Hell Bent for Leather is directed by George Sherman and adapted to screenplay by Christopher Knopf from the novel Outlaw Marshal written by Ray Hogan. It stars Audie Murphy, Felicia Farr, Stephen McNally and Robert Middleton. A CinemaScope production in Eastman Color, it features music jointly scored by William Lava and Irving Gertz (Joseph Gershenson supervising) and cinematography by Clifford Stine.
Audie Murphy plays Clay Santell, a horse trader who is wrongly accused of murder and goes on the run pursued by a vengeful Marshal. The Marshal (McNally), knows Santell is innocent, but he doesn't care and figures that killing a wanted man that nobody has seen before can only earn him glory.
There is often a tendency from Western film critics to undersell a "B" Western, it's like you are not allowed to rave about or rate a "B" the same as an Oater from the well regarded and well known movers and shakers in the genre. This happens to be more the case where Audie Murphy's output is concerned. Not blessed with great acting talent, Murphy none the less knew how to make a scene work, to imbue a passage of play with great presence, never once trying to hog the limelight from co-stars, he remains more so today a Western star whose values should not be easily dismissed. His CV contains quite a few bad or ordinary films, but he was in some very good ones as well, and one such film is Hell Bent for Leather.
Plot is essentially standard fare, a wronged man is on the run and he is saddled with a pretty gal for the journey. Posse are in pursuit and wronged man has to prove his innocence before he is killed by a sadistic sheriff out to feather his own nest. Yet the locale and well written characters mark this out as a tough little Oater. Sure there's little action to pump the blood of those who need such passages, though some good chase scenes are here and one finishes with a great bit of stuntery, but the neat trick here is having Murphy and Farr's characters run off/up into the rocky terrain; the magnificent Alabama Hills rocky terrain. As Anthony Mann had a knack of marrying up surroundings to psychological aspects of his protagonists, so it be here with Sherman, but of course this is a "Audie Murphy B Western", so such things aren't possible...
Hey, it's no Naked Spur et al, far from it, but it is far better and grittier than some think it is purely because of the director and star who made it. It also has a great finale, where up in the jutted rocks we get a tense situation that sees the wronged man, the guilty man, the spunky girl with a substantial back story and the unhinged glory seeking Marshal, all brought together in a moment of reckoning. You will not die of shock with the outcome, but it's a finale rewarding us for having spent the time with these deftly etched characters. Acting is safe and sound, with Middleton the stand out performer, and the music score is "B Western" 101 stuff. But if only for Stine's CinemaScope photography then the Western fan should see this, the Alabama Hills, so prominent in many a great and classic genre offering, are beautifully captured and very much a critical character in the story. 7.5/10