While it was far from his first film, the forgotten Clint Eastwood Western Hang ‘Em High marked his first Hollywood leading role. Eastwood began his career with small, sometimes uncredited roles in films like Revenge Of The Creature. He considered quitting the business entirely when Eastwood saw his “lousy” 1958 Western Ambush at Cimarron Pass, but he soon landed a lead role on TV series Rawhide.
His experience on the show served him well, and during its run, he accepted the lead in an Italian Western titled The Magnificent Stranger. This Sergio Leone film – later retitled A Fistful Of Dollars – was a thinly disguised remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, with Eastwood’s Man with No Name character – complete with poncho and Clint’s trademark squint – becoming instantly iconic. Eastwood would later reprise the role for two sequels, and it was clear he was a movie star in the making.
In the aftermath of Leone’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – where he nearly passed on – Eastwood was fielding plenty of offers for big movies. He also set up his production company Malpaso and selected a dark Western screenplay called Hang ‘Em High for his first lead role in a Hollywood production. This told the story of an innocent man who survives a lynching by a posse and who is later appointed a Marshal by a federal judge so he can hunt down his attackers. The film was a sizable success and received great reviews upon release, but for some reason, it has largely slipped from popular memory.
Hang ‘Em High Is Clint Eastwood’s Most Underrated Western
Hang ‘Em High is very much in keeping with the dark, revisionist style of “Spaghetti Westerns” that Leone popularized. The story is harsh and bleak, with Eastwood being attracted to its look at the murky subject of capital punishment. While the film contains all the classic tropes of the genre like duels and Eastwood – who made five Dirty Harry movies – playing another intense loner, the line between good and bad is considerably blurrier than in the Westerns of John Wayne’s era. As both a performer and director, Eastwood would revisit Hang ‘Em High’s unvarnished look at the Old West to greater acclaim with films like The Outlaw Josey Wales or Unforgiven.
In a sense, this might be one reason Hang ‘Em High is rarely discussed. The film was directed by veteran TV helmer and regular Eastwood collaborator Ted Post, but it lacks the cinematic flair of Leone or even Eastwood himself. Hang ‘Em High is certainly held in higher regard than other Eastwood Oaters like the forgettable Joe Kidd, but while it’s a solid movie, it feels like a dry run for the actor’s later entries in the genre.