Time Well Spent: THREE HOURS TO KILL (Columbia 1954)

I don’t think you’ll find THREE HOURS TO KILL among anyone’s Top Ten Films list, or Top Ten Westerns, or even Top Ten Dana Andrews Movies. What you will find, if you give this movie a chance, is a solid, adult themed Technicolor Western with just a hint of film noir, made by Hollywood pros in front and behind the cameras. And you can’t ask for much more than that.

Jim Guthrie returns after a three year absence to the town that once tried to hang him. Jim relates the tale via flashback to old friend and current sheriff Ben East: a big night in town had everybody drinking and partying it up. Sexy hotel owner Chris Palmer comes on to Jim, but he only has eyes for pretty Laurie Mastin, bringing out the jealous side of banker Niles Hendricks. Laurie’s brother Carter disapproves of Jim, and a fight breaks out. The camera moves indoors as the partygoers hear two shots, then rush outside to see Jim standing over Carter, gun in hand. The alcohol-fueled crowd erupts into a lynch mob, and Jim barely escapes with his life, his rope-scarred neck a constant reminder of that fateful night.

Ben gives Jim til sundown, just three short hours away, to prove his innocence before either leaving town for good or being arrested. He soon learns many things have changed since he left. Laurie is now married to Niles and has a young son – and as it turns out, the kid is Jim’s! His probing makes him a marked man, and there are suspects galore, all with their own reasons for wanting Carter dead and Jim held responsible…

Dana Andrews  takes the role of Jim Guthrie and plays it like one of his many noir protagonists. He’s a hard man, and justice isn’t the only thing on his mind. Andrews is as obsessed and determined as his Mark McPherson in LAURA , and though his star had fallen somewhat (due to his alcoholism; Andrews eventually conquered his demons through AA), he delivers a sturdy performance. Donna Reed was a year removed from her Oscar win for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and the part of Laurie is a nice, juicy dramatic role for her. As always, Reed gives it her all, and the two work well together.

Character actor James Westerfield in “Three Hours to Kill”

The supporting cast is filled with Familiar Faces. Stephen Elliott is Sheriff Ben, who’s not what he seems. Richard Coogan (TV’s original CAPTAIN VIDEO) plays Niles, who’s also not what he seems. Dianne Foster (Chris) has an impressive sagebrush resume that includes THE KENTUCKIAN, THE VIOLENT MEN, and NIGHT PASSAGE. James Westerfield is bartender Sam, Whit Bissell barber Deke, Richard Webb (another TV captain, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) the unfortunate Carter, and Laurence Hugo (the soap opera EDGE OF NIGHT) the gambler Marty. Carolyn Jones has an early role as a bar girl, and you’ll find vets Stanley Blystone, Franklyn Farnum, Frank Hagney, Hank Mann, Frances McDonald, Snub Pollard, and Buddy Roosevelt among the townsfolk.

Producer Harry Joe Brown treats the film like one of his Randolph Scott Westerns – in fact, it probably would’ve made a good Scott vehicle! The screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons (SHIELD FOR MURDER) and Roy Huggins (future creator of TV’s THE FUGITIVE and THE ROCKFORD FILES) is tense and original. Veteran DP Charles Lawton (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI) makes the Columbia backlot look sufficiently Western. And director Alfred Werker had been around since the silent era; working mainly in B’s, his better known films include HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD, KIDNAPPED, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, REPEAT PERFORMANCE, and HE WALKED BY NIGHT.

The name Paul Sawtell rarely shows up in discussions on great film composers, but if you’ve ever watched a classic-era movie, you’ve heard his work. Sawtell’s credits are legion: he worked on many Universal Horror and Sherlock Holmes films in the 40’s, moved on to RKO for some Tarzans, scored films noir like THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, BORN TO KILL , T-MEN, RAW DEAL , and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL , low budget horror and sci-fi (SON OF DR. JEKYLL, THE BLACK SCORPION , IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE ), Irwin Allen’s THE LOST WORLD , VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, and FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, and even a couple of Russ Meyer sexploitationers (FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, MOTORPSYCHO). Sawtell also composed tons of stock music cues that pop up in almost 500 films and TV shows. He’s one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, and though he’s no Max Steiner, he deserves a shout-out – so here it is!!

THREE HOURS TO KILL is not a “classic” Western (we’re not talking John Ford here!), but the talent on both sides of the camera make it just a cut above average. It’s well worth watching, not only for Western buffs, but for fans of good, solid Hollywood filmmaking.

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