The Hired Gun (1957) is a western that opens with voiceover by Anne Francis as she sits in a Texas jail on the day of her hanging. She tells us she’s innocent, that she didn’t kill her husband but nobody will believe her. Lucky for her, Chuck Connors comes to break her out and the two escape to a ranch in New Mexico. She can’t be extradited back to Texas, so her father-in-law (John Litel) and brother-in-law (Vince Edwards) hire an expert gunslinger (Rory Calhoun, who also co-produced), deputize him and send him to capture and deliver Francis. Calhoun easily gets a job where Francis is hiding, and whisks her away in no time flat. Much of the film is spent on the trail as prisoner and gunman get better acquainted and details of the murder come out.
The expectation with this kind of plot is that the man contracted to find and/or kill the girl is bound to fall in love with her and won’t do his job, which is exactly what happens here. Yes, it’s predictable but so is a hamburger and I always like those when the parts are stacked right. My favourite ingredient here is the good acting. For Francis freedom isn’t everything. She wants to clear her name, not just hide and be presumed guilty for the rest of her life. But she doesn’t try to convince Calhoun since she assumes he’s just the hired gun and couldn’t care less about her story. Calhoun holds up his part of that by acting appropriately stoic and aloof but honourable, curious and understanding. He’s slow to show warmth but you always get the idea it’s not just his payoff he’s protecting, and he’s more her knight than bounty hunter. By abducting Francis, he rescues her from assault by Connors, who feels she owes him big for springing her from jail. Alone in the desert, Calhoun could easily take advantage of Francis but remains a distant gentleman, keeps her comfortable and turns away when she’s bathing. When he gets shot, and Francis stays to help instead of escaping, the trust established soon leads to her reveal (and him to believe) how she was framed.
The action is good, starting with Connors’ well-organized jailbreak using a switch of wagons and decoys. Calhoun is set up early as a lightning fast draw with an instantly recognizable shooting pattern. That’s paid off later in an impressive bit where he and Francis are ambushed by Indians. In a split second, Calhoun chases off Francis’ horse and turns to knock the whole group down like a shooting gallery. When Calhoun learns the testimony that helped convict Francis came from a known loser and liar (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) he has a brutally clever way of making the lowlife talk. Calhoun literally squeezes out information that exonerates Francis by tying Williams up–neck, wrists, chest–with wet strips of rawhide and letting them shrink in the sun.
For about the first half of the movie I found the music frantic and overbearing, thundering into every scene as soon as the dialogue stopped. There were also some jarring camera movements when Connors and company escape from Texas. The camera zipped too quickly back and forth to show us what pursuers were looking at, from their faces to wagon tracks, back to their faces and then to hoofprints. It got a bit dizzying, and effects like that are unnecessary when the black and white Cinemascope and scenery look this nice. Director Ray Nazarro and cinematographer Harold J. Marzorati feature wide, sprawling desert, rock face and mountains in almost every shot that’s not in a jail cell, and it really adds a lot to this picture. One especially nice shot captured Calhoun atop the rocks against beautiful contrasting dawn clouds. There are worse ways to spend 63 minutes than seeing sights like that and watching Calhoun bring justice to the real killer.