Hell Bent For Leather (1960)
Veteran western director George Sherman who worked with most every cowboy star from the Duke to Rory Calhoun, from Don “Red” Barry programmers to Fess Parker television adventures saddled up for his one and only teaming with Audie Murphy in this sparse tale of a man being railroaded to the gallows by a psychotic sheriff while finding the woman who’ll come to believe in him against all odds.
Under the Universal International banner good hearted Audie finds himself in the wrong place when a drifter on foot in the dusty Lone Pine location bushwhacks him and rides off on his mount. Quick draw Audie gets off one shot knocking a silver stalked shotgun from the hand of his attacker played by Jan Merlin. Little does Audie know that the shotgun he now possesses is going to be a key prop in identifying himself as a crazed killer in the eyes of John Qualen and others by the time he drifts into the nearest town.
Cornered by a group of townsfolk, Audie protests his innocence to no avail and when Sheriff Stephen McNally arrives to bring his shotgun wielding killer to justice, he whisks Audie away from a certain lynching. While McNally admits to Audie he knows he isn’t the killer he also figures he can shorten up his long manhunt by killing Audie in the place of Merlin. Audie is soon to realize that McNally is a crazed man with a badge and not playing with a full deck.
With no other choice than to run, Audie loses McNally and doubles back to the town where he’ll take the stunning Felicia Farr as a hostage though we all know he’ll never make good on his threats to her livelihood. It’s while the two are fleeing McNally and the others in a buckboard that a nasty stunt fall takes place. Whoever is stunting for Farr falling from the wagon down a ridge takes a vicious fall and I hope wasn’t hurt during what appears to be a stunt gone wrong.
While Audie slowly wins over Farr’s trust they happen across a trio of brothers led by a snaky Robert Middleton who has a taste for pretty girls, themselves on the run from the law. Middleton shines here in his brief role and as usual is a welcome addition to the proceedings. It’s a short meeting as Audie and Farr continue on though McNally does catch up with Middleton as he and his posse including Eddie Little Sky as a tracker close in. The sadistic McNally lays a good beating on Middleton and like a good outlaw, Middleton isn’t talking. Honor among thieves I suppose.
Audie is in deep by the seventy minute mark and will have another twelve of screen time to prove his innocence and get the crazed McNally off his trail. Maybe even bring the real killer to justice and hold Felicia’s hand at the fade out if all goes right.
Not a bad oater but one that I think is indicative of the Murphy films that lay ahead and the genre in general outside of Italy. It’s sparse on budget but has a trio of well known faces to advertise on the poster and marquee. It’s very telling when the towns that Audie comes upon have no life or activity in the street. No wagons or extras walking the floorboards in front of the storefronts and saloons as there were in his earlier western output like Destry or Walk the Proud Land. Hell Bent For Leather might serve as a bridge to what was to come for Audie in films for director William Witney and the genre under the guidance of A.C. Lyles. That said, it’s still a good effort with all four of the major names delivering an above average effort for their paycheck.
By this time, Miss Farr was a veteran of the western having appeared in some fine films including Jubal, The Last Wagon and 3:10 to Yuma. Murphy was primarily typecast and McNally had fallen into the role of a respected villain. Audie and McNally had previously rode the trail together in 1952’s Duel At Silver Creek. Middleton mainly a played heavy yet could surprise with character roles as he did to great delight opposite Coop in Friendly Persuasion.
A blogger pal was kind enough to send me a copy of this Audie feature so I can’t recommend a specific release. Especially since I don’t believe it has ever had an official North American release though it is available overseas.