In 1865, a troop of Confederate soldiers led by Major Matt Stewart attack the wagon of gold escorted by Union cavalry and the soldiers are killed. The only wounded survivor tells that the war ended one month ago, and the group decides to take the gold and meet their liaison that knew that the war ended but did not inform the troop. The harsh Rolph Bainter kills the greedy man and the soldiers flee in his wagon driven by Major Stewart. When they meet a posse chasing them, Stewart gives wrong information to misguide the group; however, they have an accident with the wagon and lose the horses. They decide to stop a stagecoach and force the driver to transport them, but the posse returns and they are trapped in the station with the passenger. They realize that the men are not deputies and have no intention to bring them to justice but take the stolen gold.
Damn shame this film is only an hour and twenty minutes! A unit of Confederate soldiers out on a special mission attack a Union troop that is carrying a cargo of gold. The idea being that the gold will be used to better the Confederate cause, but upon finding a barely living Union survivor, they learn that General Lee has surrendered and the war finished a month prior. The men, now guilty of murder outside of war regulations, are hunted by suspect deputies, taking a stagecoach hostage and holing up at a stage line way station, inner conflicts and murderous thieves are the order of the night. Incredible to think that this fine Western was the only effort to have been directed by Roy Huggins; because it's exactly that, damn fine. He would go on to direct notable work in TV such as The Virginian, The Rockford Files, Maverick and The Fugitive, but it seems that he wanted to put down a marker that he could in fact direct a feature length film, and although it only runs at a respectable 80 minutes, he must have been real satisfied with the finished product. Huggins is backed up by genre legend Randolph Scott in the lead role of Major Matt Stewart, with Scott providing the sort of performance that reminds us of his excellent work for Budd Boetticher in Ride Lonesome, The Tall T and Comanche Station etc. Donna Reed (lovely as ever), Lee Marvin (another fine loose cannon job), Richard Denning and Frank Faylen all beef up the cast, and although some of the other supporting players do not quite shine so bright, they do, however, earn their corn and don't harm the movie. The film itself is structured real well, we open with a fantastic sequence as the "Rebs" attack the Union troop, with Charles Lawton Jr's photography expertly capturing the Lone Pine vista in Technicolor glory. From here we are centred inside the way station in what at first appears to be your standard Rio Bravo set up, this set up could easily have failed if the characters inside the building were dull and very uninteresting. Thankfully Huggins, who wrote the story as well as directing it, gives us characters of interest with little offshoots of conflicts to further enhance the plot. This makes for a tense build up until we lurch towards the inevitable showdown where the rouges gallery of thugs outside - who want the gold at any cost to life - plot with hungry menace. It's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, as some B movie traits and budgetary tone downs are evident, but the quality is still impressively high. From the direction and photography to the performances of the leads; Hangman's Knot is an essential viewing for the discerning Western fan. 8/10