It doesn't sound like an easy film to stomach on paper, yet Burt Kennedy's Hannie Caulder (1971) remains a worthwhile and reliably entertaining slice of Spaghetti Western history. Produced and distributed by Tigon British Film Productions and shot around southern Spain in the fall of 1970, it's a stepping stone within the rape/revenge sub-genre later known for more exploitative films like The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and Ms. 45. Hannie Caulder is far less graphic in comparison but just as ugly on the surface, with more than its fair share of violent shootouts, lingering male gazes, and merciless acts of revenge.
Much of the film's controversial reception was in response to the lead casting of Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C.), already a sex symbol and no stranger to subversive roles like Myra Breckinridge a year earlier. Welch's established persona makes the opening scenes of Hannie Caulder more than a little sickening: for starters, Mrs. Caulder's violent rape at the hands of bank-robbing brothers Emmet (Ernest Borgnine), Frank (Jack Elam), and Rufus Clemens (Strother Martin) is largely shot from their perspective instead of hers. If that weren't enough, the act takes place just after they murder her husband...but before they burn down Hannie's house and leave her for dead. With her late husband now established as one of cinema's first men in the fridge, Hannie barely escapes the burning house, buries him in a shallow grave, and leaves with little more than a poncho and a rifle.
Luckily, not all the men in Hannie Caulder are there to objectify or attack her: soon enough, she's cautiously approached by bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp) at a nearby well; he immediately recognizes her plight, eventually agreeing to help Hannie seek the revenge she's obviously after. Working their way towards Mexico and highly skilled gunsmith Bailey (Christopher Lee, in one of his first non-horror roles), Thomas and Hannie learn more about one another; refreshingly enough, they establish a platonic mentor/student relationship instead of the more predictable one. While both the film and their journey progress, Hannie Caulder often cuts back to the Clemens brothers, who are played more like Three Stooges types than genuine threats. The odd and certainly unsettling juxtaposition of seething revenge, Hannie's focused gun training, and the Clemens' rowdy slapstick probably shouldn't work as a formula, especially considering that these elements are prefaced by such a brutal first act.
Yet Hannie Caulder more than succeeds as a satisfying and worthwhile drama, owing most of its success to the lead and supporting performances. Welch and Culp turn in some of their best work here, enjoying a great and easygoing chemistry that helps ground the picture in more realism than expected; she's especially convincing as the gun-totin' badass we're all but promised for the third act, and I'd be lying if the bumbling exploits of the Clemens brothers didn't make me belly laugh a few times. Somehow, within the normally ugly boundaries of rape/revenge drama, Hannie Caulder manages to strike an astoundingly good balance and hold it most of the time; a few small missteps are made along the way, but there's so little fat here that it's tough to complain.
Smartly directed by American Western specialist Burt Kennedy (who also co-wrote its screenplay under the pseudonym Z.X. Jones) with beautiful cinematography by Edward Scaife, this well-paced production moves at a very good clip and thankfully ends before overstaying its welcome. The end result is a whole that somehow works better than the sum of its parts, making Hannie Caulder an unlikely but genuine career highlight for several members of its cast and crew (as well as a feather in the cap of Tigon Productions, typically known for cheap exploitation fare, much like Runaway Train was for Cannon Films). Released on Blu-ray and DVD by Olive Films (the latter was part of their very first wave of releases back in 2010), Hannie Caulder returns to Blu-ray as part of Olive's new "Signature Edition" series. Sporting a slightly refined video presentation, greatly improved audio, a handful of new bonus features, and deluxe packaging, it's fairly well-rounded treatment for a film that deserves more attention.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Hannie Caulder looks quite good; it's certainly a modest step up from Olive's own 2011 Blu-ray, one of their earliest titles that suffered from a few mild issues with color and contrast. Like The Night of the Grizzly's Signature Edition, it doesn't appear to use different source elements than the earlier Blu-ray and instead presents a more refined and better encoded presentation of the film. Overall contrast levels and shadow/light details appear more balanced and pleasing, image detail and textures are strong, the film's earthy color palette looks great (if not a bit dull at times), and the grain structure is represented very well from start to finish. The result is a natural and clean-looking 1080p transfer, albeit one that could still benefit a little from a total restoration. No obvious digital imperfections or manipulation (compression artifacts, interlacing, excessive noise reduction, etc.) could be spotted along the way. Overall, I can't imagine Hannie Caulder earning a better-looking Blu-ray at this point, so die-hard fans and newcomers alike should be pleased with the modest upgrade.
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This DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track, on the other hand, is substantially better than Olive's 2011 Blu-ray, which suffered from serious volume level issues (specifically, dialogue was buried deep in the mix, forcing viewers to grab their remote before every gunshot). In contrast, Hannie Caulder sounds great this time around: the 2.0 track preserves its original mono mix while faithfully reproducing the dialogue and Ken Thorne's original score without making them fight for attention. Modest depth is achieved on a few occasions, but overall this is simply a good, basic presentation of film that's now 45 years old. Optional English subtitles are included during the film, an overdue but welcome standard for Olive Blu-rays. Now how about some subtitles for all the extras?
The interface includes options for chapters, subtitles, and extras. Loading time is fast with no trailers or ads beforehand, aside from the company logo. Unlike standard Olive releases, this "Signature Edition" is housed in a clear keepcase with stylish cover artwork (obviously inspired by the opening credits), a matching slipsleeve, and a Booklet with an essay by film critic Kim Morgan.
Several new extras are here (another improvement over Olive's earlier Blu-ray), leading off with an Audio Commentary by director Alex Cox of Sid and Nancy fame. Topics of discussion include American vs. European Westerns, bloody special effects, shooting in southern Spain, "a safe pair of hands", Tigon Pictures, meeting Raquel Welch in the early 1980s, The Three Stooges, Christopher Lee, a mysterious gun box, locations used in other films, "the slowest slow-mo shot that ever was", and more. But not much more: there's a lot of on-screen narration and lapses into silence here, especially during the second half...and while Cox is obviously knowledgeable about the shooting locations and genre history, most of the other material is fairly surface-level.
Two mid-length Featurettes are also included. "Exploitation or Redemption?" (13 minutes) features media scholar Ben Raphael Sher, who talks about Raquel Welch's casting, the history of rape/revenge films, and the sub-genre's evolution. Meanwhile, the more in-depth "Win or Lose: Tigon Pictures and the Making of Hannie Caulder" (22 minutes) sits down with cultural historian and author Christopher Frayling (in church, it looks like), who discusses some of the business and production development of the studio and film, especially the involvement of executive producer Tony Tense and director Burt Kennedy. Both run a bit too short for their own good but they're still enjoyable, adding a few layers of detail and insight not covered in the commentary.
Finally, "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" is simply an on-screen version of Kim Morgan's essay from the booklet. While a few more extras would've put this even more over the top (what, no trailer?), most fans will be happy with what we get here.
Hannie Caulder is a smoldering, well-paced, contradictory, violent, and entertaining Western that occupies a very clear-cut corner of the often-exploitative "rape/revenge" sub-genre, both for its memorable performances and the beautiful southern Spanish landscapes. Raquel Welch really commits to what might be a thankless role in the wrong hands, and never feels out of her element during the gradual transformation into a gun-totin' bounty hunter. Robert Culp is also terrific as her reluctant savior, and the two have a great on-screen mentor/student chemistry despite only a ten-year age difference. And despite any reservations about the three rapists (Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin) delivering most of the film's comedy relief, it somehow works within Hannie Caulder's oddly compelling and ever-shifting boundaries. Olive's new "Signature Edition" corrects many of their 2011 Blu-ray's shortcomings: it offers slightly better visuals, much improved audio, and a few light but enjoyable bonus features. This one's firmly Recommended for owners of the previous disc, and even more so for interested newcomers.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.