Western RoundUp: Hell Bent for Leather (1960)
It’s been just about two years since I wrote here about Audie Murphy in Seven Ways From Sundown (1960), an entertaining Western which costarred Barry Sullivan.
It’s also been a year since my husband Doug and I were guests discussing Lone Pine movie locations on the France-based Western Movies podcast. Our host, Cole Armin, brought up an Audie Murphy film shot in Lone Pine I’d not yet seen: Hell Bent for Leather (1960), released the same year as Seven Ways From Sundown.
I was immediately intrigued, as I hope to eventually see all of Murphy’s Westerns, and longtime readers also know that I’m a regular visitor to Lone Pine and love its role in movie Western history.
It took me a while to track down Hell Bent for Leather, a Universal Pictures release that somewhat inexplicably is not available on DVD in the United States. (The same is true, incidentally, of Seven Ways From Sundown.) However, it’s readily available in Europe on Region 2 DVD, so I was able to order a copy and watch it thanks to my all-region DVD player.
In Hell Bent for Leather Murphy plays Clay Santell, a horse trader who is startled when a thirsty man (Jan Merlin) staggers into his desert camp on foot.
Santell shares his water with the man and is about to give him some food when his ungrateful guest hits him hard and steals his horse — leaving behind a distinctive rifle.
Santell eventually staggers on foot into a small town, where he hopes to find help and a fresh horse. The townspeople, however, get one look at the rifle he’s carrying and seem scared out of their wits. Little does Santell realize that the rifle left behind by his assailant belonged to a notorious gunman, Travers.
The townspeople believe Santell is Travers, who is shocked but assumes he’ll be freed when Sheriff Deckett (Stephen McNally) shows up. Deckett knows what Travers looks like — and Santell is stunned when the sheriff says he’s taking him to Denver to stand trial.
As a nightmare scenario unfolds, Santell believes he’ll soon be at the end of a rope and manages to escape from Deckett. He forces a young woman, Janet (Felicia Farr), to help him, and while she is initially resentful, the posse later turns on her as well, causing her sympathies to shift to Santell.
Santell and Janet manage to evade the posse, dealing with another bad guy, Ambrose (Robert Middleton), and his family along the way. Eventually, however, Santell and Janet have a fateful meeting in the desert with both Deckett and Travers.
I found Hell Bent for Leather a strong and engaging Audie Murphy film that delivers good Western entertainment for all of its 82 minutes. It was effectively directed at a fast clip by George Sherman, who made many Westerns I’ve enjoyed, including Universal titles such as Black Bart (1948), River Lady (1948), Border River (1954), and Dawn at Socorro (1954). His previous work also included Reprisal! (1956), a Guy Madison Western which costarred Felicia Farr.
The theme of an initially antagonistic couple on the run together has been used in countless films, with Hitchcock‘s The 39 Steps (1935) being an early example. The idea shows up time and again because it’s dramatically effective, with natural conflict and then dramatic interest as a couple gets to know each other under pressure. The truth about their backstories and characters inevitably emerges, followed by the possibility of a relationship.
As written by Christopher Knopf, the theme works very well here, with Farr’s Janet revealed to have a troubled background which leads her to be believably sympathetic toward Santell as she comes to understand his story. My only criticism of the film is the somewhat abrupt ending to their story; one can assume what happens next, but an extra 30 seconds to wrap things up would have been welcome.
The film makes outstanding widescreen use of the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine, as filmed in CinemaScope by Clifford Stine. I recognized some of the locations; viewers watching carefully will notice the distinctive overhang of Gary Cooper Rock in the background during the movie’s action-packed finale. It’s seen here in a photograph I took in October 2021.
The film reunited Murphy and McNally from The Duel at Silver Creek (1952) which I wrote about here in 2018. Murphy offers his usual low-key yet simultaneously charismatic screen presence, which makes his films such a consistent pleasure; he’s effective as an honest man who can’t believe people adamantly refuse to believe the truth about him.
Unlike his congenial marshal of The Duel at Silver Creek, McNally plays a troubled character whose motivations are only fully revealed in the film’s final minutes. His character this time around is closer to his well-remembered Dutch Henry Brown of Anthony Mann‘s classic Winchester ’73 (1950).
Farr, who will be 90 this year, made a number of Westerns in the ’50s, the best-known being a trio for director Delmer Daves: Jubal (1956), The Last Wagon (1956), and 3:10 to Yuma (1957).
Farr also appeared in the Western The First Texan (1956) with Joel McCrea, which leads to a bit of fun trivia. The First Texan was filmed the year following the birth of McCrea and Frances Dee‘s youngest son, Peter. A decade later, Farr and her husband, Jack Lemmon, became the parents of a daughter, Courtney, who eventually married Peter McCrea.
Farr is appealing as a gutsy character who is more than a damsel in distress. Her Janet manages to keep up with Santell step by step as they climb through daunting rocks, which is all the more impressive given that she’s in a dress! Once she throws in her lot with Santell she refuses to abandon him when Santell wants her to escape, choosing instead to face down whatever happens together.
Robert Middleton has a brief but striking appearance as the hard-drinking Ambrose partway through the film. The characters of Ambrose and his brothers seemed very strongly inspired by Charles Kemper’s Uncle Shiloh and sons in John Ford‘s Wagon Master (1950); I noticed similar echoes of Wagon Master in Will Penny (1967), a Charlton Heston Western reviewed here last year.
Those recognizable connections to previous movies are part of what I find makes viewing Westerns so enjoyable. The same can be said for some of the other ties of actors, locations, and themes mentioned throughout this review.
Former “B” Western star Bob Steele, who I mentioned here a couple of months ago in a review of Joel McCrea’s Cattle Drive (1951), is visible in the background as one of the posse. Another “B” star, Allan “Rocky” Lane, is also in the credits, but I didn’t spot him on this viewing. I’ll be looking for him next time!
The cast is rounded out by James Westmoreland (then known as Rad Fulton), Herbert Rudley, Malcolm Atterbury, John Qualen, Eddie Little Sky, Roy Engel, and Olan Soule.
Hell Bent for Leather was quite enjoyable Western entertainment which I recommend. Let’s hope that at some point both that film and Audie Murphy’s Seven Ways From Sundown become more easily available in the United States.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.
I’m rather hoping your review of this fine western prompts our friend, John Knight, to comment, Laura, as this is a big favourite with him and a western that both he and I admire.
Incidentally, that is Allan Lane standing directly behind McNally in the first still above. He is a reasonably strong presence in his scenes though far from the heroic ‘Rocky’ Lane that I like so much in his Republic series.
I enjoyed that piece of info about Peter McCrea and the Lemmon daughter. Felicia Farr was a beautiful and sexy young woman in the other westerns you mentioned and she is a strong presence alongside Audie here. A talented actress.
I have the Region 2 DVD also and it shows the film to good advantage. Highly recommended to all fans of Audie Murphy, George Sherman and fellow westernistas generally.
Haven’t seen this one. Sounds intriguing.Good cast. Stephen McNally never disappoints.
Laura, I really enjoyed your excellent write-up of HELL BENT FOR LEATHER(filmed 1959, released 1960). I can’t really add anything to this good Audie Murphy Western Movie itself, because you did such a wonderful job. You are a true Audie Murphy fan.
I’m an Audie Murphy fan from way back. The local tv stations in my neck of the woods, especially WREC Channel 3 Memphis, Tennessee, aired a lot of Murphy movies during the 1960’s and ’70’s. I recall fist viewing HELL BENT FOR LEATHER on the WREC Channel 3 EARLY MOVIE in 1969. I would come in from school and click on the tv to see what was on the EARLY MOVIE and if it was an Audie Murphy movie, I was sure to watch it.
I agree with you that HELL BENT FOR LEATHER is somewhat inexplicably not available on DVD in the United States. I would hope that some company would eventually put it out on DVD and Blu-ray in Region 1. I last viewed it on STARZ ENCORE WESTERNS by way of AMAZON PRIME VIDEO streaming in 2020, along with SEVEN WAYS FROM SUNDOWN(1960), THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK(filmed 1951-52, released 1952), THE UNFORGIVEN(filmed 1959, released 1960), and A TIME FOR DYING(1969). All these Audie Murphy Westerns are well worth watching, especially THE UNFORGIVEN, which I think is a top-notch Classic Western Movie directed by John Huston, with an outstanding cast. Sadly, Audie’s last performance was in A TIME FOR DYING, where as producer, he did a cameo as Jesse James. This movie needed him in it much more, in my opinion.
Well, I’ve rambled on enough. Look forward to your next write-up.
Hell Bent for Leather is very high on my Audie Murphy list too. One of my favorites and for me – together with Posse from Hell – his best 60s movie.
He has great chemistry with Felicia Farr, my second-favorite Audie leading lady after Susan Cabot. Though I shouldn’t forget Gia Scala.
I’ve been a bit thin on the blogs recently and I’m sorry I missed your very fine CATTLE DRIVE essay. I’ve had boring stuff like hip replacement surgery,with another due this fall and an impending hernia operation…I feel my body is trying to tell me something;I’ve been so pre occupied with check ups and hospital visits and the like;cannot fault the wonderful treatment I’ve received from our fantastic National Health,the surgeon who performed my first op was so young,she looked about 23 a real example of “Girl Power” I thought. She did a superb job and my wound healed up super fast.
Anyway,enough of that just thought I’d mention why I’ve been so quiet lately.
As Jerry mentions HELL BENT FOR LEATHER is my favorite Audie Western and the 39 Steps parallel you mention is spot on. I also enjoyed the Peter McCrea tale.
I thought Jan Merlin was one of the scariest bad guys Audie ever faced.
POSSE FROM HELL is also excellent again with some misty Lone Pine footage.
I’m delighted by all the comments on this movie and this post, thanks to you all!
Jerry, I was really glad to see John K. comment below as you hoped — if I remember correctly, I have John’s recommendation to thank for me picking up this Region 2 DVD. And thank you so much for pointing out Allan Lane in that still — it’s so funny I hadn’t noticed him in the movie and he was right in front of me!! I must have been too busy looking for Bob Steele to notice.
I’m glad to know that the McCrea-Lemmon anecdote was enjoyed! It’s so fun that Joel and Felicia worked together but couldn’t have imagined in 1956 that decades later their children would marry.
Vienna, I’m also a Stephen McNally fan! He was great as a villain and I also love him as a hero. I think you would probably like HELL BENT FOR LEATHER. If you get to see it please let me know!
Walter, thank you so much for the kind words. Your memories of seeing Audie Murphy at a young age are wonderful. I have really come to love Audie Murphy. It’s amazing, though, how many I have yet to see — though I’m kind of glad I have titles to look forward to for the first time! Those titles include THE UNFORGIVEN, which has such a good cast; I have the DVD and look forward to it. (Perhaps it will be a future Classic Movie Hub review?!) I wish he had lived longer — I expect he would have become an outstanding character actor.
Margot, I’m glad to know you rate this film so highly. POSSE FROM HELL is another I haven’t seen, I look forward to it! I agree, Audie is so well matched with Susan Cabot, I love them together. And he was good with Gia Scale, you’re right.
John, welcome back! I’m so sorry to hear about your medical woes…I’ve “been there” on those types of surgeries and it’s time consuming and takes a while to bounce back. I hope you’ll continue to be improving steadily and that we’ll hear from you more going forward! You’re right, Jan Merlin really was creepy! He didn’t have a huge amount of screen time yet was a powerful presence. I’m glad to know POSSE FROM HELL was filmed in Lone Pine. I’ve got that here thanks to you and relaly need to pull it out ASAP between your recommendation and Margot’s. (So many movies…etc.!)
I look forward to checking out HELL BENT FOR LEATHER locations in Lone Pine in the future!
Thank you all again so much for your comments!
Thank you so much for the fantastic summary of HELL BENT FOR LEATHER. You did such a fantastic job that I don’t think I can add anything to this excellent Audie Murphy Western Movie. You really know your Audie Murphy and are a great admirer. He’s quite the performer. The DVD I have from Region 2 displays the film quite well. Audie Murphy and George Sherman fans and other western aficionados should not miss this.
I’m glad to know you enjoyed both the movie and my article, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!
I agree, the Region 2 DVD looks good. Hopefully it will eventually also be out on a U.S. DVD to make it more accessible.