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This R-rated curiosity of the early post- Production Code era dropped like a stone at the box office and for the most part disappeared for forty years, with the exception of a few TV airings and perhaps a VHS release (not verified). I remember seeing the trailer in 1970, at a military theater, but the movie itself has eluded me until now. It's one of the most requested titles at this column, and I understand that the Warner Archive Collection made a special effort to get it remastered in its original widescreen Panavision format.
The Traveling Executioner is a definite counter-culture film concept, despite taking place in 1918. Slightly freakish ex- conman and convict Jonas Candide (Stacy Keach) wears long hair, a top hat and dark coat as he presides over Mississippi executions with his portable electric chair, a throne-like contraption wired to a powerful generator. At a hundred dollars a sizzle, Jonas travels the state making fast money. He takes pride in his work and soothes his 'customers' with gentle talk about their next destination, "the fields of ambrosia". Jonas' specialized skills are admired by prison warden Brodsky (M. Emmet Walsh, 14 years before the Coens' Blood simple), prison Doc Prittle (Graham Jarvis) and local undertaker Jimmy Croft (Bud Cort). But Candide breaks every rule of his trade when he meets the condemned Gundred Herzallerfiebst (Marianna Hill of Black Zoo, Medium Cool, Red Line 7000, Messiah of Evil, High Plains Drifter and The Godfather, Part II). When Gundred's sexual favors prove to be irresistible, Jonas stalls in the hope that her sentence will be commuted. He then tries to interest Doc Prittle into a faked execution scam and attempts to raise the money by means both fair and foul. Everything in the prison is corrupt, but Jonas can't seem to get a break -- it looks like he'll have to fry sweet Gundren after all.
Talented director Jack Smight clearly believed in the original screenplay by Garrie Bateson; after a string of notable features (No Way to Treat a Lady, Harper) The Traveling Executioner seems to have put the hex on his career momentum. The movie has plenty of black humor and several moments attain a weird morbid glow, especially when Jonas charms the brutish, frightened execution subject Willy Herzallerliebst (Stefan Geriasch) into a state of euphoric acceptance. Strangely enough, Smight sets up but does not show the first two executions -- the movie uses the warped values around Jonas' outlandish contraption to make us question the consequences of capital punishment. Meeing a professional sign painter, Jonas has his truck painted like a circus wagon to better advertise his lethal trade. Sometimes he wears a multicolored robe during the ceremony, like some kind of guru of death.
Jonas Candide has his idealistic side but the film presents the prison and society in general as a cesspool of sleaze and venality. Constantly threatened with rape by the prison guards, Gundred is more than willing to have sex with Jonas to stave off her execution. Once hooked, Jonas is all too eager to exploit her situation. By the time he's scheming to get her off death row by hook or crook, we can't tell if his motives are selfish or benign, or if the question is irrelevant. He experiments on rats, with the idea of giving Gundren just enough juice to knock her out, so Doc Prittle can revive her with adrenaline. But Prittle wants a thousand dollars to risk his job. Jonas pimps out the local prostitutes, gets involved with a crooked gambler (Val Avery) and eventually decides to con a bank president to obtain the funds. Disaster looms.
The final scene is quite original. I'll only say that Jonas is no hypocrite about his belief in an electric ride to the fields of ambrosia, and gives the prison officials and observers a show they'll never forget. The Traveling Executioner has a full roster of colorful characters and a folksy-macabre that is nothing if not original. It follows through on its premise in high style.
Stacy Keach is quite the flamboyant star here. Some say this is his best role, although I'm partial to his boxer in John Huston's Fat City. It's also a pleasant surprise to see a number of other familiar faces from the period. Bud Cort and Stacy Keach were just in Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud. Marianna Hill's conniving death row inmate is another very original character in bizarre circumstances. Prison corruption being what it is now, the crimes committed against Gundred are wholly credible.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of the one-of-a-kind spectacle The Traveling Executioner looks great in this new enhanced widescreen remastered edition. Pan-scanned TV prints must have made a mess of its Panavison compositions. Phillip Lathrop's cinematography on authentic locations is quite handsome, and Jerry Goldsmith provides a truly creative score for the setting -- no Flatt & Scruggs- style picking as was common in most of the Bonnie & Clyde imitators.
The original trailer is present, giving us a peek at most of the film's content in such a scrambled way that nothing is spoiled. The WAC is really digging into the desirable exotic titles this year. Every announcement contains strange fare, like the recent release of No Blade of Grass. Jack Smight's The Traveling Executioner reminds me of another MGM rural crime tale made the same year, The Moonshine War. I hope that film is on the way as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Traveling Executioner rates:
1. From Edward Sullivan, October 22, 2011:
Hi Glenn, Jonas Candide is one tough hombre -- he came back in musical form (sort of a revenant/refrain) in 1993 and 1996; also this link.. There's a limited release CD of the Goldsmith film score from SAE.
'Caught The Traveling Executioner with my brother during that glorious period when CBS was showing seriously bent late night movies to compete with equally bent talk shows like The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. Imagine Craig Ferguson dedicating 30 minutes to discussing the death of George Reeves with Jack Larson, or with Harlan Ellison explaining why Robert Culp still had the rights to do a feature film remake of Demon with a Glass Hand -- now there's a real tragedy - I guess Culp never got the funding together to produce or direct it.
Anyway, my brother was so taken with Jonas' rappin'-while-strappin' death spiel that he memorized the whole piece on the spot and could recite it verbatim for years afterward. He has a birthday November 5th, and now I have the perfect gift. -- Ed Sullivan.
2. From "B", October 22, 2011:
A fine review of this terrific, hitherto incredibly difficult to see (to say the least) movie.
Not enough has been written about Jack Smight, whose interesting career in features was probably derailed when he decided to sue Warners over its creative intervention on his production of Updike's Rabbit, Run, which I believe was shot shortly before Executioner, and half-heartedly released by WB after the MGM picture premiered in October of 1970. At any rate, the director soon was working in television at Universal for a while, and when he returned to feature films, his work was far less notable than it once had been.
It is true that both Keach and Cort are also in Brewster McCloud, but that was shot after Executioner and released later that year. Keach is tops in Fat City, but he never played anything like Jonas, before or since -- it's a unique larger-than-life role. Garrie Bateson was a 22 year-old film student who read historical accounts of a man who traveled the south with an electric chair in the early 20th century; she simply let her imagination go and wrote this fanciful, dark screenplay.
The Traveling Executionerwas never previously released domestically on domestic home video. [The film has been practically missing in action altogether since its second airing on The CBS Late Movie in 1974; I don't recall this, like many latter-day MGM releases, ever surfacing in TV syndication.] There was a European videocassette release (pan-and-scan) of this, which is the source of the gray-market video available on the Internet. There was an unconfirmed rumor that it aired letterboxed on British TCM some years back, around the time the short-lived Joel Higgins Fields of Ambrosia musical played the West End; it has never played on domestic TCM to my knowledge.
This transfer is pretty good. It accurately reflects for the most part the way the Metrocolor prints of 1970 looked, anyhow (could be sharper). It's a good looking movie, immeasurably aided by the studio's getting to use a recently abandoned prison in Montgomery, Alabama as its location -- I believe the picture was shot in its entirety in the vicinity.
The trailer is a mess, isn't it? I'd never seen it all the way through before -- The CBS Late Movie showed excerpts from it. I can safely say that if I'd seen that trailer back in '70, that my interest in seeing the picture would have been relatively slight. Long live advance ballyhoo and print ads! Still, I was fascinated -- and grateful -- to see it. [I'd also never seen the Alex in Wonderland trailer before the new Archive disc; keep it up, George!]
Best, Always. -- B.
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