The Traveling Executioner

Director: Jack Smight  
Stacy Keach, Marianna Hill, Bud Cort

I am pretty sure that on a fairly regular basis, you come across in the news or some other source some kind of a debate on law and order. Since there are so many potential crimes out there, as well as so many different theories as to how these crimes should be dealt with, it can sometimes be hard to make a definite decision as to what to do. Take the debate about marijuana, for example. There are those who say it should be decriminalized. They point out that making marijuana legal would free us from the expense it takes to house thousands of people in prison on marijuana-related charges. Also, the cultivation of marijuana would provide new jobs, and provide a source of revenue from taxing it. On the other hand, I have read that virtually every addict of hard drugs like cocaine or heroin started with marijuana, so legalizing marijuana might result in an increase of drug addicts. Also, it might result in an increase of impaired driving as well as other problems caused by people who get high (would you want to be operated on by a doctor who smoked marijuana?) Then there is the debate about appropriate punishment for criminals. I admit that I'm not an expert on this, but years ago I did read about a proposed punishment - in a video game book of all places - that I think not only would be a good punishment in some cases, but deter some people from committing crimes. The proposed punishment that I read stated that criminals should be forced to play the 1979 arcade game Galaxian for several hours straight. Having personally played that mind-numbing game in my youth, I know that would be an effective punishment, though I'm sure some liberals would protest, saying it would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Then there is the debate about the death penalty. Up here in Canada, we used to have the death penalty, but it was eliminated in 1976. Personally, I think that's a good thing for several reasons. The most obvious reason is the chance of a wrongful conviction, which might result in an innocent individual being executed. But there are a couple of other reasons why I think the death penalty is not a good thing. One reason is that it costs the government millions of dollars from the conviction to the actual execution of a person to use the death penalty, much more money than it would take to jail the prisoner for the rest of his life. Another reason is that I think killing a prisoner is letting him off easy. To spend the rest of your life stuck in a small room for 90% of a day, eating bland meals three times a day, and have to stay close to violent people who might hurt you, well, I think that's the ultimate punishment. Despite these feeling that I have, I have to admit that there are times when I see the point of the other side. In the movie 12 Angry Men, the annoying and oh-so-noble juror number eight (played by Henry Fonda) attacked the hostile juror number three (played by Lee J. Cobb), after hearing juror number three wanted to execute the defendant, by saying, "What it must feel like to want to pull the switch... You're a sadist!" At that point, I wished that juror number three would have blurted out something like, "Well, what if the defendant had killed your father?" I don't know if that would have changed juror number eight's mind, but at the very least it might have shut him up for a few minutes.

Actually, I am pretty much kidding - I do think that 12 Angry Men is a very good movie, ever since I first saw it as a teenager. And I also have to admit that those words of Henry Fonda stuck with me even as a youth. It got me wondering for years afterwards about the people who actually "pull the switch" The Traveling Executionerwhen it comes to the actual execution of prisoners. What convinced them to take the job? What goes through their mind during the executions? There haven't been that many looks into executioners' minds when it comes to the cinema. That's why I was attracted to the movie The Traveling Executioner, because I felt it could answer some of my questions. Despite being a major studio movie, it's been obscure for the longest time - it was barely released to theaters, and remained hard to find until its quiet DVD release a few years ago. The star of the movie is Stacy Keach (That Championship Season), who plays Jonas Candide, a former carnival showman in the year 1918. Although he is no longer with a carnival, his new profession still has him traveling from town to town in the southern United States. And that profession is executioner. Jonas doesn't just execute convicted prisoners for $100 a pop; he does it with his very own portable electric chair that he travels with. Jonas takes pride in his work in every detail. He even takes the time to comfort prisoners, just before pulling the switch, by telling them soothing things like that they will soon be taken to a better world, "The fields of Ambrosia", in the afterlife. Then one day, Jonas' travels take him to a prison where a pair of German immigrant siblings, Willy (Stefan Gierasch, Junior) and Gundred (Hill, The Baby), are facing the death penalty. Jonas manages to execute Willy, but while waiting for the current legal appeal of Gundred to be accepted by the high court or not, Jonas falls in love with Gundred. With a little help from his undertaker friend Jimmy (Bud Cort, The Chocolate War), Jonas is determined to do whatever it takes to save Gundred, which happens to be raising enough money to bribe the prison doctor to say Gundred is dead when in fact the plan is to have her death faked.

As you probably saw at the top of this particular web page, The Traveling Executioner was made in 1970. If you know about Hollywood during the first half of the 1970s, you probably know that the major Hollywood studios during this era made a number of offbeat movies, movies of kinds that hadn't been made before and will probably never be made again, at least by those same major Hollywood studios. To call The Traveling Executioner one of those offbeat movies is to put it mildly. It's a movie that is very hard, if not impossible, to classify. Oh, I suppose that if you were to put the movie under a powerful microscope, you would see that its heart is that of a black comedy. The movie certainly has a good share of dark comic touches, not just with the idea of an ex-carny traveling around with an electric chair. Moments like those include when a local electrician is unbelievably overjoyed to have the privilege to work on Jonas' broken electric chair, and later when Jonas rounds up a platoon of local prostitutes and smuggles them in the prison in a scheme to raise money from charging each of the prisoners for five minutes of carnal bliss. These and other scenes throughout the movie are amusing to watch, but interestingly we in the audience are held back from totally being tickled. Every so often there is a serious moment, sometimes very uncomfortably so, that sticks in our mind and doesn't make us thing we are seeing a comedy. In the course of the movie we are subjected to dark happenings like a rape attempt and a bloody murder. The movie also ends on a bleak note that is definitely far from the typically happy ending you usually get in a major Hollywood studio movie nowadays. The fact that a number of people in the audience (like I did) will be able to guess what happens in the final scene long before it happens actually does not in any way diminish its grim power.

I have the feeling at this point that some of you reading this might be thinking that The Traveling Executioner is not a "fun" movie. Well, maybe it's not a laugh riot, but I have to confess that I found its unconventional attitude quite captivating, and in the end I felt I got my money's worth. There's a lot in this movie that's interesting. A big factor as to why the movie works very well for the most is that the various actors successfully sell to the audience the various strange and unconventional things that the screenplay requires their characters to do. A pre-fame Bud Cort, as well as a pre-fame M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple) who plays the prison's warden, both have small roles, but they manage to stand out enough in their limited footage to show why they got bigger roles in bigger offbeat movies later in their careers. Marianna Hill puts an interesting spin on her character. While other actresses in the role may have made us guessing until the end whether her character is really in love with Jonas or not, her acting makes it clear early on what her character is thinking and feeling deep down. It may not be a surprise what her character ultimately does, but the road to that point is an interesting one, because we can see how her mind is working without any other possibility distracting us. But of course, the real star of the movie is Stacy Keach. Being in almost every scene of the movie, he has the Herculean task of entertaining the audience at almost every turn of the plot. And he proves to be more than capable at being center stage. Sometimes he has to be serious and sensitive, like how he comforts the upset and to-be-executed Willy with a very long (but extremely captivating) monologue about how Willy will soon be in those fields of Ambrosia. Other times, like during his desperate attempts to delay Gundred's execution or to raise money to bribe the prison's doctor, his frantic behavior provokes genuine chuckles from the audience as well as sympathy. It's quite a performance, enough to make you wonder how Keach's career might have progressed differently had this movie been given a wider release and seen by more people.

Though the principle actors in The Traveling Executioner have shown their talents in other filmed projects other than this, I do have a feeling that in this project they received a boost thanks to the efforts of director Jack Smight (who later directed Damnation Alley). For one thing, all the characters found in the movie really seem to belong in the world and its atmosphere that Smight generates in the rest of the movie. I've never seen the southern United States look as dirty and dismal as it does here. Everything looks worn and aged, and lacking vitality. Before you start thinking that this makes the movie come across as depressing, let me assure you that it doesn't. There may be filth and age present, but I looked on with fascination, wondering throughout just how people could live in such conditions. I hadn't seen a world like this before. Smight's direction is mostly solid, but there are a few things about the movie that he might have acted upon to make the movie even better than it is now. These problems have to do with the screenplay by Garrie Bateson (his only movie screenplay.) Most of these problems have to do around the character of Gundred. Her past is murky; for one thing, I don't think at any time during the movie is it explained just what she did to get herself on death row. Also, her relationship with the smitten Jonas is woefully underwritten. Jonas falls in love with her way too quickly (in just one scene!), and there are not enough scenes of the two together to flesh out their relationship. In fact, Gundred is offscreen for much of the movie. An additional problem with the screenplay is that although the movie runs a reasonable-sounding ninety-five minutes long, viewers will probably get a little impatient because there are far too many scenes of Jonas enacting various schemes to save his love. If one or two such schemes been edited out, I think the movie would have run a lot smoother. But despite these problems, in the end The Traveling Executioner proves to be very entertaining. No, it definitely isn't for all viewers, but if you like the world of unconventional '70s cinema, it is definitely worth your time.

(Posted December 21, 2014)

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See also: Men Cry Bullets, 99 And 44/100% Dead, Sonny Boy