Murphy's Man on the Run
What has Alfred Hitchcock and Audie Murphy western "Hell Bent for Leather" got in common? it's the theme. Hitchcock made a few movies which explored the theme of an innocent man mistaken for a bad man and forced to go on the run and "Hell Bent for Leather" is all about an innocent man mistaken for a killer and forced to go on the run. But whilst Hitchcock explored the theme "Hell Bent for Leather" is just another western from an era when they were popular using the innocent man story without too much embellishment. It works because it is a solid western with nice performances but in the end it is no better or worse than many other westerns which were made when they made up the majority of big screen entertainment.
After being bushwhacked by wanted killer Travers (Jan Merlin), Clay Santell (Audie Murphy - Night Passage) makes it to Sutterville with just some money in his pocket and the fancy rifle which Travers dropped. It is that rifle which causes the town to think that Clay is Travers and prepare for a hanging. That is until Marshal Deckett (Stephen McNally - The Duel at Silver Creek) arrives who has been on the trail of Travers for months and insists on taking him back to Denver. Whilst Deckett knows that Clay isn't Travers he spots an opportunity to put an end to his relentless hunt by killing Clay and making out he killed Travers. Having managed to escape Clay along with Janet Gifford (Felicia Farr - Charley Varrick) who spots him hiding in a barn head to the rocky ridge where she believes Clay is not who they says he is and tries to help him clear his name.
So as already mentioned "Hell Bent for Leather" does use the familiar story of an innocent man mistaken for being someone else and forced to go on the run not only to save their life but also clear their name. You know what to expect and when we watch the innocent Clay Santell force the attractive Janet to go along with him, having spotted him hiding in a barn, you also know that not only will she believe him when he says he is not who everyone thinks he is but will also grows romantically fond of him. And so textbook is the underlying storyline that you also know that things will end up with Clay in the same place as Deckett who is hunting him down and the real wanted man Travers.
But whilst "Hell Bent for Leather" is very much a textbook story it does have some nice touches which our nice embellishments. The fact that Marshal Deckett knows that Clay isn't Travers but plans to kill him and make out he was definitely adds a pleasant sort of twist. And the fact we also have history repeating itself as Janet explains that she had climbed the supposedly unclimbable ridge with her father when he was on the run makes for a moment of distraction. But these nice ideas are just minor distractions which are never used to their full potential leaving "Hell Bent for Leather" for the most very obvious.
As for the expected moments of western action well for the most it is a bit limp. The first half relies on random shooting from distance the sort which any cowboy would have known was pointless and it is not until the second half that the action actual gets a little exciting. There is a vicious beating from Deckett as he tries to find out where Clay has headed and the final shoot out whilst brief does results in a couple of deaths, something which up until that point had been conspicuous by its absence. Basically "Hell Bent for Leather" is one western which you certainly won't remember for the action.
But it is not a bad movie and the acting is remarkably good for what in all reality is just another western of the mass produced variety. Whilst an older Audie Murphy still has a youthful appearance and looks too have that almost petulant side, quick to act in a moment of anger, Stephen McNally as Deckett is the essence of desperate as he hunts down Clay having told everyone that he is Travers the man wanted for murder. And whilst Felicia Farr seems to have been cast in the token attractive female role she actually makes it a proper role with the element of history repeating itself.
What this all boils down to "Hell Bent for Leather" is a solid but unremarkable western which works the theme of an innocent man forced in the run. It never strays from the formula and in reality is just another western which came towards the end of the period when westerns were popular.