Friday, January 14, 2011

Hannie Caulder (1971)

by Chad "Caulder? I barely knew 'er!" Eagleton

Hannie Caulder moves fast and only pauses for breath. It opens with the Clemens Brothers, a trio of outlaws played by Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, and Jack Elam, robbing a bank. After outrunning some lazy federales, the gang comes to a stagecoach station where they encounter Mr. Caulder, who tries to stop them from stealing fresh horses. Martin cuts Caulder down with a shotgun, painting the screen in Technicolor red. With Caulder dead, the gang looks around. Inside, they find his wife, Hannie Caulder, played by Raquel Welch.

You know what happens next, right?

When they’ve all had a turn, the gang sets fire to the stage station and rides off as Hannie Caulder stumbles out with a poncho too small for Eastwood’s shoulders and rags tied around her feet. Luckily, she happens on a bounty hunter named Thomas Luther Price, played by Robert Culp. Price agrees to help her, but before the bad-ass will teach Hannie the gun, she needs a specific weapon.

In Mexico, she tracks down a legendary gunsmith, played by Christopher Lee in one of his few turns as a good guy. He crafts a special piece for Hannie, an intricate and ornate revolver with two triggers. She learns the gun and takes her revenge.

So as interesting as all that sounds, I’m sure you’re wondering, why bother? Westerns dominated cinema and television for years before morphing into shows about cops. The revenge theme reoccurs with the same frequency the Duggar family shits out another kid. But in Hannie Caulder there’s something interesting at work.

Like I said, the film wastes no time. It clocks in at just over an hour and twenty minutes. In terms of narrative, that’s really interesting because, in a lot of ways, Hannie Caulder is probably the truest comic book adaptation you’ll ever see. No, I don’t mean that it’s based on a comic. I mean that in the film, the story is told the same way it is in a comic. You are an active participant. You fill in all the unseen events that happen between panels and pages. You rely on brief and startling images--images with very little dialogue or exposition--in order to set scenes, mood, theme, and character growth.

Hannie Caulder functions with those same expectations from its audience. Shot on the cheap in Spain by a British company, the film uses what should be its weaknesses to craft something different, the Western myth-image distilled to its bare-boned basics.

Director Burt Kennedy shapes the images that drive the entire film beautifully, using breathtaking shots of desolate western vistas to connect bits of narrative, to transition between changes of environment, plot, and character. He doesn’t film a twenty-minute shoot-out during the opening bank robbery because you know what a bank robbery looks like. You know the blaze of guns, the bags of money flapping as the villains jump on their horses and run from the law. Kennedy captures the bank robbery scene, the tension and the desperation, by placing the camera behind a shotgun, our view rendered down both barrels straight out from our collective unconscious.

Rape scenes in film speak volumes about our society. We deal with it badly in the real world and rarely speak of it, but understand its abhorrence to such a degree that even its most cursory use provides sufficient motivation for a bullet-driven frenzy. The director doesn’t dwell on it here. Even as it’s happening, Kennedy films this violation of choice in a whirlwind of camera movement, each face swirls into another brother’s face, each brother’s slap tracked by a different brother’s laugh. He renders it without titillation or graphic focus, giving us only the haunting aftermath, the nightmare that haunts the victim’s thoughts from the start and then shifts to Raquel Welch, broken and battered, as lovely and haunted as despair, shuffling through the barren landscape.

With the image being the thing, the film eschews dialogue and it works. Though Hollywood has never seemed to understand that sexy doesn’t mean you can act, this film gets it and uses it as an advantage. While Raquel Welch circa 1971 is amazingly stunning, the rare moments in which she delivers lines fall unbelievably and horribly flat. But when she emotes with only her face, just expressions, she’s as perfect a piece of visual story-telling as the art of R. M. GuĂ©ra.

Even in his bit part, Christopher Lee doesn’t need to speak more than a line or two. Though he’s bearded, he’s obviously Christopher Lee. By not disappearing into his role through some Method-driven transformation, he’s allowed to remain Christopher Lee and bring all the villainous weight of his previous roles to bear on his gunsmith scenes. As you watch him hammer the hot steel, you can feel every ounce of fanged evil permeating and seeping into that barrel. You know a gun like that will bring death.

The little dialogue spoken is given to the outlaws and the bounty hunter. Borgnine, Martin, and Elam are perfectly cast. They’re villains stripped of the usual flare that signifies the black-hatted baddie in Western films. The Clemens brothers are three guys that would shoot you in the back when you’re drunk, not challenge you to a high-noon shootout, gun blasts interposed with soliloquies. There’s no panache here, only brutal stupidity and ruthless idiocy.

Culp is perfect as the bounty hunter. He carries the role with a weary weight and a worldly wisdom, delivering his lines with purpose. On one hand, he stands in stark contrast to the outlaws. He operates with the weight of the law behind him. He’s intelligent, well kempt, and always has money. But he’s just as lonesome and just as shaped by all the killing. Like he tells Hannie, “…either way, you lose.”

However, even with some unforgettable images, everything isn’t perfect. In a couple of places, the silent and image-driven narrative lags. There are some very brief comedic bits that feel jarringly out of place. And the ending, while fulfilling, ventures too much into arty-psychological territory for my own liking. But those are all just minor gripes and Hannie Caulder remains a film worth seeing.

If nothing else, you can impress your friends the next time you watch Kill Bill by pointing out some film-geek nods they didn’t catch.