Hell Bent for Leather


You know, the more westerns I watch, and discuss with others, the more convinced I’ve become that the smaller, less ambitious productions actually offer a better representation of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. The leaner budgets mean that the writing, shooting and performances are more honed, less indulgent, and therefore maybe a little more honest and direct. Hell Bent for Leather (1960) is what is known as a programmer; the B western had disappeared and been absorbed by television, but there was still a place for those movies which weren’t going to open as headline A features. The movie is a fine example of economy filmmaking; it demonstrates the benefits of a simple yet tight plot, a small and experienced cast, and a director capable of making the most of his locations.

The story is a very simple one, a case of mistaken identity leading to a desperate manhunt. At the risk of overselling it, Hell Bent for Leather tells a kind of Kafkaesque tale of senseless persecution, the reasoning behind it all only gradually becoming apparent as the narrative unfolds. It opens starkly, with a lone figure staggering out of the wilderness, clutching a shotgun. It’s clear the man is dehydrated and nearing exhaustion, but salvation is at hand – he spies a horseman who has just stopped to eat and rest. This is Clay Santell (Audie Murphy), a horse dealer travelling on business. No sooner has Santell extended the hand of hospitality to the bedraggled figure who’s stumbled upon his camp than that gesture backfires spectacularly. Finding himself viciously clubbed to the ground and his mount stolen in payment for his kindness, Santell only has time to loose off a single shot, winging his assailant and causing him to drop his distinctive shotgun. Santell is now in a similar fix to the man he foolishly tried to help, forced to make his way on foot to the nearest settlement. After this shock beginning, the plot slowly takes on a surreal, nightmarish quality. That shotgun Santell picked up has a history; it belonged to a notorious outlaw who’s been terrorizing the area, in fact most of the townsfolk are at that moment burying his latest victims. However, descriptions of the wanted man are vague, vague enough to fit a lot of men, someone like Santell for instance. There does remain one hope though, the marshal who’s been on the killer’s trail and knows him by sight. Incredibly though, when this lawman, Deckett (Stephen McNally), turns up, he immediately identifies Santell as his quarry. In the face of such a predicament, Santell takes the only option open to him: he makes a break for it with a local girl, Janet (Felicia Farr), as hostage and heads for the hills. What remains to be seen is whether Santell can stay one step ahead of the relentless posse, convince anyone of his innocence and, crucially, discover what motive lies behind Deckett’s seemingly inexplicable actions.


It’s difficult to watch any western from this period that is shot in and around Lone Pine, featuring a limited central cast and a minimalist plot, and not be reminded of Budd Boetticher. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest Hell Bent for Leather measures up to the quality of Boetticher at his best (there are issues with the script, which I’ll come back to, preventing such comparisons) but it certainly treads a nearby path. The film was presided over by George Sherman, one of those journeymen directors whose work, in spite of a long and varied career, tends to be glossed over if not wholly neglected. However, a look at his credits for the late 40s and on through into the 50s reveals a number of quality genre pieces. Sherman shot the bulk of this film outdoors on location, and made the most of Lone Pine’s distinctive rock formations. These serve both as the backdrop and also the main stage upon which the drama is played out. Whether the camera was positioned at ground level, the viewers’ gaze straining upwards to pick out the tiny figures scrambling over the sun-baked surface, or high above and aimed down through the narrow gaps with cold objectivity, the primal, treacherous nature of the terrain is always apparent. Also, for a movie that involves comparatively little gunplay, Sherman maintains the sense of danger and menace, both through the expert handling of his locations and by ensuring that the pace is never allowed to flag.

As I mentioned, the biggest problem with this film comes from the writing, or at least one aspect of it. When you look at a Boetticher movie, especially those written by Burt Kennedy, you’re immediately struck by the quality of the characterization. Those films all provide the leads with plausible and relatively full backstories. Now, Hell Bent for Leather is essentially a three-hander, revolving around Santell, Janet and Deckett. The details concerning the latter two are filled in as the story goes along, quite deftly too, but Santell’s background is not. By the end of the movie, we don’t know any more about this man than we did in the opening minutes. As a result, the lead, the man with whom we must sympathize, is left as a kind of cipher, a guy to whom bad things happen just because – very existentialist but not entirely satisfactory.

Given the lack of assistance from the script, it says a lot for Audie Murphy’s abilities that he was able to make the part of Clay Santell work. Murphy rarely gets much credit for his acting, but he could turn in a decent enough performance when the film was of some quality. Even though his part is provided with virtually no background, he still makes Santell a man worth rooting for in Hell Bent for Leather. Being cast in what’s essentially the role of the underdog naturally helps to garner sympathy but he also managed to keep the character real, remaining convincing as he moved from bemusement and disbelief through panic and determination.


Felicia Farr had already shown she could handle the role of a western heroine with some accomplishment in a series of films with Delmer Daves, and continued that trend here. Her character is fleshed out as the movie progresses, and she does come across as a woman with an inner strength that keeps her going in the face of adversity. The best, or most interesting, part in the movie was handed to Stephen McNally, an actor who was always a strong supporting player. He really gets under the skin of the driven, slightly unhinged Deckett. At first, this might appear to be a fairly one-dimensional character, but he develops further towards the end. By the time we reach the climax, there’s been enough revealed about Deckett to explain his actions and even create a touch of pathos.

At the moment, Hell Bent for Leather is available on DVD in three countries: Spain, France and Germany. The German release comes via Koch Media, and it’s another of their strong efforts. The film is presented in anamorphic scope, with good levels of detail and rich colour. As for extras, there’s the theatrical trailer, a gallery and booklet of liner notes in German. The disc offers both the original English soundtrack and a German dub, there are no subtitles at all. It’s also worth mentioning that Pegasus in the UK are rumoured to have this movie lined up for release so, bearing in mind the high quality transfers of Universal titles they have recently put out and their competitive prices, it may be worth holding off on this one for a bit. I feel this film is a superior little programmer that’s well acted and directed, and looks very attractive. It’s one of Audie Murphy’s most enjoyable pictures and also highlights the directorial skills of the underrated George Sherman. All in all, this is a solid, nicely crafted western that represents the genre well and shows what can be achieved with a limited budget and a bit of imagination.



30 thoughts on “Hell Bent for Leather

  1. Nice, Colin. Reading this really made me want me see it again and I’ve resisted lately because I don’t watch pan and scan anymore, so thanks for calling attention to DVD availability in the detail you have. I’ll try to watch for a good price on one of those.

    I did see it on first release in ‘Scope (and later watched it scanned but this was some time ago now). I may be unfair but even though it may be just as good as you say on reviewing, I’ve rated this kind of low among Sherman’s films, of which I’ve seen many and virtually all of his postwar Westerns after he left Republic. Please put that in context of my opinion of him generally–I would probably choose him as the most underrated of all directors of Westerns, one of the greatest, not among the top half dozen but in the next half dozen. He has so many outstanding films in the genre (and some in other genres too), wonderful with locations as you said, good with the dramatic elements. It may be that if a script does not flesh out a character as you say about Murphy’s hero here, Sherman is limited with how much he is able to do about it, except to work well with the actor.

    Though we think of Felicia Farr first for her three Daves movies, she is also in an earlier Sherman, REPRISAL! (1956), which I believe is one of his best movies, and she is excellent in that as well. Also, you didn’t mention brief ten minute sequence late in the movie in which Robert Middleton appears as a secondary villain (along with Rad Fulton)–that’s an effective stretch of the film. As the outlaw who sets the plot in motion, Jan Merlin was well-cast too.


    • Blake, I’ve never seen this panned and scanned, and I don’t want to. Sherman uses the wide screen so well that a chopped up version would lose a lot.

      Sherman made a huge number of movies, of which I’ve really only seen a handful. I enjoyed this one a great deal, but I’m willing to concede he may have made better. Reprisal, which you mention and praise, is one I’ve yet to see, for example.

      And yes, I should have said a word about Robert Middleton, an actor who could be frightening (The Desperate Hours) or sympathetic (The Law and Jake Wade) or even, as in this film, a combination of the two.


  2. Sounds like another winner Colin – or rather, you make it sound like one – you are disturbingly convincing as I feel my mind wandering towards the Amazon site … I’ve never seen it though the casting is interesting for the link to DUEL AT SILVER CREEK though ti sounds like McNally has the more equivocal role here.


    • Cheers. Maybe I should consider a move into marketing! 🙂

      Seriously though, it’s a good example of what can be done with a programmer in the right hands. It is nice to see Murphy and McNally team up again after Siegel’s Duel at Silver Creek, but their roles are quite different.


      • I do agree that one of the primary virtues of the small budget Western or Noir is the ability to deliver stories and characters in a more economical way and that work to a small extent in opposition to A features by providing something a little more unusual or formally adventurous – obviously it also helps if you have the likes of Burt Kennedy to write your scripts or John Alton to do the lighting and Joseph H. Lewis of Boetticher to direct. It’s a shame that Sherman and and writer Christopher Knopf (who went on to create the superior TV western CIMARRON STRIP and co-wrote one of my favourite 70s films, Kirk Douglas’ POSSE) aren’t quite up to that level.


        • I haven’t seen enough of Knopf’s work to make any overall judgement of his abilities.
          However, from what I’ve seen, Sherman was far, far better than his lack of recognition would suggest. The Battle at Apache Pass, Border River, Chief Crazy Horse & Tomahawk are all fine little pictures.


    • There are of course numerous examples that bear that fact out, scattered through every period of cinema history. What’s really important is having producers and filmmakers who know how to put the available talent and budget to best use.


  3. Great to see you give some attention to Audie Murphy, Colin! I think he was a really reliable western star and I’ve enjoyed every one of the unpretentious, modest-scaled yet satisfying westerns of his I’ve seen. I haven’t seen this one, though, and your fine post makes me tempted to venture into the unfamiliar waters of Amazon.de.

    One of my favorite Audie films is The Guns of Fort Petticoat. I’m also partial to the remake Destry, which seems unfairly maligned when compared to the Jimmy Stewart original. In it’s own right, the remake is a fine film. Nice to see more of his movies pop up on DVD in recent months.


    • Hi Jeff. Unpretentious is exactly the right word to refer to Audie Murphy’s films; they set out to be good, entertaining movies, and anything else that came along was a bonus. I’m very fond of Murphy’s westerns and even the slightest ones have something to enjoy. I’ve written about a few of his films now, and I hope to add to those in the future.

      Of the two titles you mention, both are available on DVD in Europe. I think both are out in France, but there’s the forced subtitle issue to take into account. However, there are also Spanish versions which don’t display that problem. I have Destry but I’ve not watched it yet. Guns of Fort Petticoat, on the other hand, is one I haven’t bought but I have seen it a few times. I agree it’s a very good movie and fits into that little niche with titles like Westward the Women & The Secret of Convict Lake


  4. I’ve always loved HELL BENT FOR LEATHER. Felicia Farr is excellent in it…and Murphy of course was in his element in this type of story. The scene at that desolate saloon towards the end…and the sense of the complete absence of any sympathetic characters there is memorable. As if to show that the people gradually start to resemble the harsh landscapes in which they live.
    I also thought that the scene with Robert Middleton was somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Uncle Shiloh’ scenes in Ford’s WAGON MASTER.
    It may also be worth mentioning that Knopf had some good mileage out of the basic story. (The man falsely accused of murder by arriving in a hostile town carrying the real killer’s gun). He used it again in an episode of CIMARRON STRIP (the episode “Heller” I think…although I could be wrong on that one) and an episode of another TV western, which, for the life of me, I can’t remember now. THE RIFLEMAN or, perhaps CHEYENNE. Perhaps someone can help me out!


    • Hi there Dafydd. Never seen any of Cimarron Strip so I can’t comment on the recycling of the storyline, and I can’t think I’ve seen it in another series. As you say, maybe someone can chime in and clear that up.

      The three leads (and Middleton too) were all on form, working with material and situations they clearly had an affinity for. Good point too about the saloon (and town in general) at the end. The whole movie has such a tough, dusty feel to it throughout, but that sequence really does hammer home the message about a hard country and a hard people.


    • I think anyone who is into westerns should get something from this movie. If you’re in the US then it’s either go multi-region or see if it turns up on TV or gets released in some form by Universal themselves (Vault, TCM).


  5. Sounds like one I would enjoy. In my callow youth, you couldn’t make me watch that “old Stuff.” But immaturity tens to wash away with the years, luckily for me, and these days that “old stuff” is mainly what I watch. I’ve seen a few Audie Murphy westerns and always keep an eye on Turner Classics for more.

    These small budget westerns are ones I tend to enjoy quite a lot. And the spaghettis are particular favorites. All of them, The good,bad, and really ugly(heh).


    • Hi Randy. For myself, I guess I like the sense of immediacy or urgency that you often (though not always it has to be said) get with the smaller budgets and tighter schedules. With Audie Murphy, the thing is he made so many of these in a short time that there always seems to be a new one to discover.


  6. I have always considered Audie Murphy to have appeared in reliable and entertaining western films, restrained only by their budgets, but readily accepted by his many ardent fans. “Hell Bent For Leather” is one of his better films, however I particularily admire his performance in a film that you have already discussed- Jack Arnolds’ “No Name On The Bullet”, (1959) , an almost film-noir western with a performance by Audie Murphy that was well suited to his persona. He never seemed as comfortable in his brief foray into other genre including the comedy “Joe Butterfly” (1957).


    • Rod, I think most will agree that No Name on the Bullet is one of a handful of movies that show Murphy’s abilities to best effect.
      I agree the western seems to have been the genre he felt happiest working in. Like yourself, I find that I enjoy all his westerns, even those where the writing was weaker and the overall result was a mediocre picture.


  7. FYI you can find all of Audie’s movies on the internet,mostly on ebay. He was very underrated as an actor. He did the best with the scripts and budgets he got. His best are movies with some humor as well as seriousness. Like Destry-better than Jimmy Stewarts one,Joe Butterfly,Ride a Crooked Trail etc. His best stuff was on tv with Thelma Ritter in an old GE Theatre show. He plays a pycho and is very scary. Because he wouldn’t play the Hollywood games his career was not given much of a boost. But look at the actors he worked with,some very big names. Jimmy Stewart,Burt Lancaster,Audrey Hepburn, John Houston etc,etc.
    I will always love you Audie as will many others both for your acting and being a most brave and dedicated soldier. CHeck out his web site http://www.audiemurphy.com and see just how internationally he is loved.


    • Hello ruxy.
      It’s clear that Murphy remains very highly regarded among western fans.
      You’re now the second person to mention Destry. I really should sit down and watch this movie and see how it stacks up against the original.
      Aside from his western roles, I thought he was quite effective in The Quiet American.


      • Yes Colin, the Quiet American was very good and considering Audie had to step away during the making of it for an appendectomy, he did wonderfully. Another very good one is Posse from Hell with John Saxon. Audie was a loner due to his PTSD and mostly hung with the crew instead of the stars. For a man who truly went to hell and back he was a remarkable human.
        After years of being on the company payroll he became disillusioned with the movie industry,no surprise so some later films were not his best but he always commanded the screen. Another excellent one was Gunsmoke. I have direct tv and they’ve been showing a lot more of his movies. On eBay there is a man from Australia that sells most of his movies,Audie is very beloved there. Thanks for the good input on Audie. Forever my number 1 love.


        • Hi, I just realized in a comment you made when I first wrote this piece – 4 and a half years ago! – that you referred to a role he played opposite Thelma Ritter. It just so happens that part was brought to my attention the other day and it’s available to view online –

          By the way, I hope to put up a piece on another, later, western from Murphy later on this month.


  8. Pingback: Reprisal! | Riding the High Country

  9. Not knowing much about the movie, I’m a little “under the weather” tonight and found it on the INNSP station. I’m enjoying the movie, but wanted a few facts. Your weblog filled the bill. Thanks. BTW, I am enjoying the movie.


  10. Pingback: The Tall Stranger | Riding the High Country

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