This psychological Western ranks as high as "High Noon", if not a little higher. It is truly a sublime work of art. The script, based on Dorothy M. Johnson's novel, is intelligently written by Wendall Mayes (Anatomy of Murder) & Hallstead Welles. Much of the movie is filmed in the beautiful Ahtanum and Nile Valleys, Yakima, Washington and director Delmer Davis shows a good eye for action and bold vistas. Shot in Technicolor and superbly acted by Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden and Ben Piazza, the film is artistically and visually stunning! A haunting title song by Jerry Livingston (nominated for Oscar) and dramatic music score by Max Steiner (Sergeant York, The Fountainhead) complement the unforgettable story.
It is 1873, the Gold Trail, Montana. People from all walks of life are coming to small miners camp in hope to strike gold. Among them is Doctor Joe Frail. A complex man. A survivor of the ultimate betrayal that left him emotionally damaged. An excellent doctor, he heals everybody from just about everything, but is unable to mend his own broken heart. Instead, he resolves to never trust a woman again and changes his name from Temple to Frail. "It suits a man with frail hope"- he'd explain to a friend. Exceptionally kind, caring and compassionate, Joe Frail would do everything in his power to help his patients. And yet, he could be equally mean (but always fair) to his enemies and would lose his tamper quickly if somebody mentioned his past.
Doctor Frail saves the life of a young thief named Rune. Rune is desperate, homeless man, who would've been hanged or would've died from his wound if Doctor Frail did not operate on him. Rune can't pay the doctor for his professional service and so, he becomes his bond servant. It's not an easy relationship. Naturally, Rune is reserved and it will take him some time to realise that in fact, Frail has given him a home, a job and a purpose-a new lease of life.
A stagecoach is ambushed near town. All passengers are killed, only the driver and a young woman survive, but she gets lost in the wilderness. She is Elizabeth Mahler from Switzerland. The locals assemble a posse and after three days search they find her badly bruised, blinded, traumatized and semi-conscious. Doctor Frail decides to save her at all cost. He spends days and nights nursing her back to full health, aided only by Rune. Frail becomes her protector and later, a secret partner in her endeavors.
Tender love blossoms between Elizabeth and the doctor. Love that he longs for and would die for, but could not accept. There is only one cure for the damage caused by ultimate betrayal and that is ultimate sacrifice! Maria Schell is outstanding as the innocent young Elizabeth, who makes that ultimate sacrifice for the man she loves. Maria captured my heart with her natural beauty and her restrained and powerful performance.
Gary Cooper is tremendous as Doctor Frail. He was born to play that part, it suits his caring nature. As always, he gets gracefully under the skin of his character and they become one. In 1959 Coop won "Golden Laurel Top Action Performance" for this Oscar-worthy portrayal.
Karl Malden plays with chilling realism the local villain and attention-seeker Frenchy Plante. He was deservedly awarded 3rd place "Golden Laurel Top Male Supporting Performance".
Please, don't be put off by the title. There is a lot of humanity and wisdom in this story and many tender moments to savor. Without giving much away, I'd like mention a scene that involves a little girl suffering from malnutrition. Doctor Frail checks her thoroughly and tells her parents that she is malnourished. He realises that they are struggling financially and suggests they take his cow to fatten the child on some milk.
-"I can't pay for no cow"- says the embarrassed father.
-"I loan it to you" - replies the doctor.
-"How much we owe you?"- asks the mother.
Doctor Frail asks the little girl to give him a kiss and tells the parents that he's been paid.
There is drama, conflict, gunshots and a great fist-fight woven into the plot. All evolves to an explosive climax and leads to the most luminous and memorable finale of one of the greatest love stories ever told!
I do not understand why this magnificent film is neglected. It's a must see for any Gary Cooper, Maria Schell and Karl Malden admirer and for the fans of fine art in general. Thankfully, it is obtainable on DVD from Amazon.fr (France) or Amazon.de (Germany). Both sites have help pages in English with very good guidance of how to order, pay, return an item e.t.c. To get the help page you click on "Aide" (top right corner) for Amazon.fr, and on "Hilfe" for Amazon.de(top right corner). Also, you can email them in English and they will reply promptly and are happy to help. Both French and German editions have the original audio in English and the print is pristine. The only inconvenience is that the DVD is region 2 and you will need multi-region player, but the film is worth it. It must not be forgotten and it is in our power to prevent this happening. May be someday we will see region 1 edition with some extras- the kind of treatment "The Hanging Tree" deserves. I wish so and I hope so.