A Time for Dying is the final dramatic film from Budd Boetticher, who for most of the 1960s was working on a documentary about his friend, the bullfighter Carlos Arruza. He did work on the usual western television shows of the day as a director for hire to pay the bills, and probably to help fund his documentary. This film, however, was done as a favour to Audie Murphy, who had fallen on some hard times and needed some quick cash. The rumour is that Murphy had some serious gambling debts with the Vegas mob—but Murphy was also a much-loved war hero and actor who luckily still had some Hollywood friends.
The film itself is easily the worst Boetticher western I’ve seen, by some distance. It feels like a pilot for a TV show or a TV movie, not a real “movie-movie.” I think most screenings for the film were indeed on TV, following years of legal issues around the rights to the film after Murphy’s death in 1971. Cass Bunning (Richard Lapp) plays a gunslinging farm boy who rescues a young woman from a life of prostitution. He becomes a bounty hunter, has run-ins with Jesse James (Murphy) and also with the equally legendary Judge Roy Bean, who is depicted here as a drunken buffoon—probably more accurately than the Paul Newman portrayal in 1972’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.
What makes the film stand out is that it’s the only Boetticher western where revisionism—which was always bubbling under the surface of his minimalist ’50s westerns with Randolph Scott—is at the forefront. It’s a film that could only be made in 1969: Peter Fonda was actually attached to play Cass at one point (he would go on to direct one of the great ’70s westerns, The Hired Hand), but Boetticher ended up with a Playmate of the Month, some old-time character actors, the totally bland Richard Lapp and Murphy, who gives the best performance in the film by a long shot. It has a deeply pessimistic ending for everybody concerned, which is fitting for its time, but you could’ve already probably gotten away with that by 1960. It’s not up to Seven Men from Now or The Tall T, but then again, few westerns are—and who doesn’t like a film that clocks in at 73 minutes?
The Blu-Ray from Indicator includes the film in two aspect ratios: the original 1.85:1 theatrical and the 1.37:1 open matte shooting ratio. There’s also a new commentary from screenwriter and novelist C. Courtney Joyner and film historian Henry Parke; Radio On‘s Christopher Petit’s appreciation for the film, where he comes off as a totally pretentious bore who casually shits all over on Citizen Kane; and the always reliable Kim Newman giving an overview of Jesse James on screen. The booklet contains a new essay by Paul Duane alongside archival interviews with Boetticher and Murphy.