By James Kenney
“Win or Lose, You Lose, Hannie Caulder.” –Thomas Luther Price, Bounty Hunter
Hannie Caulder is two-thirds of an excellent Western, a humpback with spurs. Burt Kennedy’s film, about a woman setting out for vengeance against the three outlaws who murdered her husband and raped her, brings the best out of 60’s and 70’s sexpot Raquel Welch, who indeed is entrancing on camera, but often inadequate as an actress.
Experienced Western writer/director Kennedy gets the best out of her by exploiting her dour pout for dramatic effect; it conveys strength, doubt and suspicion in equal measures, and by having her work off the brilliant, mercurial Robert Culp as Thomas Luther Price, who trains Hannie Caulder to kill, Kennedy really gets a nice rhythm going in their scenes. Culp is great with dialogue, and Welch is great at looking great while listening to him.
But Kennedy, who was still churning out amiable old-Hollywood trifles such as Support Your Local Gunfighter while filmmakers in Europe, specifically Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, were radically reworking the Western, using increased violence and amplified cynicism to better reflect the openly corrupt modern world of the late 20th century, hideously flubs a key aspect of the film. The three rapists, played by Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, and Jack Elam, are all persuasive as reptilian miscreants, yet directed as if they’re the Three Stooges, fumbling around, yelling at each other, and doing “hilarious” stuff like getting on the wrong horse.
This was an awful miscalculation on Kennedy’s part, and it doesn’t make any sense to take Caulder’s mission of vengeance earnestly (which her half of the film does) and then make her targets so exasperatingly cartoonish. It’s a trial getting through the sequences featuring these three, all of whom obviously could have played it straight if directed to do so. They are all the more objectionable as the sequences of Culp trying to train Welch to kill a man are colored in commendably dark hues; there’s nothing heroic about these efforts, with Culp repeating counseling Welch that her quest won’t lead to any leavening of remorse or sadness.
Still Hannie Caulder ends up in the win column thanks to Culp and Welch’s credible and low-key relationship, some fine-looking widescreen photography (the film was shot in Spain), and an unexpected supporting turn from horror favorite Christopher Lee as a gunsmith acquaintance of Culp’s. Most significantly, it is impressive how the film’s central character is a woman – Welch doesn’t hire John Wayne to get the bad guys, she sets out on a trail of vengeance herself; unusually beautiful, she is fairly striking staring down a man with a grim sneer on her face and a shotgun in her hand.
The film would have had a chance to be a classic if Culp had directed (as was the initial plan); his Hickey and Boggs sustains the nihilistic, character-driven tone the Welch-Culp sequences have in Hannie Caulder, and he would have never tolerated the horseplay that overpowers the sequences of the trio of rapists on the run, although Borgnine gets in one good line: “That bitch! Who does she think she is, treating my family to a funeral!” Still, I’m thankful for what we have in Hannie Caulder; it likely contains the best big screen performances of Culp and Welch, and protracted sequences featuring the heavies during which you can do your laundry and make coffee.