The Hanged Man

Director: Michael Caffey   
Steve Forrest, Dean Jagger, Will Geer

Every year, a number of new television shows start up on America's five main television networks. And every year, most of these new shows are cancelled after just one season - sometimes even less than one season. The idea is that you throw a bunch of noodles on a wall, and while most of them will fall to the floor, some of them will stay stuck to the wall. It does in some ways seem like a thoughtless practice to those who have worked so hard on making the shows. The makers of these shows have to work hard right from the very beginning. First, they have to get an idea for a new show. It's not enough to have a good idea once you've got it, but you have to present it to the networks in the right way. Sometimes, however, the ideas and their presentation are so bad that the proposed show is doomed right from the start. Once when I was reading a book about the worst television shows of all time, I came across the following story, a supposedly true story about a writer's pitch to one of the major American TV networks. An aspiring writer had managed to get a one-on-one meeting with one of the television network's executives. The writer said the following: "You'll love it! It's all about a horse that can talk, but only his owner can hear him, and they get into all sorts of adventures..." The network executive cut off the writer at this point, and politely told him, "But there was already a show like that. It was called Mr. Ed." This did not shake up the writer at all. The writer then explained to the network executive, "No, this is completely different. The horse only speaks Italian."

But let's say you are a writer or a producer with more sanity, and you manage to pique the interest of the network executives. You haven't won yet. Now the network will ask you to come up with a pilot script for your television show idea. As you probably know, you usually can't write the pilot script as a typical episode of the show you have dreamed up. You have to set up the situation and the characters, so audiences who watch it will know what to expect from the show (if it's green-lighted) in the weeks to come. Not only that, you have to write in a way that will engage the network executives. But let's say you manage to come up with a pilot script that the network executives like. Now it comes time to actually filming this pilot script. You can't just jump straight away into filming it. You first have to cast the actors who are going to play the characters in your proposed TV series. You might have a certain actor in mind, but the TV network nixes your idea and tells you to cast someone else. (The producers of The Brady Bunch wanted to cast the then-unknown Gene Hackman as Mike Brady, but the network told them to cast someone more well-known.) Anyway, let's say you manage to successfully make your pilot. Now the network will watch it - along with a number of other pilots - and then decide if your pilot stands out enough from the bulk of the submissions. (I read from one source during my research for this review that only a quarter of TV pilots made are actually made into TV series.) But let's say they like your pilot and they have green-lighted your series. You might be able to make your series, but you will be dependent on the network to give your show a good time slot, plus enough publicity so that potential viewers will know about your show. And even if all that happens, there's still a chance that despite all your work and the network's work, nobody will tune into your show.

As you can see, the work to get a TV series - any TV series - on the air is a lot of hard work. So you may understand why producers have numerously tried certain schemes to make the job somewhat easier. One scheme is called "the spin-off". Using an established and successful TV series, The Hanged Manthe producers can devote one episode focusing on certain characters of the show - or entirely new characters - and show the episode to the network executives as a proposed pilot. Another method that was popular in the '70s and '80s was called "backdoor pilots". Pilots for proposed series were filmed as standalone movies, so if these movie pilots weren't subsequently made into series by the networks, they could still be broadcast as a movie-of-the-week. (This time period was the golden age of the made-for-TV movie, remember.) The Hanged Man is one such example of a backdoor pilot, though whether it was rejected as a possible series before or after its broadcast, I am not sure. The movie takes place in the American west in the year 1878, centering around the character of gunfighter James Devlin (Forrest, S.W.A.T.) At the beginning of the movie, he is in prison for murder, and is waiting for his execution date. Resigned to his fate, Devlin offers no resistance on his way to the gallows, and is subsequently hanged. A death certificate is issued, and it seems that Devlin's is headed to the graveyard. But then his "corpse" comes back to life. The law and Devlin's friends reason that since Devlin's sentence was carried out and a death certificate was issued, Devlin is legally dead, and he can go free. Bewildered about his luck, a confused Devlin starts wandering the desert, unsure of what to do next. But soon he stumbles onto a pretty widow (played by Sharon Acker) and her young son, living on a mining property that evil land baron Lew Halleck (played by Cameron Mitchell) wants for his own, and will do anything to get it.

Although that is a fairly small plot description, I am confident I know what you are thinking after reading it. You are thinking, "Gee, that sounds very familiar. The whole 'surviving the execution' plotline has been done before in countless books, comics, and movies. As well, the plot about a gunfighter encountering a widow with a young son, both being harassed by a greedy and ruthless land baron, has been used endlessly in western fiction." I certainly won't deny that you are right about those two things - they were certainly old hat even when this movie was made in 1974. So you are probably wondering why the makers of The Hanged Man did the same old thing again. Well, there's something that I left out in that plot description that gives the movie a twist. You see, according to some viewers who've watched this movie (and what I read from elsewhere that got me to pick up the movie in the first place), the character of James Devlin has supernatural powers! Indeed, in one part of the movie, he seems to sense something just before the widow's water tower is dynamited. And later in the movie, he manages to get into Halleck's bathroom unseen so he can terrify the surprised Halleck. (Though at the end of the scene, Devlin uses the door to leave.) Curiously, the supernatural abilities of Devlin come up once before he is hanged, when he somehow knows what a visiting priest is thinking. Actually, despite those three incidents, as well as all those sources I consulted for information about the movie before writing this review back up the claim that the Devlin character has supernatural powers, I'm unable to confirm these claims. The presentations of these supposed powers are done in a way that they could be explained easily by rational thinking. Maybe Devlin heard something before the dynamite explosion. Maybe he did sneak in the bathroom in a normal fashion. And maybe he just guessed the priest's thoughts.

Because of all this doubt, I can't say for sure whether it was intended for Devlin to have supernatural powers. So I'll have to assume that it wasn't intended, and focus on the rest of this pilot. The pilot suggests that each week, Devlin would wander into a new location and help the people there with whatever problem they would be experiencing before hitting the trail again at the end of the episode. Again, not a very original plot device, either for westerns or other kind of dramas. I guess it still could have worked, but the pilot as a whole is very unconvincing in persuading you that it could have been pulled of by this pilot's creators. For starters, take the character of Devlin. Being given a second chance of life is an intriguing prospect. It would no doubt lead you to rethink your life and struggle to make changes in your behavior. But this doesn't really happen in this case. Before his hanging, Devlin has the sympathy of many characters (his lawyer, the town sheriff) and is portrayed as a nice guy who was accused of something he didn't do. Yet after he's hanged, he is more or less the same man as he was before. Think of how interesting it could have been if he was an evil man before the hanging, then afterwards struck with this second chance. He would almost certainly rethink of what he did, maybe struggle with guilt, and as he travels he has to prove again and again in different ways that he's not living up to his bad reputation anymore. But as it's presented here, we get no motivations, no in-depth looks into Devlin's mind. He seems passively content, and that's boring. In fact, when you think about it, the hanging seems absolutely unnecessary; the first thirty minutes of the movie, dealing with his hanging and resurrection could be completely eliminated without having to tinker much with the rest of the script.

Steve Forrest is a talented actor, but the dialogue and direction he is given here make it impossible for him to make an impression and interest the audience enough to want him to prevail. The scenes he has with the widow character make no sparks fly, romantic or otherwise. Most of the other characters in the movie are equally as boring or as very familiar as the various plot threads, though Cameron Mitchell does add a little life to his scenes when he puts some of his trademark hammy acting style into his cigar-chewing villain character. But Mitchell doesn't get much of a chance to stir things up because even though he is the villain, he isn't in that many scenes in the movie. As a result, we never really get to have a feeling of hatred or even mere dislike for this bad guy. Near the very end, when Devlin confronts Mitchell's character for the final time, we are not pumped up and eagerly waiting to see Mitchell pumped with holes - we are just watching, and not have any emotional investment in what we are seeing. The whole movie feels like the writer and the director had no love or personal interest in the project, and just felt like cranking out a product with the minimum amount of energy needed, instead of coming up with a real story with multi-dimensional characters. I suppose that on a technical viewpoint, the movie is competently done. The photography and lighting is professional, and the various sets and props look authentic. The outdoor locations are also pleasant to the eye. But the fact that the viewer will be more interested in this material than the on-screen drama just further illustrates that this pilot not only has nothing new in the story it give its audience, but is presented in a way that has no new perspective. This television pilot is simply on autopilot.

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See also: Earthbound, Evil Roy Slade, Will Penny