Friday, July 24, 2015

A Wasteland Eclipse

It's frustrating how often a movie ostensibly about a woman ends up being about a guy. If 1971's Hannie Caulder had been called Thomas Price I might have liked it a lot more. But it is a decently shot Western with clear influences from famous Italian films of the time in its ragged and weathered sets and costumes.

The Clemens brothers, played by Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, and Strother Martin, are criminals on the run when they come upon a small house inhabited by a young married couple. They kill the husband and gang rape the wife, Hannie, played by Raquel Welch. They burn down her house and leave her to wander the desert with only a poncho.

She vows revenge, something she can't do much about until she meets a preternaturally gifted bounty hunter named Thomas Price (Robert Culp). She begs him to train her and he finally agrees, though honourably refusing to accept her body as payment.

Wikipedia quotes Quentin Tarantino as saying Robert Culp is the reason he likes this film. I can believe it--he's practically a prototype for Christoph Waltz's character in Django Unchained. Though Django, as the apprentice bounty hunter, is a lot more interesting than poor Hannie.

Characters are made or broken in Hannie Caulder by the performances. Hannie's got plenty of motive, we want her to get revenge, but Welch's inability to credibly convey emotions and reactions renders her sort of hypothetical. Culp makes his mysterious, reluctantly decent gunslinger fascinating by imbuing the role with an understated humanity.

The three villains are good for their actors, too, Elam, Borgnine, and Martin rounding out their over the top comedic dialogue to make these three seem like real trash.

Also in the film is Christopher Lee as a gunsmith to whom Thomas goes to get a special light pistol built for Hannie.

I don't know if it's credible for Hannie to need a light gun so badly but it provides an interesting excuse for downtime for the characters which mostly involves Hannie inquiring of the gunsmith as to Thomas' mysterious past as she starts to fall in love with him.

It's not so different from 1965's western Cat Ballou which was supposedly about Jane Fonda in the title role as a female gunslinger but ended up being about Lee Marvin. I think this sort of thing is a natural result of male filmmakers seeing women as an ultimately unknowable "other". I see it again and again in film so that I'm overjoyed whenever I find exceptions, movies with real female POV characters, like Notorious or Cat People. Though I do think Hannie Caulder could have been a very different film with someone other than Raquel Welch in the role.

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