“Hannie Caulder” (1972)
Sometimes a movie is crafted with an admirable skill that, while falling short of artistry, manages to work quiet wonders in the small details which through an amalgam of calculated design, instinct, blind luck and providence, fortuitously produces moments which transcend the familiar, bringing shades and textures unique to the film going experience; and yet, things can still go spectacularly wrong. Such a case of an extreme aesthetic tug of war is on view in Burt Kennedy’s “Hannie Caulder”, a western that presents a truly unique variation of the classic revenge theme based upon an unsound rationale which presupposes an empathetic charity in the audience, who is asked to sympathize with the devastated victim of brutal multiple rapes, while concurrently finding the continued reprehensible behavior of her assailants comically amusing.
Fugitives from a bungled bank robbery, the Clemens brothers, Emmett (Ernest Borgnine), Frank (Jack Elam) and Rufus (Strother Martin), assault a horse station, killing the proprietor and gang raping his wife Hannie (Raquel Welch, once again perfectly at ease in the saddle). Painfully following the trio’s path on foot, Hannie encounters bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp, in a magnificent performance), who slowly resigns himself to be her mentor in handling a gun, after his initial indifference to the traumatized woman’s requests thaw. (Significantly, it is never suggested that Price himself should track down the rampaging threesome.) It is during the middle third of the film, where the two travel to Mexico to the coastal retreat of an expatriate Confederate gunsmith Bailey (Christopher Lee, seeming to relish the change from formula horror films) that the film settles into a fascinating seminar in the art of gunfighting. The Mexico sequences exude a almost Hemingwayesque tone in their spare economy of expression, that is both dramatically satisfying and emotionally rich. There is a beautifully captured moment with Hannie and Price in silhouette on the shoreline: Hannie, walking behind, takes his hand and the sudden, slight shift in Price’s gait speaks wordless volumes about how this hard man is imbued with an increased sense of purposefulness through the merest show of tenderness.
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