrade who sends Stewart after the gold shipment while knowing full well that the war is over), Richard Denning (in tight-assed coward mode) and a scar-faced Lee Marvin (as the least reliable of Stewart's men) while offering support and sympathy from the amicable likes of Yankee nurse Donna Reed (a year from her Oscar® win for Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity, 1953), rebel soldier Frank Faylen and The Yearling (1946) costars Clem Bevans and Claude Jarman, Jr. The lunar desertscapes of Lone Pine, California, and the Corrigan Ranch stood in for the film's Nevada Territories setting although a considerable amount of the film's running time takes place within the cramped confines of a mountain stagecoach way station. Producer Harry Joe Brown would return to the conceit of Confederate soldiers on the run in his last film, A Time for Killing (1967), directed by Phil Karlson, while the plot point of infantrymen soldiering on in ignorance of the South's surrender at Appomattox was an inciting event also in Andrew V. McLaglen's The Undefeated (1969).
The complication of ill-gotten gains causing the dissolution of a tight-knit group urges Hangman's Knot closer to the categorization of crime genre. This should come as no surprise given that the film was scripted and directed by Roy Huggins. The Washington State-born novelist taught himself the craft of mystery writing by copying out the entire text of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely by hand. He came to Hollywood when Columbia bought the rights to his first novel, The Double Take, which he adapted as I Love Trouble (1948); years later, Huggins would repurpose star Franchot Tone's detective Stuart Bailey as the protagonist of the ABC series 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964). Huggins also authored the hard-bitten screenplays for Too Late for Tears (1949), adapted from his 1947 novel, and Pushover (1954) with Fred MacMurray. A friendly HUAC witness in 1952, he left film for the expanding medium of television and never again directed a feature film. For the small screen, he created such popular series as Maverick (1957-1962), The Fugitive (1963-1967) and The Rockford Files (1974-1980). Huggins also created the short-lived Depression era detective series City of Angels (1976) and executive produced and wrote episodes of Toma (1973-1974), Baretta (1975-1978) and Hunter (1984-1991). A 1991 recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, Roy Huggins died in April 2002, at the age of 87.
Producer: Harry Joe Brown
Director: Roy Huggins
Screenplay: Roy Huggins
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: George Brooks
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Cast: Randolph Scott (Major Matt Stewart), Donna Reed (Molly Hull), Claude Jarman, Jr. (Jamie Groves), Frank Faylen (Cass Browne), Glenn Langan (Capt. Petersen), Richard Denning (Lee Kemper), Lee Marvin (Rolph Bainter), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Margaret Harris), Clem Bevans (Plunkett, the Station agent), Ray Teal (Quincey).
by Richard Harland Smith
Randolph Scott: A Film Biography by Jefferson Brim Crow III (Empire Publishing, 1994)
Donna Reed: A Biblio-Biography" by Brenda Scott Royce (Greenwood Press, 1990)
A Pictorial History of Westerns by Michael Parkinson and Clyde Jeavons (The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd., 1972)
Roy Huggins obituary by Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2002