Film Review: Time to Die

Revival of a 1960s Western from Mexico, making its U.S. premiere, is more than a curio but something less than a classic.
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Time to Die, originally released in 1965 as Tiempo de Morir, boasts an amazing roster of talent for what used to be called “chili-Westerns,” the Mexican equivalent to Italian “Spaghetti Westerns.” Not only did Time to Die mark the directorial debut of Arturo Ripstein, the screenplay was penned by Gabriel Garciá Márquez with dialogue by Carlos Fuentes. Consequently, the picture stands out for its pedigree and deserves a new look, especially this print, crisply restored by the adventurous folks at Film Movement.

The Garciá Márquez narrative is nothing novel for a Western, but it works well enough. In the tradition of classical Hollywood Westerns, revenge is the theme as Juan Sáyago (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) returns to his dusty hometown after spending 18 years in prison for the murder of Raúl Trueba. Though Sáyago always insisted the killing was in self-defense, Trueba’s grown sons (Enrique Rocha, Alfredo Leal) are convinced otherwise and have been plotting retribution their entire lives. As Sáyago attempts to reunite with his lost love, the now widowed, single mother, Mariana Sampedro (Marga López), Trueba’s sons track down their father’s killer and force a confrontation that is destined to end tragically.

There is a High Noon structure to Time to Die that ensures a certain amount of suspense and entertainment value, yet the true appeal of this variation on the 1951 Gary Cooper classic lies elsewhere—particularly in some of the formal properties of the production. At age 21, director Ripstein was already showing a level of skill that would become even more evident in his later efforts (Hell Without Limits, 1978; Deep Crimson, 1996). Ripstein makes the most of his limited budget by investing the few sets with a spare, minimalist quality, mixing gritty realism with “Twilight Zone” spatial design.

Equally impressive is the camerawork of Alex Phillips, which includes memorable long shot tableaux as well as intricate tracking shots. In fact, Phillips’ cinematography captivates so frequently, you forgive the technical errors, such as the shadow of the camera appearing onscreen. (Phillips had previously photographed for Luis Buñuel, just as Ripstein was an assistant on The Exterminating Angel, 1962, before directing his own movies.) Time to Die also features a pleasing musical score by Carlos Jiménez Mabarak and sophisticated editing from Carlos Savage, who links scenes using subtle jump cuts.

Though other aspects of the production are routine, and the Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah are more revisionist, Time to Die’s only truly major flaws remain two-fold. First are Jorge Martínez de Hoyos’ dumpy appearance and lack of star charisma. They might have been part of the filmmaker’s bid for realism, yet de Hoyos’ performance is also surprisingly vapid, especially alongside his striking, top-billed co-star, Marga López. Second, shockingly, is the pretentious dialogue from the renowned novelist-essayist Carlos Fuentes. It almost ruins some scenes, as nearly every character is forced to utter existential dictums like “The crown you fashion is the one you must wear.” (That one gets said twice!).

Thankfully, there are more virtues than debits to Time to Die, and Western fans should be relatively satisfied.

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