The New Hollywood era was probably the only time The Traveling Executioner could have been made by a major studio, because the film is so dark and weird that at any other point in history, studios would have shunned the project like it was infected with a contagious disease. The movie is about exactly what the title suggests, an entrepreneur who owns an electric chair and shuttles between various Southern jails sending condemned killers to their final destinations. Imaginatively written by one Garrie Bateson (whose only other credits are a pair of early-’70s TV episodes), the picture doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its outlandish premise, but if only for its spectacular opening and closing scenes, it’s worth a look for adventurous viewers.
Stacy Keach plays the wonderfully named Jonas Candide, a executioner working the Southern U.S. jail circuit in 1918. He’s perfected a colorful routine: As he straps terrified convicts into his chair, which he calls “Reliable” and treats as tenderly as a woman, he gives a spellbinding speech about how one of the men he killed contacted him through a medium and described “the fields of ambrosia” to which he was delivered after death. One warden chides Jonas for making the afterlife sound so appealing that guards are ready to line up for execution after hearing Jonas’ spiel.
Our hero’s lifestyle gets derailed when he meets Gundred Herzallerliebst (Marianna Hill), the first woman scheduled for a rendezvous with Reliable. Gundred is persistent and slick, working the court system to obtain a series of stays on her execution, and she’s also a beauty willing to use her formidable wiles. Once Gundred gets Jonas in her sights, he’s a goner. She seduces him into feigning maintenance problems with Reliable, and then convinces him to bust her out of prison.
The movie goes off-track at this point, getting lost in subplots about Jonas raising money for an elaborate breakout scheme, and the movie also loses its tonal focus; composer Jerry Goldsmith scores scenes in the middle of the picture like high comedy, as if the sequence of Jonas establishing a temporary brothel inside a prison is the height of hilarity. This discursion into ineffective black comedy is a shame, because the really interesting potential of the movie resides in elements like Jonas’ training of an apprentice (Bud Cort) and Jonas’ complex friendship with an amiable warden (M. Emmet Walsh). More damningly, the movie lets Jonas’ dynamic with Gundred slip into the cliché of black widow snaring a man with sex, when something more emotional would have had greater impact.
Still, Keach is on fire throughout the movie, showing off his physical grace and his silky vocal delivery; the scene of him trying to sweet-talk a bank manager into providing a loan by pandering to the man’s patriotism is terrific. Even better, the dark turn the movie takes in its last act is simultaneously poetic and tragic, so by the end of the picture, Jonas’ peculiar identity as an evangelist for the afterlife has returned to the fore. This strange little picture also looks great, with journeyman director Jack Smight and veteran cinematographer Philip Lathrop assembling a series of stark widescreen frames that alternate between the shadowy spaces of prisons and dusty panoramas that make the picture feel like a deranged Western. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
The Traveling Executioner: FREAKY