A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
When Clay McCord (Alex Cord), the fastest draw in the West, gets the shakes in his shooting arm, he decides to hang up his guns for good. But riding the straight and narrow may be more dangerous than he ever imagined – especially when his only hope for survival lies in the hands of a shady marshal, whose offer of amnesty hides something far deadlier. (From Kino’s official synopsis)
Like many Italian filmmakers that found success during the 1960s, Franco Giraldi’s career began on the set of Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964), where he served as assistant director. Though his spaghetti western efforts were, unfortunately, largely forgotten outside of critical circles, these early genre entries still served an important purpose in the greater pantheon. Seven Guns for the MacGregors (Italian: Sette pistole per i MacGregor, 1966) and its sequel, Up the MacGregors! (Italian: Sette donne per i MacGregor, 1967) don’t match the expressionistic expectations of more famous spaghettis, but were lavishly photographed in Technicolor and made enough money to prove that westerns could pull in large audiences, even when Leone wasn’t behind the camera. His follow-up (which was technically shot before Up the MacGregors), Sugar Colt (1967), is similarly mediocre, but earns points for naturally blending the discordant tones of melodrama, romance, comedy, and disturbing violence. His final work in the genre, A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die (Italian: Un minuto per pregare, un instante per morire; aka: Dead or Alive: The Prodigal Gun, Escondido, and Outlaw Gun), was much more ambitious in its attempts to match the end-of-an-era, melancholic tones of 1968’s more famed Eurowesterns – namely Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (Italy: Il grande silenzio; aka: The Big Silence) and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (Italian: C'era una volta il West). For this alone, it deserves recognition and revisitation.
A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die is, by and large, a tonal piece that casts existential shadows upon a rather prototypical outlaw story. Based on plot points and visual cues, one might assume that writers Louis Garfinkle (an American known for his dialogue work on Corbucci’s Hellbenders, 1967, and a story credit on Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, 1978), Ugo Liberatore (who also worked on Hellbenders), and Albert Band (a co-producer and father of Full Moon’s Charles Band and composer Richard Band) were attempting to cross-pollinate elements of Corbucci’s Django (1966) with American revisionist westerns, like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). However, A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die was completed a full year before those Hollywood counterparts were released and simply coming to similar conclusions (they even found a role for Robert Ryan, who was about to score a minor career resurgence via The Wild Bunch). What really sets it apart, beyond its near-complete lack of playful character dynamics or comedy of any kind, is the adherence to a single character’s impossible ordeal, rather than a duo or ensemble.
Unlike Leone and Corbucci, Giraldi isn’t quite sure how to reconcile the consistently downtrodden atmosphere with the inherent ridiculousness of the most popular Italian westerns. As the film carries on, McCord sort of goes from a psychologically damaged criminal to an unwilling witness to just about every distressing experience the Wild West has to offer (he misses out on one particularly brutal torture session, but is present for almost everything else). In contrast to this perpetual melancholy, he still possesses the supernatural gunfighting abilities of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and the film takes periodic breaks for slightly absurd shootouts. It’s an interesting dynamic, but more unintentionally weird than truly special. Given that Zapata westerns had helped define this short, dark(er) era in spaghetti history, the filmmakers also attempted to tie a social/political theme to the inexhaustible angst with mixed results. This is confined to the side plot about the town marshal who offers a promise of amnesty for known criminals and resents the bounty hunters that come looking for rewards for killing criminals. Things are later muddled when it’s revealed that the lawman and governor actually mean well (to a degree). Beyond the awkward plotting this entails, this renewed trust in authority doesn’t hold much allegorical power, because it doesn’t coherently tie into any then-current Italian politics.
A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die is also an artistic exercise for Giraldi and editor Alberto Galitti, who play around with time via flashback throughout the film. Unfortunately, other strange editing decisions – the ones that cut the plot to its barest essentials – were made by American distributors, not the original filmmakers. Similar to The Great Silence, A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die’s finale was deemed too bleak for international release, so Giraldi shot a spare, happier ending for export markets. This compromised version featured 20-plus minutes of additional edits, which likely accounts for the occasionally incoherent narrative and lack of character development. As such, this cut is the only one available on home video (seemingly even in Italy). While we do now have access to that ending via this Blu-ray’s supplemental features (isolated from the film itself), the missing footage and lack of context mean we’ll (probably) never be able to see the movie that Italian critics (such as Antonio Tentori Bruschini, author of Western all'Italiana [pub: 1998]) have hailed one of the best westerns of its kind. Still, the international edit rarely feels like an incomplete or compromised experience; it’s just a more orthodox take on aging gunfighter conventions.
A Minute to Play, A Second to Die was released by MGM on non-anamorphic DVD, but, despite the box art claiming it was 118 minutes, it was the US edit. Sadly, Kino Lorber wasn’t able to get their hands on the full Italian cut, either, leading me to assume that the complete assembly is genuinely lost (the closest I could find was a bootleg fan-edit that spliced together the MGM DVD and a pretty ragged Japanese TV broadcast). So, that’s the bad news. The good news is that KL has still put considerable effort into this release, including a new HD master taken from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. I’m not sure where they got the master, but this 1.78:1 (slightly reframed from the theatrical 1.85:1), 1080p transfer is better than the typical (non-Leone) KL spaghetti western release. First off, there aren’t major signs of the DNR that has plagued previous discs. Natural grain is maintained and textures are rarely damaged by awkward posterization or excessive CRT noise (though there is a bit of that to contend with). The original materials were clearly in good shape, because film-based artefacts are limited mostly to small white flecks. Details are curbed by the typically cheap & speedy Italian exploitation filming techniques, but generally sharp and well-separated in medium shots and close-ups. The natural, earthy palette is consistent, though not exactly vibrant, and sometimes softened by modest dynamic range.
Given that the US release version of the film is the only one available here, it is not surprising that the only audio track is a mono English dub, which is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. Given that the film was shot without sound and dubbed into multiple languages, it’s not a huge problem that Kino hasn’t included an Italian track – it’s just nice to have the option. In this case, most of the leads were speaking English on set and American stars Alex Cord and Arthur Kennedy appear to be dubbing their own performances. Lipsync is better than average and the track’s effects are pretty ambitious for the era, including some extensive ambient effects and a noisy storm sequence.Composer Carlo Rustichelli doesn’t have the popular pedigree of Ennio Morricone or Bruno Nicolai (who conducted this particular soundtrack), but he worked steadily in the Italian film industry for a couple of decades. His most well-known scores turned up as library music in Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), and his notable spaghetti credits include Mario Costa’s Buffalo Bill, Hero of the Far West (1964), Lucio Fulci’s White Fang (1973), and Giuseppe Colizzi’s trilogy God Forgives...I Don’t (1967), Ace High (1968), and Boot Hill (1969). It’s not clear if any of these compositions were written specifically for A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, though they do fit the film with their dark, horror-like melodies.
Commentary with Alex Cox – The director of Repo Man (1984) and Walker (1987), author of 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western (pub: 2008), and all-around genre expert offers his thoughts on the film. Cox always has good factoids and respectful statements under his belt but, unfortunately, he has a habit of leaving a lot of blank space, as he did on Kino’s Blu-ray releases of Corbucci’s The Mercenary (1968) and Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1967).
Extended Italian cut ending with optional Alex Cox commentary (5:24, SD) – The footage here isn’t in great shape (it even has some kind of station-identifying watermark in the corner and Japanese subtitles on the bottom of the screen), but at least it offers a glimpse at the even more depressing movie Giraldi intended.
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