By the time war hero turned Hollywood star Audie Murphy signed on to Budd Boetticher's A Time for Dying, his acting career was largely on hold as tastes changed and lyrical westerns were giving way to a wave of spaghetti westerns and Euro-inspired actioners.
The truth is that Boetticher himself was on the way out, his films always more popular in Europe than here in the U.S. and by this time even European audiences weren't so taken by his prolific filmography of mostly paint-by-number western films.
So, really, A Time For Dying was an act of desperation to salvage a couple of careers or at least pay the bills. Unfortunately, neither one really happened as the film wound up in years long litigation and didn't even see distribution until 13 years after its 1969 production.
It was way too little and much too late.
50 years later, indie distributor Corinth Films is showing up to give A Time For Dying an HD re-mastered DVD release to hit the market on February 5th, 2019 with availability via Amazon Prime, IndieFlix, & Vimeo on Demand (which you can access directly from this review!). While certain aspects of the film remain almost laughably disappointing, most notably among them being Richard Lapp's woefully inadequate performance, in HD you also can appreciate and absorb Lucien Ballard's beautiful lensing for the film and a production quality that far exceeded virtually every other aspect of the film.
In the film, Cass Bunning (Lapp) gets himself in Silver City wanting to be a bounty hunter but instead ends up coming to the rescue of Ms. Nellie Winters (Anne Randall), a naive young woman who just arrived in town after unwittingly answering an ad to work in a brothel. After being caught in a hotel together, the pair are forcibly married by the drunken and cantankerous Judge Roy Bean (Victor Jory) as punishment for violating the town’s “indecent conduct” law. On the way back to the family ranch, Nellie and Cass have a run-in with notorious outlaw Jesse James (Audie Murphy), who warns them about trouble brewing back in Silver City. Recognizing an opportunity to fulfill his bounty hunter dreams, Cass heads back to Silver City to contend with the James Bandits and Billy Pimple (Robert Random) in a final showdown.
A product of the late 60's released in 1982, A Time For Dying came just as the Hollywood studio machine was giving away to the grittier New American Cinema with filmmakers like Peckinpah and Hitchcock prospering while others, including Boetticher, refused to change and ended up producing some of their weakest cinematic efforts. While Boetticher was never really favored here in the U.S., there's little denying that A Time For Dying is one of his weakest films in a 20-30 year career that often produced 2-3 films each year.
While much of the reason for the film being a relative disappointment lies with Boetticher himself, a good amount of the blame also lies with Richard Lapp's underwhelming turn as Cass Bunning, a boy amongst boys who never quite convinces as a man. Former Playboy Playmate Anne Randall is certainly charming and beautiful enough here, but she's not strong enough of an actress to carry the weight of the film on her shoulders. Murphy actually shines here as Jesse James, a role he'd previously played, but his is a relatively bit role and not nearly substantial enough to save the film.
It doesn't help that a tacked on ending aims for a dark, grittiness that the film never ends and feels grossly inappropriate considering the light, almost cheery tone of much of the film. If Boetticher wanted a dark and gritty film, then he should have made a dark and gritty film from beginning to end.
While it may sound like A Time For Dying is a waste of time, it's actually not. Taken away from the context of its time within Hollywood history, the film is a reasonably entertaining effort and will likely be an enjoyable view for fans of the 50's and 60's western era of moviemaking. However, considering the talent involved it's simply hard not to consider this one a relative disappointment.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic