Released in 1970 while the civil rights movement was still raging, this Ralph Nelson-directed flick reminded me in a lot of ways of 1967's In the Heat of the Night. Of course some three years later, a somewhat similar storyline isn't going to have the same impact, and it would be nearly impossible to match the acting talents of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. You've got to try though, right? And Nelson has a go at it, handing us a story that is at times predictable in its direction but never in a bad way. It's not as aggressive or as in your face as 'Night,' but in its own way 'tick' serves as a nice companion piece to its classic predecessor.
In Colusa county in the deep south, Sheriff John Little (George Kennedy) heads in for his last day of work after losing a recent election. The opponent who beat him has created quite a stir as a black man, Jim Price (Brown), is prepared to take office in a county severely divided by racial ties. Little holds no grudge against his replacement, only being upsetting that he's lost a job he's held for so many years. New on the job, Price has his work cut out for him as rumors persist that the Klan might try something. He knows he's in a corner though and can't do much to provoke an incident as told to him by the elderly town mayor (Fredric March). Looking for help though with a crime that could tear the town and county apart, Price turns to an unlikely ally in Little.
It feels funny writing this, but the pairing of a white and black actor seems laughable in 2010...even if racism continues to exist in some extremely odd, almost always out of place situations. In the Heat of the Night certainly kicked the door down on the premise, and 'tick' plows right through the open door frame. Nelson doesn't hit you over the head with anything, but it is quickly apparent that if you throw out skin color, Brown's Price and Kennedy's Little are basically the same person. They're family men who would do anything for their wife and children. They do what's right no matter how difficult the choice is or the repercussions that will follow. When someone or something is in trouble, they come to help because they know it is the right thing to do.
After working together briefly in their few scenes in 1967's The Dirty Dozen, Brown and Kennedy reunite here with some very positive results. I've read criticisms of Brown that he was a stiff actor without much range, and I'll agree to a point. He could be stiff at times, but he always rose to the occasion. The former NFL star was an incredible physical presence, looming over all his co-stars whether he intended it or not. He was at his best in roles like this, and his somewhat stiff style works for the character, a stubborn but fair man who knows he's in the right. Kennedy is just as strong as the scorned sheriff who doesn't dwell too much on this change in his life. Both actors have a very easy-going way about them, and they play well off each other. And besides, just as a movie fan, it's fun to see two actors like Brown and Kennedy work together.
As I mentioned earlier, the story can be at times a tad predictable. Nelson never shoves anything down your throat, but some of the so-called twists shouldn't really surprise anyone. As a viewer, you know where the story is going before the characters even do. Was there ever any doubt that Brown and Kennedy would end up side by side to combat racism and prejudice? The same goes for the supporting characters, none of whom are developed much. March gets some laughs as the old, crotchety mayor while Lynn Carlin is very good as Julia, John's wife trying to help her husband figure out what to do with himself. Some other notable names include Don Stroud as a gun-toting, pissed off former deputy, Clifton James, Bernie Casey, Dub Taylor, Karl Swenson, and Richard Elkins as Brad Wilkes, Price's only deputy.
The one thing that worried me going in was something in the credits, a credit to the singers and writers of a handful of songs that I was disappointed to hear would be the movie's soundtrack. I won't go through all the songs -- read the list HERE -- but I can say they are all cookie-cutter folk songs from the late 1960s that sound alike. I'm not a fan to begin with, but the soundtrack is misused with a story dealing with racism and prejudice in the deep south. Annoying and out of place? You bet, but I liked the movie nonetheless.
...tick...tick...tick... <---TCM trailer (1970): ***/****