Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The First Lady Gunfighter..."

Maybe it was because I was first introduced to the world of the Western through the films of Clint Eastwood that I was never able to enjoy the genre as a whole.  To my grandmother's infinite dismay, I never took a shine to John Wayne.  She complained that Clint had the same expression whether "he's shooting a guy or kissing the girl" to which I replied that Wayne came off the same to me.  I probably saw The Outlaw Josey Wales the most as a kid, but I remember taking an afternoon to watch The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly with my dad, and I was hooked on that desolate, yet operatic, overblown vision of an Old West that had more dirt and grit than the average Western but was at the same time even less realistic.

Apart from Leone's Dollars movie with Eastwood, I didn't really know what a spaghetti western was until probably Junior High, and I didn't get to see any others until college (Thanks Vulcan and I Love Video in Austin!).  It was a whole other bizarre and fascinating world: exploitation films of the wild west as interpreted through the vision of European filmmakers.  In the 60's, in the U.S., the western was foundering. After all, it had been the most popular and highly produced genres since silent films, but had lost steam after fifty plus years. Leone's films would give it a much needed shot in the arm, and upon seeing their success, Hollywood not only imported more movies from the deserts of Almeria, Spain, but even tried making a few, like Hang 'Em High (1968), A Town Called Hell (1971), and today's subject, Hannie Caulder (1971).

(Sadly, this movie was the best I could do as tribute to Ernest Borgnine. RIP.)

Raquel Welch plays the titular gunfighter, who sets out on a path of revenge after being raped by the Clemens Brothers who killed her husband.   Hannie enlists the help of a seasoned bounty hunter, played by Robert Culp, who gets her a gun and instructs her in the ways of gunplay.  Together, they go in pursuit of the Clemens Brothers through the country side and towns. Fairly standard, straightforward Western stuff, yes?

There's only one huge problem. The Clemens Brothers, played by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin, are introduced as a cruel and callous bunch, and the rape scene, while not on the level of Irreversible, is about as pleasant as...well...a rape scene.  From there, however, the trio takes on an unbelieavably bungling tone: imagine the Three Stooges as cowboy hat wearing villains and you're about there.  Strother Martin had played a similar role as the screeching dirtbag bounty hunter in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, but that hadn't been for the laughs this movie was looking for.  It's one of the strangest tonal shifts I've ever scene.  Now, this is a revenge movie, like many movies of this genre are, but I've never seen one that started so dark then try to shoot for something so light.  It doesn't help that Welch goes from being a rape victim to this...
That's a perfectly sexy image BUT not after a brutal gang rape!

The movie never really recovers from this weird inconsistency, which is a shame, as it seems like it should've been fun if they had come up with almost any lighter scenario for putting Welch on the Clemens' trail.  After all, three of the best Western character actors, Borgnine, Elam and Martin, play the bumbling brothers to the hilt, and seem like they're having a great time. Culp plays the intelligent gunfighter admirably.  There's even a strange cameo by Christopher Lee as a seemingly Mexican gunsmith.  However, there's definitely a reason this movie hasn't become the lovable midnite movie fodder that Welch's other vehicles like Fantastic Voyage (1966) or One Million Years B.C. (1966) have over the years, and I'm going to guess that first act gang rape in a movie largely played for laughs pretty well sums up why.