The title of this fine Western drama is deceiving and (for me, at least) somewhat off-putting. Turns out it's not about a hangman at all but rather a relentless U.S. Marshal named Mac Bovard (played by Robert Taylor) who has a reputation for bringing in the worst owlhoots in the territory, most of whom end up on the gallows. Hence it is he who becomes known as “the hangman”.
At the time of this tale, Bovard has been wearing a badge of one kind or another for 20 years and has grown hard-edged and cynical. As the story opens, Bovard is delivering the third of four men wanted for bank robbery and the killing of another marshal who was previously on the case. Two of the robbers have already been hanged and the just-delivered varmint is expected to have his turn in short order. It's up to Bovard to bring in the fourth and final man. Trouble is, though his name is known to be John Butterfield, Bovard doesn't know what he looks like. If he can't find anybody else who does, Bovard's last chance to get a positive ID on Butterfield may be to bring him in front of the other remaining gang member before the latter hangs.
With the clock ticking, Bovard chases leads from Fort Kenton to a distant town where he finds a very likely suspect --- a man calling himself John Bishop who everybody in town, including the marshal, likes and respects and refuses to believe could be a former outlaw and killer. As a last resort, Bovard pays money to a down-on-her-luck widow and former girlfriend of Butterfield's (played by Tina Louise) to come to the town and confirm that Bishop/Butterfield are the same person. Things don't work out that easily, of course; there are a number of twists, confrontations, a few touches of humor, and even some romance before Bovard closes the case.
This is a highly entertaining little gem that I greatly enjoyed watching. It's a slightly offbeat Western yet at the same time fulfills all the requirements for a satisfying oater. The opening scenes could almost qualify as a crime drama and, since it's filmed in black and white and the dialogue is crisp and snappy, it even has some noirish touches. As the story unfolds and the backdrop broadens, it becomes steadily more “Western-y”.
Robert Taylor turns in a great veteran performance, the pitch-perfect delivery of brusque, no-nonsense dialogue and intensity that fits his character dead-on; Fess Parker, as the amiable, chain-smoking town marshal (trying to break his Davy Crockett mold during this period when he was at odds with Disney) also comes across well; but the real surprise is Tina Louise as the alternately sultry/vulnerable former girlfriend who is torn between loyalty and the need for money to start a better life. The combination of acting chops and a more voluptuous figure (almost Sophia Loren-ish) completely blows away her typecast image of slinky Ginger from Gilligan's Island that would eventually and unfortunately stall her later career.
In the very capable veteran hands of screenwriter Dudley Nichols and director Michael Curtiz, this is an extremely entertaining film. I DVR-ed and watched it for the first time about a week ago and then, when I was getting ready to write this article, I decided to skim through some parts again to refresh my memory --- but instead of skimming, I found myself enjoying it so much that I watched the whole thing all over again.
I don't know if it's available on DVD. If not, watch for it on cable --- either TCM or the Western channel. It's definitely worth catching. You won't be sorry.