#15 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This is a hidden gem of a film from Ford’s silent period. Much of Ford’s output often feels somewhat erratic, with different narrative pieces introduced and never quite fitting together, but Hangman’s House is a shockingly well put together film. At only 70 minutes, it feels stuffed with detail, but that detail never feels like a distraction here. Instead, everything works in tandem, revolving around everything else with a solid narrative core. It’s got so much of what animated Ford (horse racing, Ireland, the underdog everyman against the traitorous outsider), and it ends up working wonderfully well together.
In Algeria, in the French Foreign Legion, is an Irish man, Denis Hogan (Victor McLaglen) who receives news and immediately declares that he must go home to Ireland, even though he has a price on his head there. We do not learn the reasons for his return until much later, though. Back home, the elderly judge, Lord Justice O’Brien (Hobart Bosworth), the hangman’s judge as he’s called, is nearing death and trying to arrange for the advantageous match of his daughter, Connaught (June Collyer), at the same time. She’s in love with the local Dermot McDermot (Larry Kent), but Father has his eyes on the wealthy socialite John D’Arcy (Earle Fox), who should be able to open doors for her future. Because he is dying, Conn gives into her father’s demands and marries D’Arcy.
Lord Justice O’Brien is haunted by the people he sent to the gallows, though. There’s a wonderful little moment where O’Brien looks into the fire and sees flashbacks (including an uncredited John Wayne) of his victims. Beset by guilt, when Hogan appears outside his window in a hood, resembling Death to a certain degree, O’Brien has a heart attack and dies on the night of his daughter’s wedding. Conn, though, is trapped in a loveless marriage with the unappealing D’Arcy while Dermot promises to be her friend no matter what.
There’s a big horserace in the county, and Conn has placed her own horse, The Bard, in the race. When the jockey mysteriously disappears, Dermot offers to ride for her, an offer she happily takes. However, D’Arcy fights the idea, having put all the money he could borrow on another horse (and presumably being responsible for the disappearance of the jockey). The race is the kind of well-filmed spectacle Ford demonstrated he could handle in The Shamrock Handicap with exciting jumps and falls as the horses race over fences and walls, ultimately leading to the expected outcome of Dermot winning.
D’Arcy is broken, his dreams of fleeing Ireland with his winnings dashed, and Dermot and Conn begin to hope that they might be able to find a way to be together. Dermot flings his wallet at D’Arcy with a promise to kill him if Dermot ever sees him again, and Dermot goes to find Citizen Hogan, having heard that Hogan might know something about D’Arcy’s past. Hogan, having been captured by the English soldiers at the race and escaped at the hands of his Irish loyalists, finally offers up his reasons for returning to Ireland. D’Arcy had married Hogan’s sister in Paris, abandoning her, an action that led to her death.
Without a plan on what to do in the future, Dermot returns Conn home, to her father’s large house, and goes home himself. However, D’Arcy has come back and he’s trying to sell everything in the house. Dermot and Hogan return for a final showdown, and it’s the amalgamation of elements into an exciting conclusion that Ford had already become well-practiced at.
Why did I enjoy this movie so much? Because despite its short runtime and rather large set of characters, elements of setting, and crisscrossing motives, everything ends up coming together in a satisfying way. Like a series of cogs fitting together perfectly to create the smooth motion of a single machine with a single purpose. Every character is there supporting the central story of justice being visited upon those who have escaped it. Every action is in support of it. And, more importantly, the characters and their motivations feel real, avoiding sensations of contrivance. It’s a very good movie, a real hidden gem.