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Thursday, November 17, 2016
One of the last purveyors of the "traditional" western in the 60s and 70s was Burt Kennedy. Not a particularly flashy or stylish director, he did a workmanlike job with such entertaining but generally "meat and potatoes" westerns as THE TRAIN ROBBERS, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF!, DIRTY DINGUS MAGEE, and THE WAR WAGON.
In 1971, British film company Tigon decided to deviate from their usual Hammeresque horror movies and make a western, hiring Kennedy to handle the director's chores. Kennedy, whether by his own design or Tigon's, took this as an opportunity to embellish his usual old school western style with elements he obviously admired from the more offbeat work of such innovators as Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.
This resulted in the odd but keenly interesting hybrid HANNIE CAULDER (1970), starring then-current sex goddess Raquel Welch as a frontier woman who, having been widowed and raped by three scurvy outlaws known as the Clemmons brothers, seeks to learn the ways of the gunfighter from a passing bounty hunter so that she can embark on a quest for revenge.
The Italian influence is obvious in the locations--Kennedy filmed in Spain in settings familiar to spaghetti western fans, including actual town sets used earlier in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. His nods to Peckinpah include bloodier violence (especially in the use of squibs), stronger profanity, and one scene which utilizes extreme slow motion to draw out a particularly key moment to its fullest.
Hints of both Leone and Peckinpah's pessimism and lack of sentimentality also emerge--or at least they try to, since Kennedy doesn't really have the heart not to let things get either warm and fuzzy or downright lighthearted at times. Hannie may be out for blood and her bounty hunter friend Thomas Luthor Price (Robert Culp) may assume a steely air most of the time, but their relationship eventually tends toward the mushy side.
Even the outlaw rapists are allowed to be funny, since they're such a pathetic bunch of filthy morons that we enjoy laughing derisively at their antics (they're constantly squabbling and screaming at each other) even as we look forward to their inevitable demise.
While the rape-revenge motif makes HANNIE CAULDER a precursor to much more exploitative fare such as I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, the actual outrage is done with relative restraint and manages to convey the trauma of the act without wallowing in it or, worse, trying for any kind of titillation (despite having sex-symbol Raquel playing the victim).
A few brief-but-disturbing shots (mostly from Hannie's point of view so that we identify only with her) and it's over, setting up what the film is really about, which is her evolution from housewife to gunfighter and her eventual showdowns with each dirty outlaw in turn.
These come after a long sequence in which Price trains Hannie in the ways of the shootist while they wait for his gunsmith friend Bailey (Christopher Lee) to fashion her a personalized pistol. Bailey has an oceanfront adobe house in Mexico (that is, Spain), allowing Kennedy to indulge his artistic side for awhile as Hannie and Price's relationship progresses to slow hand-in-hand walks on the beach at sunset. It's also the setting for an exciting gun battle when a group of bandits show up looking for trouble and Hannie must learn whether or not she really has the ability to kill.
In the title role, the beautiful Raquel is interesting to watch by default, especially when dressed up as a female version of Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name", while her performance is, as usual, entirely adequate. Culp, one of my favorite TV actors from his many appearances including his own classic series "I Spy", is at his lanky, laconic best as reluctant gunfighting tutor Price, who gets to indulge in a cool shootout or two himself while going about his profession.
Lee seems to enjoy his non-vampiric role--he was sick and tired of being Dracula by that time--and Elam, Borgnine, and Martin, of course, have a collective field day as the scum-of-the-earth Clemmons brothers. Also appearing to good effect are aging British sex bomb Diana Dors as a saloon madam and Stephen Boyd (Raquel's co-star in FANTASTIC VOYAGE) as a mysterious gunman in black.
The DVD from Olive Signature Films is a new high-def digital restoration in 2.35:1 widescreen with mono sound and optional English subtitles. In addition to an informative commentary by director and author Alex Cox (REPO MAN), extras include the featurettes "Exploitation or Redemption?" with film scholar Ben Sher, "Win or Lose: Tigon Pictures and the Making of 'Hannie Caulder'" with Sir Christopher Frayling, and the text essay "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" by film critic Kim Morgan, which is also featured in the attractively illustrated booklet included with the disc.
As the Clemmons boys open the film by staging a bloody bank robbery and later have to face the vengeful Hannie in variations of the classic western showdown, Kennedy succeeds in giving Leone and Peckinpah fans the satisfying bursts of realistic violence they've come to expect by 1971. Yet his traditional style persistently bleeds through, so to speak, making HANNIE CAULDER--a British production filmed in Spain by an American director--one of the era's more interesting westerns simply by being such a tantalizing hodgepodge.
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