Sunday, December 6, 2015


Here is the end of an era: A Time for Killing is the last film produced by Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott's longtime production partner. Scott had retired five years earlier on the high note of Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, leaving Brown to deal with upheaval in the western genre. The influence of spaghetti westerns is arguably apparent in some dramatic use of widescreen close-ups and in a darker, more brutal tone. I was willing to credit that tone to Phil Karlson, the credited director, since Karlson made some of the darker, more brutal films of the 1950s. Yet there's also a self-destructive inconsistency of tone I at first blamed on studio interference with Karlson, only to learn that Karlson was the interference. At first, Brown had a dream team working on the picture: Roger Corman directing and Robert Towne screenplay, edited by Monte Hellman. Brown, or Columbia Pictures higher-ups, fired Corman because, for once, that industrious director had fallen behind schedule. For Corman this was an A assignment and he apparently treated it as such, ambitious to achieve epic visuals on location. Karlson was brought in to speed the job to completion, while Hellman quit and the script was rewritten. The result is a mess, a sloppy mix of Hollywood past, present and future -- the last in the form of Harrison J. Ford in his first credited movie role -- and conflicting notions of what a western should look like.

Some of the inconsistency may have remained had Corman done so; his frequent stooge Dick Miller stuck around in an annoying comic-relief role as a cowardly Union soldier that may have been part of the original conception. If anything, Brown must have wanted more of Miller; there are blatant studio pick-up shots of him and his comedy partner that muck up the pacing that Karlson was supposed to improve. Their pathetic comedy seems increasingly out-of-place as the story turns darker and darker. Meanwhile, the best-known comic performer in the cast, Max Baer Jr. of The Beverly Hillbillies, turns in a once-in-a-lifetime turn as an unhinged Reb, one of a band breaking out of a western prison camp days before the end of the Civil War. This psycho loves fighting and killing for their own sakes, and is almost as likely to pick fights with or kill his own comrades as he is to fight the pursuing Union troops led by star Glenn Ford. Baer is skyrocketing over the top, and yet he's topped by his character's commander, a Confederate officer played by George Hamilton in a once-in-a-lifetime channeling of pure evil.

If Baer's evil is a barbaric yawp, Hamilton's is arrogant, almost satanic spite directed at Glenn Ford. He resents Ford, it seems, merely for showing him courtesy, if not also for showing mercy to one of Hamilton's men who was sentenced by Ford's own spiteful commander to be executed by untrained black orderlies; the wretch survives two volleys before Ford puts one in the brain. It all seems futile to Ford because word from the East indicates that General Lee's surrender and the war's end are no more than days away. If the finished film has a theme left, it's that war endures in hearts and minds after armies stand down. Hamilton embodies all the unreconstructed Rebs who endured to the time the film was made, and beyond. "This war will continue for a hundred years," he vows, despite learning from a dispatch stolen from a murdered messenger that the war, indeed, has ended. He flaunts the telegram to his hostage, played by Inger Stevens, a missionary who is Ford's fiancee, to show that he doesn't give a damn about it. And after he rapes her -- Corman/Karlson only take us to the brink of the act, but do show us Hamilton dragging his spur across her naked side -- she in turn withholds knowledge of the surrender to Ford, as if fearful that he wouldn't avenge her if he knew the war was over. Instead, he continues the pursuit across the Mexican border to an abandoned town where most of the remaining cast are slaughtered, but the two comedy-relief idiots get to escape. Ford only learns the truth when Baer, who murdered the original messenger with a shot to the face, confesses it hysterically after getting gut-shot by one of his own team.

Glenn Ford himself seems to have been intrigued by the idea of a hero weary of violence betrayed by a beloved's bloodlust. In Richard Thorpe's The Last Challenge, made around the same time, he breaks up with Angie Dickinson after learning that she'd paid Jack Elam (in vain) to dry-gulch a hot-shot young gunfighter looking to pick a fight with Ford's marshal. If Ford seems tired, showing all his fifty years, in both films, that seems in part to be an artistic choice by the actor. In Time for Killing it looks like he reconciles with Stevens, but an air of hopelessness hangs over both films, underscored in Killing by the strategic and philosophical pointlessness of the whole running battle. The makings of a possibly great western are strewn about the landscape of Karlson's film. The location footage, much of it presumably Corman's and shot by Kenneth Peach (who worked mostly in TV), is often as impressive as Corman hoped, making the studio inserts all the more glaring. Also in the eclectic cast are (Harry) Dean Stanton as one of the more reasonable Rebs and Timothy Carey as an arrogant Union sharpshooter. Among the negatives is the utterly generic, inappropriately upbeat score by Mundell Lowe. In the end the location work and the extreme villainy of Hamilton and Baer -- they get the best close-ups, by the way -- make Time for Killing worth seeing, but no one who sees it will doubt that it could have been a better if not great western.

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