September 15, 2009
September 25th is Phil Karlson night on TCM, as they’ll be screening three of his tight-lipped noirs along with a rare B-musical, Ladies of the Chorus. He’s one of the many unsung talents from the studio system, and I’ve been entranced with his work since I saw The Phenix City Story, a docu-drama so precisely detailed the stench of corruption wafts off the screen in pungent waves (it airs at 9:45PM on the 25th). So whenever a Karlson comes across my radar, I devour it. Which brings me to 1967′s A Time For Killing, a film which I watched on TCM a few months back, but which is also available for purchase on iTunes (the TCM master is in the correct 2.35 aspect ratio, but the iTunes listing says their version is full-screen).
Karlson is credited as the sole director, but the movie was originally developed by Roger Corman under the title The Long Ride Home, hot on the heels of The Wild Angels and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was the first film in a new multi-picture deal Corman made with Columbia Pictures. It was based on the novel The Southern Blade, a Civil War drama written by Nelson and Shirley Wolford, whose adaptation duties he handed to a young Robert Towne, while Monte Hellman was on board as the editor (he was producing Hellman’s The Shooting, released the same year). A few weeks into the production however, Corman was fired, Hellman resigned in protest, and Towne’s script was scrapped.
There is no definitive story regarding his ouster, but Corman biographer Beverly Gray offers the following:
Towne told Corman’s assistant Francis Doel he suspected that the ouster occurred “because Roger insisted on saving money. Roger didn’t understand that, unlike Sam Arkoff or AIP, [Columbia] wouldn’t think any better of him for saving money. In fact, they would think the opposite. They would think that he was going to make them a picture of lesser quality than they were used to.” Doel recalls that when Columbia executives sent Corman lists of equipment they were planning to ship to his Arizona location, he would cross out items he felt weren’t needed. If, for instance, two generators were listed, he would eliminate one, figuring that the remaining generator would work adequately for the length of the shoot. Presumably, this thrifty behavior raised the suspicions of the Columia brass, who feared getting a cheap-looking product.
Essentially, Corman’s DIY ethos clashed with the plush expectations of the Columbia suits. Corman doesn’t say much about the incident, claiming only that he had a “series of disagreements” before leaving the set. Monte Hellman has a more colorful evasion, quoted from Brad Stevens’ biography of the iconoclastic filmmaker:
“I was editor on the film for a couple of weeks, and resigned when Corman was fired. I never saw the film, and have no recollection of which scenes I may have worked on. It’s another CRAFT moment: Can’t Remember A Fucking Thing.”
In any case, Karlson took over the director’s chair, and Halsted Welles (3:10 to Yuma) received sole screenwriting credit. It’s unclear how much of Towne’s script was used in Welles’ version. The cast remained the same, though, and a number of Corman’s cadre of character actors give delightfully eccentric turns: Timothy Carey, Dick Miller, Harry Dean Stanton are all on hand, wielding their jutting-out faces with expressionistic glee. Carey is a bombastic sharpshooter named Billy Cat, Miller a cowardly Union soldier tittering in the corners of frames, while Stanton is a nervous voice of reason on the Confederate side, duly ignored. They provide the colorful background to the dour leads: Glenn Ford and George Hamilton. The contrast is so great between the supporting comedians and the leading brooders, its easy to think that Corman shot most of the former material with his friends and Karlson took over the more psychologically tinged sequences with the latter. But unless someone turns up the production log, it’s impossible to say.
Ford plays Major Wolcott, a quiet type just trying to keep his troops alive as the Civil War winds to a close. He’s stationed at a prisoner-of-war camp, where Confederate Captain Bentley (Hamilton) is held with a gaggle of good ol’ boys. Wolcott is in love with a missionary, Emily Biddle (Inger Stevens), who he sends away from the camp because it’s too dangerous. Bentley and his gang soon break out, run down Biddle’s wagon train and take her hostage. Wolcott is sent out to track them down, just as the war is rumored to be coming to a close.
The script sets up the chase as a study in vengeance. At the open, Wolcott attempts to temper the bloodthirstiness of his Colonel, who orders a brutal execution of a Confederate prisoner. He requests that the search be called off for the escaped prisoners, since the South was expected to surrender at any minute. The colonel insists, Wolcott leaves, and the film tracks the Major’s slow descent into the cycle of vengeance that has enveloped everyone else.
Corman & Karlson keep much of the action in long shot, subordinated to the landscape and the fates that are driving them towards death. Even fight scenes are fought in long shot, including a series of duels between two bickering Confederates. The first takes place in the desert, starting with laughter and ending with knives drawn. Their rage is made small by the camera’s distance, rendered as just a symptom of the disease devouring both sides of the war. For punctuation, Karlson/Corman cut in to distorted extreme close-ups, underlining further Bentley and Wolcott’s psychological breakdown. By the end of the film, when Major Wolcott barrels his way into Mexico, recklessly leading his men to certain death in order to satisfy a personal vendetta, brittle Dick Miller, who runs off with his pal to avoid further combat, turns out to be the smartest soldier in town.