The first in a line of seven westerns Audie Murphy made with producer Gordon Kay, Hell Bent for Leather is fairly decent stuff. The 1960 film is directed by genre stalwart George Sherman, plus it features the lovely Felicity Farr and B-movie baddie Stephen McNally. It’s based on a book by Ray Hogan and features a screenplay by Christopher Knopf.
Murphy, a hero on-screen and off, is the selling feature and he slips into an interesting role. He’s not a gun-slinging hero or a typical western protagonist. He’s simply the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. He spends most of the film running and proclaiming his innocence to anyone who’ll listen, plus he hides out in a cave for a while with Farr’s character while he waits for trouble to blow over.
Murphy stars as Clay Santell, a man on his way to Iron City to do a little horse trading. He’s set upon by a man (Jan Merlin) who is later revealed to be the murderous Travers. Clay has his horse stolen, so he moseys into the nearest town with the rifle Travers dropped when he was getting away. The townspeople mistake him for the murderer, despite Clay’s protests.
The lawman Harry Deckett (McNally) arrives and Santell thinks he finally has someone listening to him, but the Marshal is more bent on killing Clay and capitalizing on the glory of bagging Travers. Sure, Deckett knows Clay isn’t Travers but nobody cares about that. Clay has no choice but to run, which puts him in contact with Farr’s Janet. She believes him and helps him get away.
At times, Hell Bent for Leather tells an interesting story about innocence and the difficulty of being believed when people just adhere to whatever version of the truth suits them. Both Clay and Janet wind up being social outcasts of a sort, with Janet forever associated with her father and subsequently chased by Beckett and the pitchfork-waving throng. Nobody cares to find out what she thinks.
Nobody cares about Clay, either, but he believes he can identify himself properly if he could just get to Iron City. The trouble is that the lawmen and goons on his tail don’t give a rat’s ass. They get so worked up by Deckett that Clay’s protestations are frequently drowned out by gunfire. There are many scenes in the picture with the protagonist hiding in the cliffs and getting shot at from below.
To make matters worse, Clay is seldom in a position to shoot back. This makes him even more altruistic. He runs only when he’s cornered and he doesn’t do a whole lot of gun-fighting. He spends a lot of the movie with just one shot in the fancy rifle and has to locate another gun when the climax rolls around. It’s hard to imagine a protagonist in a western having to borrow a gun, isn’t it?
Despite the admirably angular approach, Hell Bent for Leather just doesn’t quite cook the way it should. The plot is overly convoluted, especially when Deckett starts explaining things too much and a group of thugs led by Robert Middleton’s Ambrose complicate matters. The final few scenes drag a little and the movie struggles with pacing.
But the performances are quite good. Murphy typically makes for a satisfactory hero and is never quite associated with the greats of the genre, but he can be fun to watch in Hell Bent for Leather. He pilots his character’s circumstances well and is more than capable when it comes to pleading his moral case.
Clifford Stine, who would go on to film Murphy in 1961’s Posse from Hell, provides a good-looking view of the rambling vistas and ascending cliffs. There’s plenty of topographical variety for the characters to navigate, including a big bluff and a clammy cave.
For the most part, this works as a middling B-movie with few frills. It contends with the notion of pleading one’s innocence at all costs and weaves a rather eccentric tale for a western, even if it’s a little on the long-winded side. This isn’t incredible fare by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a passable Audie Murphy outing and that’s got to count for something.