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  Traveling Executioner, The A Chairy Tale
Year: 1970
Director: Jack Smight
Stars: Stacy Keach, Marianna Hill, Bud Cort, Graham Jarvis, James Sloyan, M. Emmet Walsh, John Bottoms, Ford Rainey, James Greene, Sammy Reese, Stefan Gierasch, Logan Ramsey, Charles Tyner, William Mims, Val Avery, Charlie Briggs, Paul Gauntt
Genre: Western, Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: The year was 1918, and one of the newfangled ideas for executing prisoners on Death Row was the electric chair, but there were only so many to go around. So step forward Jonas Candide (Stacy Keach), a compassionate man who loved his line of work, that being the travelling executioner, bringing his chair around the prisons to carry out the death penalty, but taking pride in his work to give the condemned, no matter what they had done, a decent send off. And then he met inmate Gundred Herzallerliebst (Marianna Hill)...

Which spelled his downfall, as he ill-advisedly falls in love with the woman, seeing her predicament as something he can help with, except this time not with a few kind words and his patented "Fields of Ambrosia" speech which he uses to soothe frayed nerves of those he is executing. Nope, this time he's going to spring his next undertaking from the prison, which sounds like it's the recipe for a riproaring black comedy, but does not quite play that way, mostly thanks to director Jack Smight employing an oddly laidback tone to the proceedings which did not generate much in the way of laughter, not least hilarity.

At the heart of this was a highly idiosyncratic performance from Stacy Keach, who mixed up a slightly buffoonish persona with the understanding of a social worker too close to his charges and an oddly creepy appreciation for his job. Candide's trouble was that he believed not that he was taking care of business with utmost professionalism, but that he had convinced himself that he was some kind of saviour for these men he was putting to death. Therefore when Gundred enters his life, and is being victimised by all around her - for a start she has been put in an all-male prison, with all the abuse that entails - his protective nature gets the better of him.

Is Candide being exploited, and is anyone's capacity for forgiveness if they think it will do the wrongdoer good simply misguided and open to corruption and getting taken advantage of, would appear to be the motivations behind Garrie Bateson's script, the only film he ever had produced which naturally makes the few fans of this movie who have actually seen it very interested in what happened to him. It's a little easier to see now, but remains one of the most obscure titles in many of the cast's C.V.s, yet among those who did catch it down the years it was just eccentric enough to capture the attention, even with the power to move by its ending, which others may find hard to believe.

That could be because although the finale looks to be sentimental as Candide realises the error of his ways and the irony of where it has landed him, the actual ending is way over the top and ludicrously overemphatic in light of what has gone before, which of course provided another reason why it would stick in the mind. Before they reached that point there was a host of sort of Western (as in the genre) trappings, yet without fully committing to the style, and a more intriguing attitude to the death penalty produced at a time when it was going out of fashion in the United States. That be be why it was seen fit as comedy material, yet with that lackadaisical mood acting against it the overall impression was a hard to fathom type of experience of the sort that nobody makes anymore. The cast, which included Bud Cort as a mortician and M. Emmet Walsh as the warden indicated a cultier reputation than it actually had, but if you wanted something offbeat in a seventies way, The Traveling Executioner would fit the bill. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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