Hannie Caulder (Raquel Welch) is a widow, sworn to avenge her own brutal rape and husband’s murder at the hands of Emmett (Ernest Borgnine), Frank (Jack Elam), and Rufus (Strother Martin) – three of the most despicable scoundrels to have ever roamed the prairie. Eager for revenge, but lacking a gunfighter’s know-how, Hannie soon discovers new confidence and skill when bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp) teaches her the way of the gun. (From Olive’s original synopsis)
Time has a habit of changing the popular perception of ‘genre’ movies. When it was released in 1971, Burt Kennedy’s Hannie Caulder was, like many independently-produced westerns, considered trashy exploitation by critics and largely ignored by audiences. Yet, decades later, its reputation has grown amongst B-movie enthusiasts, thanks in part to it being one of several inspirations behind Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies (2003/04 – though the film also seems to have been a structural/character-based influence on Django Unchained, 2012). As a huge fan of the film, I can understand the original critical trepidation, because Hannie Caulder was so shamelessly designed to cash-in on other films. In fact, appreciating what is ‘wrong’ with the film is a fundamental part of appreciating what Kennedy and original screenwriters David Haft & Peter Cooper did ‘right.’
This immodest streak is actually built into the production from the top of the pyramid, since producer Patrick Curtis designed Hannie Caulder to be a star vehicle for his then-wife, Raquel Welch. Not that Welch needed the help at the time – she was already one of the biggest stars in the world by the end of the ‘60s. Many of her early leading roles (Don Chaffey’s One Million Years B.C., 1966, and Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled, 1967, being prime examples) were cheesecake parts that elevated her status as one of the era’s defining sex symbols. Meanwhile, she also appeared in a couple of A-budget westerns for 20th Century Fox – Andrew V. McLaglen’s Bandolero! (1968) and Tom Gries’ 100 Rifles. Naturally, Welch had wanted to be more than a sex object. Curtis helped to develop a more challenging role for her in George P. Cosmatos’ The Beloved (1970) and, following the production of a successful horror movie (Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers, 1967 – not starring Welch), he and British company, Tigon, set out to make a B-western that would stretch Welch’s dramatic range, while also cashing-in on her iconic status.
As westerns gained popularity on television and the political climate darkened, its popularity waned on the big screen and, by the 1960s, the most prominent titles tended to be the ones that inverted the genre’s tropes or offered audiences something that TV censors wouldn’t allow them to see. Old masters, like Howard Hawks and John Ford, tended to embrace the newly-coined ‘revisionist’ western concept, while Italian filmmakers, like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, dabbled in visual extremes and (comparatively) graphic violence. With its female lead, an anti-romantic view of the American west, and Leone-style emphasis on superheroic gunfighting, Hannie Caulder owes a considerable debt to both the revisionist and ‘spaghetti’ westerns that redefined the genre in the ‘60s to the point that it’s often misattributed to Italian filmmakers. In defense of that mistake, it was shot largely in Almería, Spain, on many of the same locations and stages as the spaghettis (Kennedy actually made a spaghetti western spoof called Support Your Local Gunfighter the same year as Hannie Caulder). It fits more firmly in the broader Euro-western category. But the biggest influence on Kennedy, Curtis, and Tigon was probably Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).
The Wild Bunch’s blood-splattering violence and general nihilism is better represented by crueler trash-westerns, like Don Medford’s The Hunting Party (1971) and Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970), while Hannie Caulder opts to mimic its melancholy tone and quirky, oft-forgotten sense of humour. This is most evident in the fact that Strother Martin and Ernest Borgnine are essentially playing their Wild Bunch characters (Jack Elam is playing a more generic “Jack Elam type,” though there are shades of his portrayal of an ill-fated cowboy in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), as well as the opening sequence, which replays the basic steps of Peckinpah’s initial heist, albeit on a smaller scale. The bullet hits are still pretty bloody, but there is no elongated, balletic slow-motion splatter sessions and the most vile event, namely Hannie’s rape, is largely implied, rather than shown.
Gory or not, at its core – beneath even its western components – Kennedy’s movie is a textbook rape/revenge story and, thus, far more exploitative than Peckinpah’s masterpiece. To its credit, it was at the forefront of a glut of rape/revenge movies that followed Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) and Michael Winner’s Death Wish (also 1972). It was (I believe) the first western to feature a woman avenging her own violation, though the basic tropes had walked hand-in-hand with the genre for decades. Despite an overriding girl-power message, it’s difficult to consider Hannie Caulder a feminist western. There are interesting things to be said about the feminist imagery and the title character adapting traditionally male roles – not to mention traditionally male clothing – but she’s still very dependent on her male co-stars to train her, arm her, and eventually save her from Borgnine’s dirty fighting tactics. There’s also the fact that Welch’s shapely physique is the focus of many scenes and at the center of the film’s ad campaign. Objectifying her was obviously part of the reason Hannie Caulder was even made. In regards to that objectification, Kennedy also paints the villains as incompetent, bickering buffoons, rather than the more traditional vicious scumbags of Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1980) or even the sorrowful schmucks of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (not quite a rape/revenge movie, but pertinent to the discussion, 1971).
As I continue comparing the film to the more influential movies that inspired it and acknowledging its sordid side, I risk underselling Kennedy’s filmmaking skill. Truthfully, because its plot is so dependent on boilerplate familiarity, Hannie Caulder’s success rides on its performances and the visual structure of its workhorse director. Kennedy’s affiliation with westerns dates back to his earlier career as a screenwriter, including scripts for Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T (1957, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s The Captives) and Comanche Station (1960). Few of his movies as director have Hannie Caulder’s tawdry entertainment value, but he did work on more ‘reputable’ productions, like Return of the Seven (the first sequel to The Magnificent Seven, 1966) and Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969). His work here is never as flashy as Leone nor Peckinpah, but his understated camera work and terse editing moves the film quickly through its disparate tones (the script requires him to shift between quirky comedy and heightened melodrama) and the action scenes are tightly constructed.
For quite some time, Hannie Caulder was only available on DVD from the UK, Germany, and Japan, including some that were mis-framed at 1.85:1, instead of the appropriate 2.35:1. It didn’t make its way to North America until 2010, when the relatively new Olive Films debut its bare-bones DVD and Blu-ray versions. Both transfers were struck from similar sources to those correctly-framed European releases. The results were fine, but there was room for improvement. Now, Olive has taken another crack at Hannie Caulder as part of their Signature line. There is no description of their restoration process in the Blu-ray’s liner notes or advertising materials, but I assume they’ve done a 2K or 4K rescan of the original materials, similar to their Johnny Guitar Signature Blu-ray, because I don’t think they could’ve squeezed this much more detail from that first transfer. At the very least, this must be a different scan, because the print damage artifacts do not always match.
The overall sharpness and contrast is much improved, especially in the backgrounds of wide-angle shots. The original transfer now appears fuzzy and flat in comparison. Of course, the sharper edges and higher dynamic range also lead to more noticeable grain. Noting that the grain does appear darker on the new scan, it still appears more accurate for a 35mm movie. Black levels and sharpness may have been pressed a little too far across the board, though, leading to some crush and slight edge haloes. Other compression effects are minimal (there’s some mosquito noise that’s only noticeable in the stills here) and the more ‘defined’ look is an upgrade over the washed-out original transfer. The color timing has only been slightly tweaked, unlike Olive’s Johnny Guitar re-release, which completely redesigned the palette. The overall image is just a smidge warmer, though never at the risk of blue skies and oceans.
Hannie Caulder is presented in its original mono sound and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. I assume that, unlike the majority of Italian, Spanish, and German westerns, this one was shot with production sound. Even if there is some post-production dubbing, the actors are speaking their own lines. This and the soft ambience lead to a relatively natural aural field, though the single channel mixing is still relatively flat. The music and louder elements, like gunshots, have decent depth and dynamic range, all things considered. While Kennedy and whoever designed the film’s opening titles clearly drew inspiration from the spaghetti westerns, composer Ken Thorne’s score takes a more traditional approach, blending Gunsmoke and Elmer Bernstein-inspired themes with a twinge of late-’60s pop production. The only thing he seems to have borrowed from Ennio Morricone is the use of a jaw-harp. The main titles are a variation on a theme sung by Bobby Hanna called “Life Never is Easy,” written by Jack Fishman, that plays over the end titles.
Commentary with Alex Cox – Western expert, author of 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western (Kamera Books, 2008), and the director of subversive classics Repo Man (1984), Straight to Hell (1987), and Walker (1987) Alex Cox discusses the ins & outs of Hannie Caulder. He mixes critical dissection with behind-the-scenes factoids about the locations, the cast, and genre tropes. He even breaks down the technical history of blood squibs. Considering his biggest area of expertise, Italian-made westerns, it is not surprising that so much of the commentary is about contextualizing the movie within the spaghetti tradition. Cox slows a bit during the middle of the movie, but manages to pick up the pace for the last half hour.
Exploitation or Redemption? (12:13, HD) – An examination of rape/revenge movies with film scholar Ben Raphael Sher, who does his best to conceptualize the genre, its controversial status in critical feminist cinema circles, and Hannie Caulder’s place in the pantheon.
Win or Lose: Tigon Pictures and the Making of Hannie Caulder (21:73, HD) – Critic Sir Christopher Frayling, the author of Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death (Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2000), runs down the history of Tigon and how the studio, which was mostly known for horror movies, ended up making a western featuring a star of Raquel Welch’s stature. He also discusses Kennedy’s career as a traditional western director (he apparently did not enjoy making this film) and other female-driven westerns.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance – A text essay by critic Miriam Bale
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