The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, March 25, 2013

Posse from Hell

Ah, the posse, where men can be men manly stuff? Ride horses, shoot guns, track bad guys, eat jerky and drink bad coffee around a fire out in the desert under the stars. Pretty cool, huh? Eh, probably not, but for a western nut like myself, I could get on board with that. Obviously it wasn't a pleasant experience -- tracking down the bad guys to bring them to justice -- but there's been countless westerns following the posse, but few have been better than 1961's Posse from Hell.

Four very dangerous, murdering convicts led by an outlaw named Crip (Vic Morrow) descend on a small, peaceful western town, wreaking havoc and leaving a handful of dead in their wake, including the town marshal. The gang steals $11,000 from the bank and also kidnaps young Helen Caldwell (Zohra Lampert) and takes her with them. As a posse forms the following day, a new deputy arrives in town. His name is Banner Cole (Audie Murphy), and he immediately assumes the marshal's duties, starting with forming the posse. His honesty about the coming hunt scares many people away, leaving Banner with just six men riding with him to take down a four-man gang. The trail awaits with ambushes, double crosses, personal grudges and cowards waiting around every corner. Can Banner hold the group together long enough to get the gang?

From director Herbert Coleman, here is an example of a solid western that's flown under the radar in the 50-plus years since its release. It doesn't hit the 90-minute mark -- wrapping up in 89 instead -- and is most definitely a B-western. 'Hell' was filmed on the backlots with a few excursions to the California desert. The music is pretty standard stuff to the point the full cast and crew listing don't even list a composer. So why does it work then? Western novelist Clair Huffaker (wrote the novel and the screenplay) knows what he's doing. He knows the western and more importantly the characters. His good guy is resolute, his bad guys extremely nasty, and the rest are cannon fodder. Familiar? Maybe, but it's fun and entertaining throughout.

Maybe because it was a B-western and not a huge studio release, 'Hell' can get away with some stuff. That stuff ranks pretty high on the nasty, dark meter. There are things you would expect out of a spaghetti western or revisionist American western from the late 1960s or early 1970s, not a 1961 western. Morrow's Crip is a cold-blooded killer (channeling a similar character he played on an episode of The Rifleman) who favors a double-barreled shotgun and kills with no discretion. His gang kills because they can, not because it actually accomplishes anything. After leaving the town behind, Crip's gang even rapes Helen and leaves her for dead. Banner's posse is equally treacherous with insane, cowardly, big-talking individuals who can't back themselves up. It's a refreshing change of pace from some straightforward white hat good guys and black hat bad guys.

The king of the American B-western, Audie Murphy is an ideal lead. At times, his acting could be a tad wooden, but his stone-faced, almost monotone delivery plays well here. He's less than interested in the feelings or reactions of his posse. He's out there to do a job, not worry about the personalities of these people he's just met. The best dynamic is between Murphy's Banner and John Saxon's Seymour Kern, an Easterner working with the bank in town who's told to go with the posse to watch over the recovered money. The veteran cowboy and the inexperienced Easterner is a familiar convention, but it works. The rest of the posse includes Robert Keith as a power-happy former Union officer, Rodolfo Acosta as a Mexican cowboy known for his tracking ability, Royal Dano as Helen's drunken uncle, Frank Overton as the revenge-seeking townsperson trying to avenge his brother, and Paul Carr as the fast-draw with a pistol who's got little real life experience with his pistols. Also look for Lee Van Cleef as one of Crip's gang. It's a cool group with a variety of personalities, some around to be targets for Crip's gang.

The story is fairly episodic once the posse gets out on the trail. With seven members of the posse, it's clear some aren't going to make it so it becomes a guessing game as to who will survive. There are some surprising twists there so stay tuned through the end. Overall, the story doesn't really know how to end so it does drag a little in the final 15-20 minutes, but the build-up is so worthwhile I barely noticed. It's not enough to detract from a western I very much enjoyed. Highly recommended. Give it a shot at Youtube, link included below.

Posse from Hell (1961): *** 1/2 /****


  1. I can't stand westerns, and you make me want to watch this, Tim. Sounds like a border-line horror movie. It also sounds like I'm going to be hating on Vic Morrow very soon.... Good read.
    Tony B.

  2. Can't stand westerns?!? That's blasphemy! I've got some good ones to recommend if you'd ever like to explore. The Great Silence is a perfect example of a Gothic western made in Italy with some horror(ish) undertones.