An early entry in the rape-revenge subgenre, Burt Kennedy’s western Hannie Caulder requires you to squint pretty hard to read it as a proto-feminist work. The framework is there — Raquel Welch’s titular character wreaks violent vengeance on a trio of men who raped her — but the details don’t really support it, from the way Kennedy films the rape to the way he portrays her assaulters to the repeated narrative beat where Hannie must rely on a man for help.
One could easily argue that Kennedy (who wrote the screenplay using the pen name Z.X. Jones) is more interested in the rapists, the three Clemens brothers played with slimy verve by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin. The film opens with their misbegotten robbery attempt and continues to check in with them regularly after they murder Hannie’s husband and take turns raping her inside her home. Kennedy shoots much of this scene in long shot from the house’s exterior — an ostensible attempt at tastefulness that only underlines how unlikely it is that he had feminist aspirations. Identification with Hannie is never a major goal.
While the continued exploits of the Clemens brothers — always pitched at just a notch below actual comedy — always feel out of place, the film gets on track as it develops the relationship between Hannie and Robert Culp’s Thomas Luther Price, the bounty hunter who Hannie convinces to teach her how to become a gunslinger.
The pair travels to Mexico, where a mild-mannered gunsmith (Christopher Lee, in his only western) fashions her a weapon, and Price teaches her how to use it. The practical education is simple — cue montages of Welch doing repetitive arm exercises with a rock and string, and gradually firing more accurately — but the psychological preparation isn’t, Price warns. Culp’s contained performance only occasionally allows for glimpses into the character’s violent mode of existence, and it makes for a compelling character.
As for Welch — well, it seems almost like tautology to say her performance isn’t remarkable. This isn’t a film that would change any long-held opinions about her, but there is a steeliness and a stillness to her performance that works quite well at points. One doesn’t especially get a sense of the turmoil raging inside her, but in a better film, this blankness might have worked.
Hannie Caulder is a mishmash — a film with subversive trappings, but not their convictions. In the extras of Olive Films’ new Blu-ray re-release, several arguments are presented that casting an internationally renowned sex symbol like Welch was a way to problematize the genre, but there’s little evidence that the film is upending convention in its use of Welch’s image. For the first act, Welch is dressed in little more than a blanket, and when she finally gets some pants, she’s urged to wear them in the bath to make them fit. Where does the camera go next? Inside her room where we see her stand up in the bath from behind, the leather clinging to her body. She tugs a little at the pants before sitting back down. “Make them tighter,” the film seems to say.
Olive’s second Blu-ray release of Hannie Caulder, this one part of its upscale new Signature line, gives the film a fresh transfer, and the 1080p, 2.35:1 image is generally quite good, offering excellent clarity, and sharpness, if some color and contrast inconsistency. There are a few exceptionally grainy shots that look like they came from an inferior source, but overall, the transfer resolves grain well. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is excellent, delivering a healthy amount of low-end heft and perfectly clear dialogue.
The extras also represent a significant upgrade over the previous barebones release. Director Alex Cox, himself the director of several interesting unconventional westerns (Straight to Hell, Walker, Searchers 2.0) lends a laconic commentary track that’s appealing from a hangout perspective, while Ben Sher’s look at rape-revenge films takes a more academic tack. Christopher Frayling recounts some interesting history of British production studio Tigon Pictures, while offering up some thoughts of his own on the film. Defending the film most convincingly is Kim Morgan, whose essay is offered both as an on-screen text supplement and in the included booklet.