The Traveling Executioner (1970, USA)
The Traveling Executioner depicts what may be the earliest example of outsourcing correctional services; I can’t, off the top of my head, think of an earlier one.
It’s wartime, 1918. Jonas Candide (Stacy Keach) is a self-proclaimed charmer, an ex-con, a womaniser, con man and gambler… and, for the past eight years, a roaming executioner. He travels across the Southern States with his portable electric chair and generator, executing prisoners at $100 a pop (about $1600 in today’s money). He makes a comfortable living, and, he notes, the hours are good.
His trademark is to put the condemned man at ease by telling him of the idyllic ‘fields of Ambrosia’ that await him on the other side. We see him use his patter to calm a German immigrant sitting in his hot seat, Willie Herzallerliebst, but botches the execution. He is rather differently affected by Willie’s beautiful sister, Gundred (Mariana Hill), who is the first woman he has been booked to toast. He is carnally persuaded to find a way to buy her more time so that she might receive another stay of execution, and gets a little smitten in the process.
The bulk of the film is taken up with Jonas’s efforts to keep Gundred from his chair. He orchestrates his chair being stolen, and then smashed up, and then repaired; all of which take time. He encourages the prison’s doctor to experiment with administering adrenalin to electrocuted rats, hopeful that after frying Gundren he might resuscitate her. And, when the doctor will only risk such a process with a large bribe, he raises the money by bringing girls from the local brothel into the prison, where he does a roaring trade.
From there things don’t entirely go to plan. He loses all his newly-gained money but, playing on everyone’s wartime zeal, almost coaxes a big loan out of the local bank manager. But it ends badly after the bank manager refuses to lend money to an ex-con. With disaster hot on the heels of disaster, he returns to the prison and, holding a gun to the guards, grabs Gundred and effects her escape. But he gets caught soon after and, to the delight of some – most notably the prison’s chief guard, Malcom Piquant (James Sloyan) – finishes up having to reassure himself about the fields of Ambrosia while being strapped into his own chair. His own execution doesn’t quite go to plan, either.
The film is a bit of a ’70s romp; a quirky black comedy later made into a musical, The Fields of Ambrosia, which would appear to have been equally unsuccessful in attracting an audience.
Its depiction of Fairweather Prison, the only prison in which we see Jonas plying his trade, is comically depressing. It boasts an ineffectual warden, a vindictive, nasty, would-be rapist (Piquant) as his most senior man, guards accepting bribes to allow visitors and hookers into the jail and to turn the other way, and even a priest of uncertain denomination who cheats at cards. And, of course, a hustler for its contracted executioner. The prisoners are the most restrained and act with the most dignity.
Very ’70s and largely forgettable.
Posted on August 26th, 2016 at 9:51 pm. Updated on August 26th, 2016 at 9:51 pm.