DirectorGeorge Sherman/Herbert Coleman/R.G. Springsteen
Release Date(s)1960/1961/1963 (August 15, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal-International (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
Kino’s Audie Murphy Collection III offers another round of Westerns from Universal-International starring the World War II hero-turned movie actor. The previous set was dominated by Murphy’s earliest films for the studio, while Collection III focuses on his later career.
By 1960, the market for run-of-the-mill program Westerns was fading, and Murphy straddled uncomfortably between being just below the top-tier pack of A-list Western stars like John Wayne, James Stewart, and Gary Cooper, while also still drawing well above aging B-Western favorites like Dick Foran and John Payne, most of whom began accepting smaller roles in A-Westerns or guest spots on Western TV shows.
With Westerns all the rage on TV, Murphy himself took the plunge with a Western-detective series hybrid called Whispering Smith, based on the same-named 1948 Alan Ladd picture. Murphy’s TV version was positively cursed—it began shooting during the summer of 1959 but delays kept it off the air until nearly the end of the 1960-61 season. After completing the first seven episodes, Murphy’s co-star, singer-actor Guy Mitchell, broke his shoulder falling from horse and by the time he recovered, Murphy was committed to Hell Bent for Leather (see below). Shooting eventually resumed, but then after completing 20 episodes (about half of a typical 39-episode season), another co-star, Sam Buffington, committed suicide under mysterious circumstances at just 28 years old. Finally ready to begin airing, its debut was preempted by breaking news, and when it did run, members of the U.S. Senate claimed it was much too violent to air; the second episode was screened for members of Congress. Murphy defended the series, but it withered on the vine as a summer replacement series and was canceled after just 20 of its 26 produced episodes were broadcast.
While all this was going on, Audie Murphy signed a multi-picture (ultimately 7-film) deal with producer Gordon Kay. Wikipedia describes these as “low-budget Westerns,” but that’s inaccurate. Budgeted at around $500,000 with 18-20 shooting schedules, they weren’t in the class of, say, the John Wayne North to Alaska ($3.8 million) but half a million wasn’t chicken feed, either, as lowly indies were still cranking them out for $100,000 or less. The budgets on these were just enough for a polished studio-made Western in the early ‘60s from a major studio.
Hell Bent for Leather (1960), the first of Kay Westerns, exemplifies this. Artlessly but competently directed by George Sherman, it’s workmanlike and delivers what its target audience probably wanted and expected. Though routine, it makes excellent use of locations in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, and revolves around a fairly interesting, unusual premise, though delivered without any subtlety.
Murphy plays Clay, a horse trader who, out in the desert, has his own horse stolen by Travers (Jan Merlin), though Clay manages to fire off a few rounds at the thief, causing him to drop his super-fancy shotgun. Clay makes his way to the nearest town, where nearly everyone is attending a funeral for a family brutally murdered—by Travers, as it turns out. When the local blacksmith (John Qualen) and saloon keeper (Malcolm Atterbury) see Clay’s gold pieces and Travers’s shotgun, they assume Clay is Travers and alert Marshal Deckett (Stephen McNally), who has been tracking the outlaw for two years. Because of the brutal nature of the murders, and the townsfolk’s eagerness of lynch Clay, Deckett quickly rides out of town, his prisoner bound at the wrists.
Clay correctly guesses that Deckett realizes that he’s not Travers. However, Deckett is so determined to bring “Travers” to justice that he’s willing to use Clay as a convincing and convenient substitute, no matter that he’s innocent. Realizing the deranged Deckett is just as happy to see Clay hang in Travers’s place, Clay breaks free and flees back into town, where he hides out at a farmhouse and eventually kidnaps Janet Gifford (Felicia Farr, the future Mrs. Jack Lemmon). She gradually believes his story, but by this point Deckett has assembled a mostly bloodthirsty posse unlikely willing to hear the truth of Clay’s innocence.
The premise of a deranged marshal was unusual in 1960, a time when TV lawmen like Marshal Matt Dillon epitomized justice and were thoroughly incorruptible. The film also makes great use of the Alabama Hills, mountains, really, with huge boulders shaped like colossal potatoes. Underutilized Felicia Farr is lovely here; up to this point she mostly appeared in Westerns, and later did a fair amount of TV with fewer opportunities than she deserved, though she does turn up in Billy Wilder’s hilarious Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
The title, incidentally, is grammatically questionable. It should be either “Hell for Leather” or “Hell-Bent for Leather.” Either way one has to wonder which character is being foolhardy.
Hell Bent for Leather (Film Grade): B
Posse from Hell (1961) is more of the same: undistinguished but not bad with some interesting elements. This time Murphy is deputy marshal Banner Cole, elsewhere when the town of Paradise is terrorized by four escapees from death row: Crip (Vic Morrow), Leo (Lee Van Cleef), Chunk (Henry Wills), and Hash (Charles Horvath). They fatally shoot the marshal (Ward Ramsey of Dinosaurus!), kill a bunch of other townsfolk, rob the bank of $11,000, and kidnap hostage Helen Caldwell (Zohra Lampert), whom they later gang rape (offscreen of course). These guys mean business.
Yet, what makes the film interesting is that the bad guys are much less important to the story than Cole’s relationship with the posse he leads after them. Cole would rather ride alone, but virtually the entire male population of Paradise insists on going, but fear and other factors soon whittles them down to a handful of misfits. Ex-Union Cavalry officer Jeremiah Brown (Robert Keith) sees the chance to recapture old glories; Jock Wiley (Paul Carr) fancies himself an expert shot and budding gunfighter looking for fame; Helen’s Uncle Bill (Royal Dano) is a drunk; Burt Hogan (Frank Overton) is anxious to avenge his murdered brother; American Indian Johnny Caddo (Rodolfo Acosta) is the local blacksmith; and Seymour Kern (John Saxon) is a tenderfoot banker from New York on temporary assignment, browbeaten into joining the posse by the bank manager to recover the stolen money.
Though the posse quickly finds Helen, their lack of experience and/or overzealousness soon whittles their number down further. Cole is frustrated by most of the foolish men, more a danger to themselves than the outlaws, but gradually he realizes two among them—Johnny Caddo and, surprisingly, Seymour Kern—more than hold their own with the mettle to endure the challenges of tracking the outlaws while exhibiting show common sense in tense situations.
Tenderfoots sometimes turn up in such films but rarely are depicted with this measure of sympathy. In a John Wayne film, he’d treat greenhorns with contempt, make cynical remarks, and put them through a trial-by-fire before finally if begrudgingly accepting them. Murphy’s Cole, however, recognizes Kern’s natural abilities right away—he’s not a crack shot like Jock but is able to “man-up” in more important, practical ways. Rather than run roughshod over Kern as Wayne would have, Cole nurtures those qualities buried within the Man from the East.
Director Herbert Coleman was a longtime assistant director best remembered for his long and fruitful association with Alfred Hitchcock, first as an assistant director then a second unit director and associate producer on all of Hitch’s films from Rear Window (1954) through North by Northwest (1959), later working on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Topaz (1969). In between, Coleman tried his hand at TV, producing several shows including Whispering Smith. Visually, Coleman’s work here is above average, particularly the film’s opening scenes.
Little else is remarkable. Despite a good cast, most aren’t around long enough to make an impression one way or the other, excepting the usually good Robert Keith, who’s atypically terrible here and unpardonably hammy. What is attention-grabbing is the musical score, especially the main titles. It’s all stock music, the opening title theme used, with slight variations, on almost all of Universal-International’s science fiction movies of the 1950s. Hearing the same music applied to a Western is quite strange.
Posse from Hell (Film Grade): B+
Showdown, the last Western released under the Universal-International banner, is the least of the three, though the range between best and worst is narrow. Audie Murphy wasn’t happy this one was shot in black-and-white (and ordinary 1.85:1 widescreen) and, indeed, the film looks like a cheap TV Western, even if it didn’t cost that much less than the others.
The plot concerns cowboy pals Chris Foster (Murphy) and Bert Pickett (Charles Drake), who ride into town to get paid. Perennial loser Bert immediately gets drunk and loses everything in a poker game, a brawl ensues, and the pair are arrested. The town is apparently too cheap to afford an actual jail, so prisoners are chained to iron collars in a maypole-type arrangement in the town square. Chris and Bert join local drunk Charlie Reeder (Strother Martin) and soon after a gang of outlaws led by LaValle (Harold J. Stone) and including Caslon (Skip Homeier) and Foray (L.Q. Jones) are added to the crowded “jail.” LaValle orders everyone to dig at the base, and by daybreak they’re free. During the escape, dishonest Bert steals bonds worth $12,000, but when LaValle learns of this, he orders Bert into town to cash them, holding Chris as a hostage.
The big problem with Showdown is a familiar one in Westerns, including a few other Audie Murphy titles: he’s unfailingly loyal to a friend utterly unworthy of such loyalty. In the first 30 minutes of Showdown, Bert lies to Chris, makes empty promises even Chris knows he won’t keep, foolishly gets drunk and gambles away his money, gets arrested, gets Chris arrested, is cowardly around LaValle, steals valuable bonds, and puts Chris in a situation where very possibly he’ll be hanged—all out of loyalty to his good pal. When LaValle threatens to kill Chris if Bert doesn’t return soon with the money, Bert promises Chris he’ll be back, and Chris at this point absolutely believes that he will. But the audience sure doesn’t.
Second problem is Harold J. Stone’s bad guy. Stone could be excellent under close supervision from his directors; given a free rein, he was often hammy, falling back on blustery characterizations, as here. Kathleen Crowley, second-billed as saloon girl Estelle, around whom the second half of the story pivots, often played seductive sirens like her role here, but was a better actor than many actresses of this type. However, in Showdown her makeup and hairstyle are glaringly 1960s contemporary, a major distraction.
Showdown (Film Grade): B-
Kino’s Audie Murphy Collection III gives each of the three films its own Blu-ray disc and case. Hell Bent for Leather is in color and 2.35:1 Panavision, while Posse from Hell (also in color) and Showdown (in black-and-white) are 1.85:1 widescreen. All three transfers are good, not exceptional (with Showdown perhaps the best-looking of the three), all with DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono), optional English subtitles, and Region “A” encoded.
Supplements are limited to trailers for all three films, all newly remastered in 2K, and complete with text and narration; and two new audio commentaries by Toby Roan (Hell Bent for Leather), C. Courtney Joyner & Henry Parke (Posse from Hell).
Audie Murphy Collection III is a solid triple-bill of Western titles that, once again, showcase Murphy’s strong appeal as a Western star. Here’s hoping we’ll get to see a Collection IV.
- Stuart Galbraith IV