The Hangman (1964)

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“I did no more than you let me do.”
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vt Hangman
US / 11 minutes / color / Melrose Productions Dir: Paul Julian, Les Goldman Pr & Conception: Les Goldman Scr: Maurice Ogden Story: “The Hangman” (1954 in Masses and Mainstream magazine; poem) by Jack Denoya (i.e., Maurice Ogden) Animation: Paul Julian, Margaret Julian, Auril Thompson, Inge Vartian Cine: Ray Bloss Cast: Herschel Bernardi

“The Hangman” is a poem that was first published in 1954 in Masses and Mainstream, a US Marxist magazine that bravely continued publication all through the McCarthyist era. The poem is generally assumed to be a critique of the McCarthyist witch hunts, although nowadays, when cited, it’s usually regarded as being an objection to any form of authoritarian, exclusionary politics, whether of right or (supposedly) left.

Perhaps because of its Marxist origins, the poem has tended to be less frequently quoted than the famous statement/poem attributed to Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a German pastor who, despite initially supporting Nazism, ended up vehemently opposing it and spent time in concentration camps as a reward:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist,

and so on.

“Hangman, who is he for whom you raise the gallows tree?”

“The Hangman” expresses similar sentiments, although here couched in the form of a story. A hangman arrives in an unnamed town and erects his gallows. The inhabitants nervously ask who it is he’s come here to hang, and as if to answer them he

laid his hand
on a man who came from another land.
And we breathed again, for another’s grief
at the hangman’s hand, was our relief.

Yet the next day it becomes clear that their relief was misplaced:

“Do you think I’ve gone to all this fuss,
To hang one man? That’s the thing I do.
To stretch the rope when the rope is new.”

“And the gallows frame on the courthouse lawn by tomorrow’s sun would be struck and gone.”

One by one, over the days that follow, the townspeople go to the gallows—the person who calls out the hangman’s evil, the Jew, the black, etc.—with the hangman claiming that each new hanging is just a testing of the equipment . . . the machinery, you might call it, of justice. All the while, fed by the blood of its victims, the gallows grows and grows until its shadow lies across the entire town.

He laughed a laugh as he looked at us.

The conclusion is inevitable, but no less devastating for that:

“You tricked me, Hangman!” I shouted then,
“that your scaffold was built for other men,
and I’m no henchman of yours,” I cried.
“You lied to me, Hangman, foully lied.”

Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye,
“Lied to you . . . tricked you?” he said. “Not I . . .
for I answered straight and told you true.
The scaffold was raised for none but you.”

“For who has served more faithfully?
With your coward’s hope,” said he.
“And where are the others that might have stood
side by your side, in the common good?”

“Dead!” I answered, and amiably,
“Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me.
“First the alien . . . then the Jew.
I did no more than you let me do.”

 

“Then through the town the hangman came and called through the empty streets . . . my name.”

It doesn’t take much by way of exercising the little gray cells to guess why there’s been an uptick in the popularity of Ogden’s narrative poem over the past year or two, and it may be for this same reason that this animated short based on it has been restored for (so far as I can gather) the festival circuit. The unrestored version, which is the one I viewed, is available in all the usual places on the intertubes.

The two directors, Les Goldman and Paul Julian, are figures of some interest in animation circles. Goldman worked extensively in various production capacities, including for slews of animated shorts and with Chuck Jones on such classics as The Dot and the Line (1965) and The Phantom Tollbooth (1970).

Paul Julian was regarded as one of the finest background artists at work during the heyday of the Warner Bros. animation studio—his style is immediately recognizable in The Hangman (while the modernist, limited animation is more reminiscent of the UPA output)—but his best-known contribution is as the voice of Road Runner in the famous Chuck Jones cartoons. It seems Julian was in the habit, as he staggered along under a load of artwork, of giving a warning: “Mnyeep! Mnyeep!” Simplified to “Beep! Beep!” and with Julian himself as voice artist, this became Road Runner’s trademark—indeed, the entirety of his dialogue.

Herschel Bernardi, who narrates, is probably best known to those of a noirish inclination as Lieutenant Jacoby, the cop who gaped in awe as the eponymous hero of Blake Edwards’s long-running TV show Peter Gunn (114 episodes 1958–1961) did his stuff. Bernardi was himself a victim of the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist, so must have been painfully aware that the poem wasn’t just some empty fable.

On its first release, this minimally animated short, with the almost hypnotically compelling rhythm of its narration and its shrewdly juxtaposed soundtrack composed by Serge Hovey, shared with Letitia (1964 dir Stig Björkman) the Silver Sail Award at the 1964 Locarno International Film Festival.

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12 thoughts on “The Hangman (1964)

    • I’m surprised the short isn’t better known, to be honest, even taking into account that it was probably regarded as Hellish Radical when first released.

      And the narration is beautifully done!

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