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Retro Review: A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE (1968)

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A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE
(Italy - 1968)

Directed by Franco Giraldi. Written by Louis Garfinkle, Ugo Liberatore and Albert Band. Cast: Alex Cord, Arthur Kennedy, Robert Ryan, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Mario Brega, Enzo Fiermonte, Renato Romano, Franco Lantieri, Giampiero Albertini, Spartaco Conversi, Rosita Palomar, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, Aldo Sambrell, Daniel Martin, Antonio Molino Rojo, Lorenzo Robledo. (R, 99 mins)

A minor spaghetti western that used to be a fixture on late-night TV back in the '70s and '80s, the memorably-titled A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE has yet to be seen in the US in its intended form, and that's still the case with Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray release. Shorn by 19 minutes for America, the film has an understandably choppy feel, especially early on, but the biggest change can now be seen in the Blu-ray's bonus features, which include a blurry but watchable snippet of the extended international ending from an overseas TV broadcast. It completely changes the movie and strongly suggests something much more substantive and cynical than the happy ending that the film's American fans have always seen. Produced with the input of Selmur Pictures, a short-lived feature film division of ABC, A MINUTE TO PRAY was possibly intended to go straight to network TV in the US, which would explain trimming the 118-minute European version down to just about 100 minutes, the perfect run time for a two-hour time slot with commercials.






But it ended up playing in theaters and drive-ins over the summer and fall of 1968, which is right around the time Hollywood was really trying to make Alex Cord happen. Best known these days as the eye-patched Archangel on the hit 1980s CBS series AIRWOLF, Cord but was being groomed for stardom in the late 1960s. Born in 1933, the actor had numerous TV guest spots going back to 1961, and was tapped to play John Wayne's "The Ringo Kid" character opposite Ann-Margret in the 1966 remake of STAGECOACH, but the movie bombed with critics and audiences. After A MINUTE TO PRAY, Cord starred in three high-profile flops--as Mafioso Kirk Douglas' kid brother in Paramount's pre-GODFATHER mob drama THE BROTHERHOOD (1968); the steamy Harold Robbins adaptation STILETTO (1969); and the British mercenary actioner THE LAST GRENADE (1970), with Richard Attenborough and ZULU's Stanley Baker--that more or less ended his big-screen aspirations. He starred in the 1972 Italian horror film THE DEAD ARE ALIVE and was part of the ensemble of the 1974 bats-in-a-bomb shelter cult favorite CHOSEN SURVIVORS among a scattered few theatrical films, but he concentrated on guest spots on pretty much every TV show in the 1970s and 1980s, including obligatory stops on POLICE STORY, THE LOVE BOAT, FANTASY ISLAND, and MURDER, SHE WROTE before co-starring with Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine as eye-patched covert ops chief "Archangel" on AIRWOLF gave his career a bit of a small screen resurgence in the mid '80s. Now 85 and an occasional guest on the convention circuit, Cord seems to be retired from acting, with his last credit being the 2009 DTV Kevin Sorbo actioner FIRE FROM BELOW.


A serviceable journeyman ideal for one-off TV guest spots (how was he never on a LAW & ORDER?), Cord wasn't the most magnetic big screen leading man, which is apparent throughout A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE. Cord stars as Clay McCord, an epileptic outlaw with a $10,000 bounty on his head. He's on the run with his significantly less-wanted partner Fred Duskin (Giampiero Albertini) when they get word that the small New Mexico town of Tuscosa is offering amnesty to any wanted criminal wishing to renounce their evil ways and start a new life and make an honest living in an expanding territory. The edict is handed down from New Mexico governor Lem Carter (Robert Ryan), but is pretty much ignored by Tuscosa marshal Roy Colby (Arthur Kennedy), who has his deputies setting traps outside of town to keep any undesirables out and stop bottom-feeding bounty hunters also waiting to ambush any amnesty-seeking criminals in the vicinity for some easy reward money that Colby doesn't feel like paying. Increasingly frail and with his seizures increasing, McCord hopes to get medical help in Tuscosa but first has to get through Escondido, a haven for outlaws ruled by the ruthless Kraut (spaghetti stalwart Mario Brega). McCord snaps and kills one of Kraut's men after seeing him gun down a grieving widow in cold blood after she blames Kraut for the death of her husband and son (they were seeking amnesty and were killed by bounty hunters), which sends McCord fleeing from Escondido and trying to get past the bounty hunters and Colby's deputies to find safe passage into Tuscosa, where Carter himself has arrived to kick ass when word gets to him that Colby is being derelict in his duty.


A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE was directed by Franco Giraldi, a veteran assistant and second unit director on films like Sergio Corbucci's 1962 SPARTACUS knockoff THE SLAVE and, more importantly, Sergio Leone's 1964 game-changer A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Giraldi soon graduated to directing second-tier spaghetti oaters like SEVEN GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS and its sequel UP THE MACGREGORS, though they were released in the US in reverse order. Like his star, Giraldi brings a workmanlike efficiency to the table and gets the job done, but there's very little in the way of the style and artistry that guys like Leone and Corbucci displayed in their landmark contributions to the genre. Likewise, Carlo Rustichelli's score is largely by the numbers and lacks the rousing and instantly iconic feel of Ennio Morricone's compositions for Leone. If the additional sequence in the Blu-ray bonus features are any indication, it would be interesting to see if Giraldi's extended European version perhaps has more going on than the US cut would indicate. In its 99-minute incarnation, A MINUTE TO PRAY feels more like a Hollywood western, with only the supporting cast (including stalwarts like Aldo Sambrell and the perpetually doomed Lorenzo Robledo who, predictably, shows up long enough to get immediately killed), some familiar dubbing voices (Ed Mannix and Tony La Penna can be heard) and McCord being haunted by a past trauma (think Col. Mortimer's raped and murdered sister in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE or Harmonica's older brother in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) to really contribute to the expected Italian aura. That's likely due to the involvement of ABC as well as the script contributions of Americans Albert Band (father of Empire Pictures and Full Moon honcho Charles Band), who was doing a lot of work in Italy at the time, like writing Sergio Corbucci's underrated THE HELLBENDERS , and Louis Garfinkle, whose writing credits include Band's 1959 cult film FACE OF FIRE, 1972's THE DOBERMAN GANG, the 1973 little person gangster oddity LITTLE CIGARS, and, of all things, 1978's Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER.


Of course, the film gets a huge boost from the presence of Kennedy and especially the great Ryan (the same year that both also appeared in the big-budget Italian WWII epic ANZIO), the latter appearing about an hour in, immediately kicking ass, and more or less taking over the film over the film once Cord's McCord is sidelined with an emergency surgery. This leads to a strangely maudlin plot twist that feels more like a spaghetti western AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL. It's in no way as overtly political as the "Zapata" spaghettis of Corbucci and Damiano Damiani that were just around the corner, but A MINUTE TO PRAY has a very bleeding heart figure in Ryan's Carter, whose plan to forgive almost all outlaws is never really explained. It could be what drew Ryan, one of Hollywood's most outspoken liberal activists of his day, to the role or it could've been a paid vacation to Almeria. Still, the film really comes alive when Carter, Colby, McCord, and Tuscosa town doc Chase (Enzo Fiermonte) are holed up in a small ranch RIO BRAVO-style as Kraut and his Escondido bad guys close in on them. There's even a visibly dangerous bit where the ranch is set ablaze and Kennedy is on the roof surrounded by flames. A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE is far from an essential spaghetti western, but it's worth seeing for fans of the genre and Ryan, who takes what could be a check-cashing walk-through in a B-movie and busts his ass like he's on a big-budget Hollywood epic. The Blu-ray looks terrific (there's also a commentary by REPO MAN director and spaghetti western junkie Alex Cox) and the inclusion of that extended ending as a bonus--even in a less than pristine form--is enough to at least consider that Europe has gotten a much more complex and interesting film than America's been able to see. Hopefully we'll get a restored version of it someday.


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