Review by Doug Gibson
"Caine's Cutthroats" is a 1970 revenge western that was originally titled "Caine's Way" (more on that later). It's a very low-budget western with ambitous pretensions. It wants to be deep, and explore how unwarranted suffering and grief can be contaminated into a never-ending desire to torture and kill; and how the desire for revenge can return a good man to his once-evil self. If the producers had just kept a simple plot simple, you might see "Caine's Cutthroats" on western cable channels today instead of the same tired fuzzy print that has made the rounds through a VHS release, various appearances on out-of-print multi-western DVD collections, and current appearances on Tubi, YouTube and Daily Motion.
The plot: "Caine's Cutthroats" are former Confederate soldiers who committed crimes against Union forces. It's long after the Civil War, and they are out of prison. They have resumed criminal activities, stealing a Union military payroll and slaughtering several soldiers. They visit the home of their past gang leader, Justice Cain (Scott Brady), who has renounced his past and lives with his son and new wife, an African-American woman who once served as a slave maid in his household. Cain rebuffs his returning crew and they turn on him, raping his wife and killing her and Cain's young son. They shoot Cain, torch his property and leave him for dead.
There's one main reason to see this film (and another smaller one). The main reason is the introduction of the character, Preacher Simms, played by the great John Carradine. The self-described preacher discovers Cain, nurses him back to health and buries his wife and child. Preacher Simms loves to quote Bible scripture -- often as wry commentary on events he witnesses -- but he makes most of his money as a bounty hunter. He keeps the heads of the outlaws he kills pickled in a big barrel. He collects bounties by delivering the heads to law enforcement. As Cain heals, Simms learns that the Cain's Cutthroats gang members carry healthy bounty rewards. Preacher and Cain join to hunt the 'Cutthroats; Preacher for the money, Cain for revenge.
At this point in his career, Carradine was usually a one- or two-day payday for low-budget films. But he has a substantial role in this film, and I think this may be his best performance in a low-budget film in the early '70s. He just chews up the scenery, quoting Bible scriptures shows great comic timing, and really seems to be enjoying himself. As he tells Cain, "... I sort of mix vocations, a shepherd of the flock, a hunter of men. ..."
Brady, once a major star and still getting some A-film roles in 1970, seemed to enjoy paydays in low-budget films. He's adequate as Cain, a man who has lost everything and can't control his thirst for vengeance. Although initially the sympathetic victim, he reverts to his former heartless, criminal, sadistic tendencies.
The simple plot has promise but the execution fails. The film, shot in Kanab, Utah, and Yucca Valley's PioneerTown in California, is very low-budget. It's directed by Kent Osborne, who is slightly less talented than Al Adamson. Both Brady and Carradine, and Robert Dix -- who plays Cain's former second in command -- worked for Adamson. With one exception, the actors who portray the 'Cutthroats are very mediocre. They seem incapable of doing anything other than whooping and hollering, and laughing at inflicting pain. The violence is poorly portrayed, with fake blood, and the scenes are shot crudely and unconvincingly. The scant budget, and 85-minute running time, doesn't provide nuance for the adversaries, nor does it provide sympathy for the protagonist Cain, who shows his rage in explosions of anger, rather than as a slowly-simmering-to-boiling cauldron.
The one positive performance from the 'Cutthroats comes from Darwin Joston, as Billy Joe, a psychopathic former soldier with serious mother issues. Joston went on to star in bigger films, including "Wild at Heart," "The Fog," and "Assault From Precinct 13,"
Now, here's the second cult reason to view "Cain's Cutthroats." There is a small but substantial role by Ed Wood actor -- and his friend -- Valda Hansen. She plays"Zelda,' who is either a barfly or prostitute who cavorts romantically with Billy Joe in a "saloon." (The low budget prevents viewers from really seeing a realistic-looking saloon.) Valda's acting is very strong. She portrays a boisterous woman who really enjoys heavy flirting with the outlaw. A second scene, inside a room where the two prepare to have sex, ends with a partially nude Zelda being strangled to death by the psychopath. He can't engage in sex due to his mother issues, and an angry Zelda insults him, triggering the homicidal rage.
Viewers need to note that the second scene, the murder -- with Hansen's character being strangled -- is missing from both YouTube and Daily Motion versions, as well as DVDs that include "Cain's Cutthroats" with other westerns. The version currently on Tubi has the film with both scenes. Other than the obscure VHS release, that may be the only complete "Cain's Cutthroats" out there.
Another actor, Adair Jameson, is effective in a small role as Rita, a former mistress of one of the killers, who joins Cain and Preacher after her boyfriend is killed. She engages in a romance with Cain that would have helped him. However, Cain is too consumed with anger to accept her offer of love. After a particularly sadistic killing of one of the murderers, both Rita and Preacher Simms abandon Cain, leaving him for good. The final scene provides a sort of morality tale that is intended to show a broken Cain that cannot achieve peace, even at the end of his vengeance quest.
Jameson has a nude bathing scene that is not cut from any prints. She is probably best known for her tiny role in the Don Knotts comedy, "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," where she plays an attractive bank employee, Eileen, whose fully-filled sweater is complimented by her boss, played by James Millhollin. Jameson was married to B-film actor Myron Healey ("The Unearthly").
The "spaghetti westerns" were done a lot better than this California/Utah sadistic 'oater. It boasts some original songs, which seem out of place with the grim story. Mentioned earlier is that the film was released as "Caine's Way." It was about 10 minutes longer and apparently included documentary-like footage of modern-day criminal biking gangs committing mayhem. It would be interesting to see that print. In the unlikely event a nice Blu-Ray print is ever provided for this film, I hope the "Caine's Way"footage is an extra, if it still exists.
In an interview with Cult Movies Magazine published after her death, Valda Hansen expressed a lot of enthusiasm for "Cain's Cutthroats," expressing high hopes and later disappointment that it did not get more exposure. It's one of the few films where Hansen received considerable film time, and she shows she possesses acting skills, as she also does in another '70s low-budget film, "Outlaw Riders."
As you can see from the theater ads interspersed in this review, it did get many bookings. With a bigger budget, less sadism, a bigger star, and Carradine, it might be a favorite today seen on TCM, etc. As it is, it's a mediocre, small-budget revenge western with a very small cult that's due to Carradine's truly bizarre performance, and his comic timing. Despite its shortcomings, I have developed a fondness for the film, and watch it every couple of years. I own a VHS copy.