Review by David Carter
Posted on 12 August 2009
Source Anchor Bay DVD
Categories Women of the West
“She wants to be a man.”
“She’ll never make it.”
— Price and Bailey discuss Hannie Caulder’s situation
Hannie Caulder begins in the same manner as many westerns of the seventies — with a daylight bank robbery. Immediately it becomes evident that the film will have a far different trajectory than its kin, however. Em, Rufus, and Frank Clemens are three of the most inept outlaws to grace the genre; the Keystone Cops of the old west. The Clemens brothers manage to bungle what should have been an easy heist simply because they cannot stop fighting among themselves long enough to keep their guns pointed at their potential victims. Their childish squabbling gives the authorities enough time to arrive and the trio is chased into the desert with a pittance compared to what they could have stolen.
That this opening sequence is played for comedy makes what follows all the more chilling by contrast. Arriving at a remote farmhouse to water their horses, Rufus empties his shotgun into the home’s owner while Em and Frank pretend to ask directions. Inside the home, the Clemens brothers find the man’s wife, Hannie, dumbstruck with fear. She tries to fight them off but is overpowered and subsequently raped by the brothers. Finished, they take the few valuables in the home before setting it on fire and riding away. Hannie escapes the fire, nude but for a blanket.
Disturbingly, this scene is played with the same comic tone as the Clemens’ botched robbery. The rape sequence is framed so that Hannie’s body is mostly obscured by the bed’s headboard, placing the men in the center of the frame. We see them alternately laughing and punching Hannie and her screams are drowned out by their voices and the film’s score. Hannie is completely minimized during the sequence. We see what is happening more than we see to whom it is happening. The remainder of the sequence is a medium-long shot of the home itself and devolves fully into slapstick as a half-dressed Rufus is repeatedly pushed out of the bedroom window by his brothers only to run around the house and enter through the front door again.
It is important to note that at this point in the film Hannie Caulder had yet to be properly introduced or even given a name. As exploitive and callous as the rape sequence is, after it Hannie is given a “name,” as it were. The details of her life before and during the rape are minimized — even destroyed — by the film and Hannie’s husband is never mentioned again. All of this is an effort to emphasize the importance of her “rebirth” following the rape. The film makes a lot of this birth metaphor, particularly through the device of Hannie’s blanket. Like a newborn, she is nude except for the blanket for a good portion of the film. Even when she later receives proper clothing, she still clings to the blanket like a child. Instead of being a “security blanket,” Hannie’s makeshift poncho is an ever-present reminder of the safety and security that was taken from her.
Hannie’s rebirth and quest for revenge gets off to a rocky start as she finds she’s unable to properly use her deceased husband’s gun as a means of defense. A passing stranger easily disarms her and unloads the weapon, so Hannie resorts to knocking him unconscious until she can determine if he means her harm. Luckily for her, he does not. The man is Thomas Luther Price, renowned bounty hunter and a man of high moral principle. Hannie pleads with him to show her how to be a gunfighter but he refuses, and refuses again after she offers her body to him. Price is only convinced to aid her once he witnesses Hannie in the throws of a violent nightmare. He never asks what disturbs her so much, but instead agrees to travel with her to a gunsmith in Mexico who can make a gun small enough for a woman to fire.
Hannie and Price arrive at Bailey’s outpost and begin the several months of training required to turn her from a meek housewife into a trained killer. Meanwhile, the Clemens boys are cutting a swath through the southwest with their brand of ham-fisted crime. They get involved in situations pulled straight from a Looney Tunes cartoon: using dynamite to blow a safe and destroying all the money, tying their own hands together while binding hostages, and various other idiocies. Rather than strengthen the audience’s desire to see Hannie exact her revenge, these scenes undermine it. One begins to feel sympathy towards or even affinity for the Clemens boys and their failed attempts at banditry. Their exploits are accompanied by upbeat music and their scenes typically end with a punch line. The film seems to be doing everything it can to minimize the degree to which they are depicted as evil; an idea which is furthered by these scenes being juxtaposed against a burgeoning love story between Hannie and Price.
On their last day at Bailey’s, Hannie fails at the final task of Price’s tutelage: being able to kill a man. Price asks her to give up her idea of revenge but she refuses, and together they begin trailing the Clemens. Subtlety not being one of the few virtues they possess, the brothers are easily located by Hannie and Price. Price, in attempt to save Hannie from having to confront them, slips away from her and attempts to take Frank to the sheriff without violence. He is surprised by the arrival of Em and Rufus and takes a knife to the stomach in the ensuing melee. With his dying breath, Price begs Hannie to leave the world of violence and live the quiet, peaceful life he wishes he could have lived to share with her. Naturally, she ignores him.
With a renewed desire for revenge — and less than twenty minutes of running time remaining — Hannie quickly changes from weeping mourner to gun-toting, one-liner-spewing badass. She interrupts Frank in a whorehouse and even allows him to put his gun belt on before filling him with lead, causing him to fly out of a second story window. Rufus surprises her in a perfume shop but quickly meets a similar fate. While collecting the reward money for the “Wanted: Dead” Clemens brothers, Hannie arrogantly pre-pays for Em’s funeral and leaves word with the nervous sheriff that she’s looking for a final showdown at an abandoned prison.
At the prison, the limits of Hannie’s abilities resurface. She forgets her training and her shadow gives away her location to Em almost immediately. As he readies his knife, an unnamed man in black shoots it from his hand, allowing Hannie to shoot Em three times in the chest. Thus Hannie is robbed of any real revenge since she would have certainly been killed without the help of the male stranger. This anti-climax is compounded by the condescending nature of the man; he nods to tell Hannie when it’s okay to shoot Em, as if giving her permission. The man had only appeared in the film briefly once before, and an exchange of glances between him and Price implied that he was also a bounty hunter. The film’s ending scene of Hannie riding back to town with Em’s body while the man follows a short distance behind implies that he will be taking Price’s place as her tutor and possibly even lover.
The ending and several other elements in the film beg the question: Is Hannie Caulder a failed feminist film by accident or design? The most frustrating aspect of the film is that the answer to this question is never quite clear. One gets the sense that the filmmakers themselves were unsure which direction the story should take, instead opting to leave things ambivalent. I say ambivalent rather than ambiguous because the latter implies that the decision would be left up to the audience to decide. In fact the film does depict its events in a decisive manner, yet many of these contradict each other.
The basic plot of Hannie Caulder follows much the same course as many films in the rape-revenge subgenre of exploitation despite it pre-dating the most famous entries by several years. Due to the absence of any reference to her husband, Hannie’s rape surfaces as the central transgression in the film and the one for which she hunts the Clemens. The trauma of this event is evident in several scenes — Hannie’s initial confrontation with Price and again later through brief flashbacks of the event. To view the film as part of a rape-revenge tradition casts the portrayal of the Clemens in a different light. Ineffective and inept in the “man’s world” of gun fighting and crime, they take out their frustrations on Hannie, who as a woman is referred to as weaker and less capable even by the positive male figures in the film. The film constantly reminds the audience that Hannie is helpless, making the Clemens seem all the more heinous for their crime. Hannie is granted a sense of victory in that she is able to defeat the Clemens but doesn’t have to stoop to their level to do so. She — and all males in the film — finds redemption in Price and emulates his sense of justice to defeat them while retaining and restoring the dignity they took from her.
Rape-revenge cinema offers an arguably positive but controversial depiction of women’s ability to overcome physical violence by their own hand. Hannie Caulder cannot be viewed in this light without seeing this message as being undercut by her reliance on men. A repeated phrase in the film is, “there are no hard women, only soft men;” a quote that Hannie even uses to describe herself at one point. Unlike a film such as I Spit On Your Grave or Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Hannie Caulder makes it clear from the onset that Hannie is completely unable to take care of herself without help from men, relying on them to train her and even save her. Hannie’s rescue at the end of the film was likely considered to be an attempt at a “happy ending” in that the audience is lead to believe that the man in black will replace her two lost loves. However a more cynical reading would be that Hannie is no longer going to be a “soft man” and will return to a more acceptable social position as a wife.
Star Racquel Welch’s performance as Hannie is enjoyably brassy and sexy though wholly inappropriate if the film is to be viewed as a story of a woman’s triumph over her male tormentors. Her blanket is a deftly employed metaphor for her situation but also serves the more prurient purpose of giving the audience a full glimpse of her breasts and midriff when she draws her gun. Welch is perhaps the final piece to the puzzle of Hannie Caulder. In the film’s marketing she’s depicted in a revealing dress, legs spread, with a come-hither look. Positioned around her are her rapists, the Clemens brothers. Hannie Caulder appears to be little more than a star vehicle for Welch in an attempt to revive her flagging career after The Magic Christian and Myra Breckenridge, cult classics now but commercial flops when released. For that reason, Hannie Caulder’s strict keeping of accepted gender roles and forced happy ending is merely an attempt to play it safe after a string of more ambitious projects. There is a glimmer of something liberating and powerful in the film, though, and one is left to wonder what could have been if it had be explored further.
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My Little Chickadee1940
Westward the Women1951
The Violent Men1955
The Last Sunset1961
McCabe & Mrs. Miller1971
The Ballad of Little Jo1993
The Quick and the Dead1995
Two Mules for Sister Sara1970