Hannie Caulder (1971)

Even as I write this, it still barely registers that this is essentially a classic rape and revenge story, only with a western gunfighter twist. It’s strange because the rape is obviously an integral part of the story, yet as you watch the movie they manage to avoid the typical exploitative sleaziness that is inherent to the genre so well that the rape ends up feeling almost inconsequential compared to the murder of her husband when it comes to the motive behind Raquel Welch’s character, Hannie Caulder, walking down the path of vigilante justice. The crucial difference here seems to be the fact that the rape itself, while certainly violent, is handled with a degree of style without any excessive and sordid objectification involved. After briefly showing each of the three Clemens brothers forcing themselves on Hannie one after the other, the camera shifts to outside and only shows the house from a considerable distance away for nearly a whole minute, letting you only hear the screams coming from inside. It’s disturbing, but that distance between you, the viewer, and the rape creates a buffer field and thus considerably tones down a lot of the weight and impact of the brutal sexual attack that Hannie experiences.

Keeping up with the subject of rape, the original movie poster has some pretty uncomfortable subtext to it once you are aware of the wider context, as it has Welch posing rather sensually in it, playing up her sex appeal  by sitting with her legs seductively wide open… all this while she’s completely surrounded by her rapists, one of whom is even gleefully smiling for the camera. I really like the composition of the poster but God, it’s so awkward to look at it now because my thoughts immediately turn to the gang-rape now.

Moving on, the  most interesting aspect of the movie is the depiction of its main antagonists, the outlaw trio known as the Clements brothers. By all accounts they are a pretty despicable bunch of miscreants, violent and horrible creatures with little regard to human life. But they are also incredibly inept at being criminals, to a point where they work as a sort of comedic relief to the story, as you repeatedly see them fail at their attempts to rob banks, their incompetence grows to a point where it becomes almost parodical. It’s a fascinating choice to make them the villains of the piece and then treat them as complete fools. One could easily interpret that as a metaphor for the increasing influence of the feminist movement and empowerment of women that was happening around the time of the release of the movie. At the beginning, Hannie is nothing but a hapless housewife who becomes a victim to horrible violence, but once she starts to take charge of her fate, she transforms into an avatar of retribution with actual power and agency, she becomes the one who is in charge, where as the Clemens gang start to become increasingly emasculated and powerless to do anything to thwart their ultimate demise, thus completely reversing the original roles as Hannie one by one hunts them down and exacts her revenge.

The casting is very solid here. Raquel Welch completely sells herself as a badass gunslinger once she learns the ropes. There’s a pleasant little surprise in the movie in the form of Christopher Lee’s small role as the gunsmith who builds Hannie a gun. He doesn’t add much to the story, but he does get to shoot a bunch of Mexican bandits at one point with a rifle which was plenty of fun to watch. All three of the Clemens brothers are also very good at being rotten and goofy bastards, Ernest Borgnine especially. It’s actually a bit unfair that Robert Culp is in this movie as the bounty hunter who takes Hannie under his wing and teaches her in the ways of the gun. Raquel Welch is meant to be the hero of the story, but Culp is so phenomenally good that he steals just about every scene he is in with his mere charisma. Fortunately Culp and Welch share a very nice chemistry, so she doesn’t actually get outstaged as much as it might initially sound.

The only real downside to the movie is that ending is a bit anti-climactic. I really enjoyed seeing Hannie get her sweet revenge by murdering one Clemens brother after the other, but the last kill, when it’s Ernest Borgnine’s turn to meet his maker, doesn’t quite have the amount of satisfaction that I wanted from it. It ought to have been more brutal and visceral. Gunning him down as he’s laughing at Hannie had the right approach but you really needed it to be more up close and personal, make the bastards really squirm and scream to get proper catharsis from witnessing the bad karma finally catch up to the brothers.

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