A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die review 2

From The Spaghetti Western Database

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Review by Marcus Rodriguez


"A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die" is a small (small) gem, a little known and even lesser mentioned spaghetti western from the genre's heyday, and perhaps appropriately so. It's a casually and predictably constructed film, especially in the face of it's fellow genre masterworks. But...I enjoyed it for what it was, it's flaws contained to minor bits of amateur staging and performance, and worst of all a romance that feels shoehorned into a movie where it doesn't belong (a common denominator with Corbucci's definitely superior "The Great Silence"). It's a gem for it's small touches, interesting touches, bits to be found and appreciated in moments few and far between and a plot of surprising distinction among it's fellow films.

The first comes in the movies opening minutes, when the hero (Alex Cord) is revealed to have a crippling shake in his right hand, perhaps epilepsy or perhaps not. This created in me a suspense that carried the rest of the movie. For a hunted gun slinger, whose life depends on a steady hand, it's a mortal flaw, and one that added a distinct wrinkle at the movies various gunfights. Plenty of westerns deal out a damaged gun hand as punishment, I liked that this damage was present before it even begins. All of that eventually cleared up at the end of the movie, but by then it makes little difference.

The beginning though features another twist; that it's hero is not alone (at least for a while) and his companion is actually a friend. At there parting his friend yells after him "Without me you're a dead man!" Moments earlier it had proven to be true, and it's abundantly clear from the way the actors play it that they are indeed a team at each others' back. To see a genuine friendship in a genre that tends more than not to portray loners on selfish quests was a pleasant surprise. It only gets stranger from here.

Indeed the whole plot is a surprise considering the genre, but maybe not considering the director and his previous work. The story, Cord's continual goal, is peace. From the bounty hunters constantly on his tail and more importantly the epilepsy he thinks he has inherited from his father. It's this epilepsy that provides Cord the constant possibility for humiliation, the sole thing that gets his ire up and to uncharacteristically raise his voice. As fast as his gun hand may be, he is perhaps one of the most sensitive and damaged heroes in spaghetti westerns. It's later revealed that his career as killer begins at his fathers epilepsy crippled side.

His ticket for this peace is a governor (played brilliantly by the uber-cool Robert Ryan) who has offered amnesty to all criminals in the state who will sign over their guns and give up their violent ways. The plot complicates itself with a town held ransom by uncooperative law and killers not too thrilled by the idea of amnesty and peace. They're stereotypical villains and officers, but it's the historical context that impressed me. It's an unnecessary plot contrivance but one that also conveniently allows for thin pickings from "A Fistful of Dollars"; a town at the mercy of dangerous forces, a hero beaten to within an inch of his life, various smaller etc.'s. Thankfully the allusions end there and the movie goes it's own way, to the point of making the hero an invalid at the movies big finale.

The script features instances of interesting staging, my favorite being a family of smugglers killed off camera while we remain in a close-up of Cord. As possible as it may be that the budget demanded this unusual bit of storytelling, it works better than a sudden shift of point of view from the protagonist to a group of smugglers we'd only met a moment before. It's all forgivable though in that the next scene is one where Cord dispatches the murderers. Another great instance, although less so in that it's not milked to the level that the situation would have allowed, is as simple as Cord getting a shave. The great twist is the revelation that the man holding the razor is the father of the man that Cord had just killed. What a scene could have come from such a simple conceit! A great director would have had a field day. That such a great idea could be in such a lesser movie is more luck than ingenuity.

The screenplay stretches paper thin in it's attempts to create a parallel between Cord and the town under siege, and it's touch that Cord can do nothing of note with his hands without his supposed epilepsy sending him crippled to the ground. The worst though is a brick of symbolism in the form of a bullet. I hesitate to reveal the bullets significance, it's good enough of a movie to seek out at the bargain bin price you can pick up the DVD for, so let it be said that I was glad it came so late in the movie and drop it.

As is typical in these movies, the score is so good as to deserve a better movie. This one is alternately sad, longing, and ironically heroic in contrast to Cord's struggle. It completes this slight package and made it as watchable as any of the mid-tier westerns I've seen. It is not, however, as great as it is watchable.