Hannie Caulder’s (1971) biggest problem, and perhaps the problem that stands in the way of its reaching B-movie greatness, lies in the fact that its heroine, played by the dependably buxom Raquel Welch, is never as angry as she should be.
In the film, the titular Caulder is a fixture of revenge. When we first meet her, she, and us, watch hopelessly as her husband is senselessly killed by a gaggle of bumbling would-be bank robbers (Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, and Jack Elam), and as she, defenseless, is brutally raped by the three thugs with assembly line mechanicality. When all’s said and done, she should be overtaken by the sort of pain and fury that overwhelmed Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo after she woke up from a four-year coma in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003).
But following Caulder’s spotting of Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp), the bounty hunter who she, without hesitation, asks to help train her to become a deadly assassin capable of gunning down a man with lethal precision, is it clear that the film is sound story wise but muddled emotionally. Caulder doesn’t act like a woman who’s seen her husband murdered in cold blood, who’s been barbarously assaulted – she acts like Raquel Welch acting in a revenge movie.
Cheesecake poses abound but sweaty urgency does not. Until the finale, which is strangely satisfying considering how little we care about the focal plot line, Hannie Caulder makes for an odd case. It’s slightly a Western comedy and slightly a rape and revenge thriller, made less and less effective as a result of the entire middle act (which sees Caulder in the midst of learning how to kill a man) being less Django Unchained (2012) and more The Karate Kid (1984) honeyed.
The film’s inability to be taken seriously as a persuasive product of its category doesn’t have anything to do with the ensemble, who, when given the chance (and there are few slots alotted for redemption here), make Hannie Caulder worth something. It has to do with Kennedy’s failure to dress the movie to kill. The villains should be slithering and disdainful but are, instead, lugging and moronic (like The Three Stooges, only more incompetent). Supporting players, from Christopher Lee’s gunsmith to Diana Dors’ madam, should be melodramatic scene stealers but wear the scent of poorly designed stock characters like corner store cologne. And while Welch’s casting initially seems subversive yet inspired – it’s one of her few vehicles that recognizes that she’s intimidatingly, gobsmackingly beautiful, thus making her an ideal pulp heroine – Kennedy never gives the actress, who never really won a meaty role in her career, opportunity to hold her own next to Pam Grier’s Coffy or Christina Lindberg’s Madeleine.
Only Culp rises above the facile material – he’s rugged, quietly tenacious, and pitch-perfectly paternal – and that makes him deserving of co-headlining a better movie. Because Hannie Caulder, for all its potential, doesn’t know how to use its actors and doesn’t know who or what it wants to be. One can wistfully ponder the provocations that could have bombarded us had Jack Hill or Russ Meyer been helmer in chief rather than the tonally confused Kennedy. C+