by Glenn Lovell
There’s a lot of talk about the new Jeff Bridges-Chris Pine indie, “Hell or High Water,” being a modern-day or throwback Western. The preview for this heists-gone-wrong saga set in West Texas makes it look like a cross between such new/old hybrids as the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” and last year’s overlooked “Cold in July” with Michael C. Hall and Don Johnson riding the vengeance trail in a Cadillac El Dorado .
With the exception of the Hellboy and Hellraiser franchises we don’t see the word hell in titles much these days. Because the filmmakers want to save the naughty language for the film proper, or the MPAA, like its Production Code predecessor, forbids the use of the h-word in dialogue and title?
None of the above.
Paradoxically, hell in the title conjures a more innocent time, the postwar period when Hollywood looked to put as much distance between itself and a squeaky-clean, newfangled invention called television.
In the ’50s and ’60s, it seemed like every other Western and war movie had hell in the title. If you were a kid then, it was like a free pass to use profanity.
Coming to a Theater Near You! on any particular weekend: United Artists’ “Hell Bound,” trading in a titillating cargo of “dope, dames … and dynamite”; Sam Fuller’s “Hell and High Water” starring Richard Widmark as a Cold War skipper; the Korean war “Retreat, Hell! with always-reliable Frank Lovejoy shouting orders; Mark Robson’s “Hell Below Zero” with Alan Ladd; the Audie Murphy biopic “To Hell and Back” with the much-decorated Audie Murphy playing himself; “Posse from Hell” again with Murphy; the sub adventure “Hellcats of the Pacific” with Ronald Reagan romancing his future First Lady, Nancy Das topside; Phil Karlson’s fact-based “Hell to Eternity” with Jeffrey Hunter battling anti-Japanese racism at home and in the South Pacific; Don Siegel’s gritty “Hell Is for Heroes” with Steven McQueen; John Boorman’s “Hell in the Pacific,” costarring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as enemies on a desert island.
Raising hell in a title soon became a cliché. Instead of shocking audiences, it had the opposite effect: it sedated them, made the film’s title feel like overkill.
But that was another time. Heck, hell in a title now sounds, well, almost quaint, in a good way.