The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die

What flies in one market doesn't necessarily do the same in a separate market.  Take 1968's A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die, a popular spaghetti western released in Europe with an almost 2-hour running time. On a separate note, if that title isn't one of the coolest ever, I don't know what is.  Anyhow, MGM gets their hands on it for a U.S. release, cuts about 20 minutes, and hacks away the ending so American audiences can leave with a happy conclusion.  What's left? A good but not great spaghetti western that will always have the question of 'What if?' floating around it.

Released at the height of the spaghetti western craze, 'Minute' has been left in the dust by more popular spaghettis from directors like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci among others and other movies with bigger stars.  This is a western with all sorts of genre regulars from the gothic sounding soundtrack -- not Ennio Morricone -- to the anti-hero to the supporting cast full of recognizable faces to the familiar locations.  A classic it is not, but it still remains an interesting watch for spaghetti western fans.

Infamous outlaw Clay McCord (Alex Cord) has ridden the outlaw trail for years, but the law seems to be closing in.  He hides out in the desert, bandit town of Escondido, run by a thuggish gunhand, Kraut (Leone regular Mario Brega), who would like nothing more than to put a bullet between McCord's eyes. While hiding, McCord hears of an offer made by the new territorial governor (Robert Ryan) giving amnesty to any outlaws who will sign a document and surrender their guns. The outlaw is skeptical, but a recurring problem that he believes is epilepsy continues to plague him, paralyzing his gunhand whenever it is put under stress.  Sooner or later, it will happen at the least opportune moment.  As he prepares to ride in to sign the amnesty though, McCord not only has to deal with Kraut, but the local sheriff (Arthur Kennedy) who is suspicious of McCord's motives.

This is not your typical spaghetti western in a lot of ways, and in others, it's a good example of how strong the genre could be.  Not a big star, Cord plays McCord as a sympathetic character forced into a life of working as a gunhand.  Some eerie flashbacks show some of Clay's motivation as he watched his father succumb to epilepsy.  It's an appropriate addition to a genre that has had heroes who are blind, deaf, tortured, mutilated and generally disabled.  Ryan gives the movie credibility just by showing up as governor Lem Carter, and Kennedy looks to be enjoying himself in the midst of his European movies.  Also look for Italian beauty Nicoletta Machiavelli as Laurinda, a woman who helps Clay.  For the rest of the cast, if you're a Leone fan you'll recognize countless faces in supporting roles.

Not as action packed as some reviews would make it out to be *cough Roger Ebert cough * this western gives a little more character development to its anti-hero in Clay McCord.  There are gunfights, including the exciting finale in one of the movie's more noteworthy filming locations.  Not just shooting in the sparse deserts, director Franco Giraldi moves his story all around from desert to river areas to forests and never stays in one place too long filming in Italy and Spain for the American west.  Composer Carlo Rustichelli turns in a score with two main themes, one quiet tune for the hero, the other that drives the action. All the little elements that help up and add to the quality of the movie.

Unfortunately, the DVD feels the need to taunt its buyers with a claim of a 118-minute running time, the original length upon being released in the late 60s.  In fact, the DVD runs about 98 minutes and does have a disjointed feel at times with some awkward cuts.  The worst cut comes at the end though.  SPOILERS As is, McCord signs the amnesty and rides off to a new life.  The original version has McCord sign the amnesty and then be shot down a few miles outside of town by bounty hunters unaware of what he's done.  Talk about a shocker ending, I've never found anyone who's actually even seen the ending.  The DVD ending does work, but the cut ending just seems like it would work better, especially for the McCord character arc.

Not as well known as many spaghetti westerns, this is a hidden gem in the genre.  It's floated around in anonymity thanks to its lack of big names, but all the better for catching up with it now.  It is available to watch through Youtube, but it is in Spanish and isn't of the best quality.  If you can find the MGM DVD, it does offer a cleaned-up widescreen presentation.  Hopefully somewhere out there is a 2-hour version with the original ending, but for now, this will have to do.

A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die (1968): ***/****

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