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The Bootleg Files: The Hangman

BOOTLEG FILES 659: “The Hangman” (1964 animated short).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: No release to date.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It would be nice.

With Halloween a few days away, I was wondering if it would be too corny to stick a horror movie into this week’s column. But rather than go the traditional route of horror movies featuring ghouls, ghosts and God-knows-what the FX people conjure up, I am opting for an intellectual horror story where the real evil does not require the presence of the supernatural or the paranormal – but, instead, comes from the quotidian.

“The Hangman” is a 1964 animated short directed by Les Goldman and Paul Julian. Goldman was best known for his work as a production manager on Chuck Jones’ MGM Tom and Jerry shorts while Julian was a background artist during the artistic peak years of the Warner Bros. studios; he also worked on the UPA classic “The Tell-Tale Heart” and did some wonderfully gruesome title art for horror flicks including “Dementia 13.” For this film, they adapted a poem written by Maurice Ogden under the pseudonym of Jack Denoya and first published in 1954 in Masses and Mainstream, one of the rare unapologetically Marxist journals to be circulated in the U.S. during the McCarthy era.

“The Hangman” is relayed by an unnamed narrator (the voice of Herschel Bernardi) and takes place in an unidentified town where life seems perfectly uneventful. One day, the title character unexpectedly shows up and constructs his gallows outside of the local courthouse. This confuses the townspeople, who are unaware of any local criminal activity that would warrant this form of punishment. The response, according to the narrator: “He who serves me best,” said he, “Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree.”

The hangman begins his reigns by taking “a man who came from another land” from the local population, binding his hands and placing a noose around his neck. As the foreigner’s body dangles from the end of a rope, the narrator sighs that “for another’s grief at the Hangman’s hand was our relief.”

Alas for the town, the hangman’s job was not limited to the foreigner. When the new day arrives and the hangman is still positioned at his gallows, the locals are unhappy at his presence. One man yells “Shame!” at the hangman’s seemingly jocular response to the crowd – that man is taken by the hangman and a noose quickly brings about his death.

The hangman continues to pick out his victims – first a Jewish man, then a black man, and then others who are not identified by ethnicity, religion or race. Over time, the gallows starts to grow to monstrous proportions and the population shrinks one by one, while The Hangman’s face takes on an increasingly skeletal appearance.

Can you tell where this is heading? If not, then consider this the prelude to the spoiler. If you don’t want the ending to be revealed by me, check out the film on YouTube and then come back. Otherwise, let’s proceed.

The Hangman did his job so well that the only person left in the town is the narrator. The hangman calls out for this man, who mistakenly believes that he is being sought to dismantle the gallows. Instead, the hangman seizes the narrator, who complains that he was tricked by this mysterious executioner. But the hangman coolly tells him that the scaffold was meant solely for him, as his silence at the hangman’s earlier actions enabled the deaths of innocent people who did no wrong.

The narrator’s final words: “Beneath the beam that blocked the sky, none had stood so alone as I – and the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there cried ‘Stay’ for me in the empty square.”

“The Hangman” was created in a series of eerie, almost Daliesque still pictures animated by Margaret Julian – there is scant biographical information about her, and from her surname, I assume she was either the wife or a relative of co-director Paul Julian. Throughout the film, the camera pans back and forth across these pictures while Bernardi’s emotional narration and Serge Hovey’s off-beat music score create a sinister environment. There is a brief bit of traditional animation near the end of the film as the hangman’s appearance changes violently, which gives the impression of a nightmare opening into a full-blown living horror. As a work of animation minimalism, “The Hangman” scores a maximum effect.

“The Hangman” was one of two productions to share the short film honor at the 1964 Locarno International Film Festival, but it failed to get an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Subject. For years, it was a staple of the educational film market, and many people first encountered it in a middle school or high school classroom. But, to date, it has been absent from commercial home video release. As a one-shot short released outside of the studio system, it seems to have fallen into a state of limbo – and while copies have turned up online, these are unauthorized postings. Still, if not for the grey market, “The Hangman” would be lost to us.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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