Western RoundUp: Hell Bent for Leather (1960)
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 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!
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.