A very minor, almost forgotten legal melodrama, A Covenant with Death introduces a few interesting ideas very late in its story, and overall is the kind of thing that normally would be relegated to the realm of the TV-movie rather than released theatrically. Indeed, most of the cast and key people behind the camera were better known for their television work: stars George Maharis (Route 66) and Earl Holliman (The Wide Country, Police Woman), director Lamont Johnson (The Execution of Private Slovik) and executive producer William Conrad (Cannon) among them.
Oddly, while the ads screamed, "The bristling best seller comes to angry life," the novel's author, Stephen Becker, isn't even mentioned on the posters, though screenwriters Larry Marcus and Saul Levitt are. I was drawn to the film for its cast, one chock-full of terrific character actors and up-and-comers, such as Gene Hackman's early screen appearance, in a role just prior to his star-making part in Bonnie and Clyde.
This Warner Archive Collection title offers a good anamorphic widescreen transfer and is region-free, though without any extras.
The story takes place in a small town in the American Southwest, sometime in the early 1920s. (Maharis's character drives an automobile with 1923 plates.) The notorious town slut is found strangled in her bedroom, and circumstantial evidence points to her insanely jealous and famously violent husband, Bryan Talbot (Earl Holliman). He's quickly tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to be hanged. Immediately after the verdict is read, presiding Judge Hochstadter (Arthur O'Connell) is off on a fishing trip, leaving it up to junior Judge Ben Morealis Lewis (George Maharis), a Mexican-American, to oversee the hanging.
The film then gets terribly bogged down in Ben's love life, his relationship with his domineering Mexican mother (Katy Jurado, who in reality was only four years older than Maharis), and vaguely defined concerns about Ben's loyalty to his Mexican heritage. In the film, the townspeople, particularly District Attorney Dietrich (John Anderson), are mildly condescending toward the judge for his youth and lack of experience. I've not read the novel, but I wonder if in the book this condescension was instead explicitly racist, which is only barely hinted at here.
Meanwhile, Ben is having an affair with a "Swedish woman," Rosemary Berquist (Laura Devon, speaking with unaccented English) but later becomes attracted to una senorita guapa, Rafaela (Wende Wagner), the daughter of Ignacio (Emilio Fernández, The Wild Bunch).
(Major Spoilers) The picture finally starts to get interesting when, at the gallows, Talbot freaks out as the hangman tries to put a hood over Talbot's head. Both fall from the gallows and the hangman, hitting his head on a rock, is killed instantly. Shortly after, Talbot's neighbor from across the street, Bruce Donnelly (Whit Bissell), commits suicide, leaving a note confessing to the murder of Talbot's wife. While this exonerates Talbot of the first murder, what about the death of the hangman?
Despite the interesting legal quandary introduced too late in the film, A Covenant with Death never quite works, despite an all-in performance by Earl Holliman, and nice little character vignettes from Jurado, Anderson, O'Connell, Gene Hackman (as the lawman who arrests Talbot), and others.
The romantic triangle business is extremely trite while the townsfolk's apprehensions toward Ben are too vaguely and sheepishly defined to be of much interest.
Most of the picture was shot on the Warner Bros backlot and probably the nearby Columbia Ranch, though some location footage was taken near Santa Fe. It's not a cheap film though the period setting, with its costumes, antique cars, and elaborately dressed backlot streets, add little.
Video & Audio
A Covenant with Death is presented in 1.78:1 enhanced widescreen, approximating its original 1.85:1 original aspect ratio. The region-free transfer looks quite nice, with good detail, contrast, and color. Several fleeting frames are severely damaged and have not been digitally repaired, but that's a minor issue. The Dolby Digital mono audio (English only, not subtitles) is adequate. No Extra Features, not even a trailer.
A minor "A" when it was new but all but forgotten today, A Covenant with Death has little in its favor, playing as it does like a minor league TV-movie bumped up to theatrical release status. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.