Three Hours to Kill

The last few posts on this site have seen the subsequent discussions spin off in various directions, taking in the idea of the auteur in cinema, the use of sets vs location shooting, and also touching on the pluses and minuses of the studio system. Today I want to take a look at Three Hours to Kill (1954), a movie whose director is not likely to be described as an auteur yet one whose work is of interest and displays some distinct characteristics, and it’s also a good example of the kind of bread and butter material the studio system seemed to knock out effortlessly. It’s a sparse and effective piece of work with no flab whatsoever, pared down and streamlined entertainment made by accomplished professionals.

The opening, to the accompaniment of Paul Sawtell’s melancholic score, sees Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) heading back to his home town, heading back to see some of his old friends again. However much Guthrie might be looking forward to this reunion, it doesn’t appear to be bringing him any happiness, and his friends are even less thrilled when he turns up. The thing is Guthrie’s friends, as we discover via a short flashback sequence, tried to kill him three years before. To a man they were prepared to believe the worst of him and see him lynched for a murder he had no hand in. With friends like that, who needs enemies! So, what  would bring a man back to such a place? That he  survived at all, staying one step ahead of the law and just barely eluding capture, is largely down to his grit and determination. What sustained him as a fugitive those three years was his desire for justice and revenge, his hopes of making his tormentors feel the same slow, sliding dread he once did. Guthrie finds he has few allies left, the woman he once loved (Donna Reed) has married one of his former rivals, and mixed in with the dangers there are secrets beginning to stir in the shadows. The local sheriff (Stephen Elliott) has some sympathy but not much, in fact it amounts to only three hours’ worth: three hours in which to find the man who framed him on a murder charge, and helped tear his life to pieces. What Guthrie finds out, about others and about himself, has the potential to bring damnation or salvation, depending on which fork of his conscience he decides to follow.

One of the first things you notice about Three Hours to Kill is how packed the script is and how tight the writers keep things as a consequence. The story comes from Alex Gottlieb with the script coming via Richard Alan Simmons and Roy Huggins, and some dialogue credited to Maxwell Shane. The plot is based on a combination of revenge tale and whodunit, Guthrie’s quest for justice is conflated with a desire to avenge himself on his former friends, and even he seems unsure where the one ends and the other begins. In a film that runs just over an hour and a quarter that ought to be enough to be getting on with, but Three Hours to Kill offers even more. Underpinning all of this is the complex series of relationships between the protagonists, where jealousy, betrayals and moralizing all play a part in determining how everyone behaves. Even on the periphery of the main events and characters there are quite startling (considering the time the film was made) developments – there’s the frank admission that one of the subsidiary characters is overtly engaged in what can only be described as a threesome, for example. Situations which might have provided the dramatic basis for a number of different movies are simply laid before  the audience without any exposition or even analysis – they just are, and the viewer is expected to be sufficiently mature to appreciate that such things are part of life.

The writing is of course important under these circumstances, but it’s also imperative that a confident and well-organized director is on hand. Alfred Werker, who was in charge of the similarly trim and compact The Last Posse, was the kind of man needed to ensure everything stayed focused and on course. Furthermore, it was a boon for Werker to have a talented cameraman like Charles Lawton working alongside him, ensuring his setups looked as good as possible.

A film like this, where the lead is scarred both externally and internally, whose demons are a short step away from fully consuming him, needed a man with a strong fatalistic sensibility. Who better under these circumstances than Dana Andrews, that veteran of so many westerns and films noir. The structure of the movie, with that flashback sequence, lets Andrews explore the change that comes over Guthrie (something which can be applied to a greater or lesser extent to other cast members too) and the contrast on view is a nice showcase for the kind of barely controlled emotional turmoil he was so adept at handling.

Aside from Andrews, the other big name in the cast is Donna Reed. She appeared in a handful of goodish westerns around this time as well as prestige productions like her Oscar-winning role in Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity. Her part as Andrews’ old flame gave her some depth to work with, and so there was more to it than the kind of one-dimensional fare sometimes handed to actresses in programmer westerns of this type. Dianne Foster was the other woman in the cast with a significant role and spars well with Reed for the attentions of Andrews. Carolyn Jones was generally good value or better and was both touching and amusing as one side of a triangle involving Charlotte Fletcher and Laurence Hugo. Stephen Elliott and Richard Coogan are among the “friends” who would rather not renew their acquaintance with fugitive but the more memorable work is done by the seemingly ubiquitous Whit Bissell and James Westerfield.

Three Hours to Kill was a Columbia picture, produced by Harry Joe Brown, and has been released in the US by Sony as part of its MOD program. The film is also available in Europe, in both Spain and Italy. The Spanish disc I have presents the film 16:9 and looks reasonably good. There is a bit of softness but the colors look true and the print used doesn’t appear to be damaged. The soundtrack plays in the original English and there are the usual optional Spanish subs that can be disabled. I enjoy this kind of solid lower budget affair, a type of film that is actually enormously satisfying if done properly. There’s an impressive roster of talent on both sides of the camera and that helps to make Three Hours to Kill a modest but successful piece of filmmaking.

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33 thoughts on “Three Hours to Kill

  1. “I enjoy this kind of solid lower budget affair, a type of film that is enormously satisfying if done properly” sums it up perfectly for me, Colin. That feeds in to the previously-made point about films made under the studio system too. Taut, no flab, with the ability to tell an adult storyline satisfyingly in just 75 mins.

    Dana Andrews was a fine actor of course. Having emerged from small-town rural America he developed into one of Hollywood’s most urbane actors in many films, many of them noirs, so that in a way he never seems the obvious choice as a western lead. Yet he adapted well in the films he did make in that genre (the best being that great classic “CANYON PASSAGE”) and he is just fine here.

    We talked before about ‘team’ efforts and in addition to Werker and Lawton we also find producer Harry Joe Brown adding to the team to make this a most satisfying example. Good choice for review, Colin.

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    • Thanks, Jerry, I think Andrews made more strong noir pictures than westerns but there are some very good movies in the latter category.
      What impressed me particularly here was the way so much mature content was packed into a short time yet never felt compressed, just not played out more than necessary.
      And yes, it’s a terrific team effort, and it’s usually a good thing to see Harry Joe Brown’s name in among the credits.

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    • I often feel that’s the beauty of the genre, it contains a vein that can be mined deep. Even when you think you’ve exhausted the supply of interesting movies, there’s still more to discover.

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  2. A very fine choice Colin,and a great write up.
    A few years back this is the sort of film appearing on Sony’s
    MOD series. They used to give us a dozen vintage films
    a month but now they seem to have lost heart with the
    series. Sadly the only company releasing these Columbia
    programmer Westerns is Sidonis in France,with their loathed
    forced subtitles.
    I’m sad to see the demise of the Sony MOD series because they
    took the trouble to remaster every title in high definition
    so they generally looked great.
    There is an outfit called Mill Creek in The States which are
    starting to release previously available Columbia films on
    Blu Ray as double bills. Their recent William Castle double
    bills looked sensational. Soon they are releasing a couple of Hammer
    double bills with more to follow.
    These Mill Creek Blu Ray’s are very attractively priced and
    the Hammer doubles are up at Import CD’s at less than
    $8 each.Only drawback Mill Creek Blu Ray’s are Region A coded.
    It would be great to see Columbia programmer Westerns on
    Blu Ray double bills like this.
    Sadly,as I have mentioned before I feel Horror fans have
    embraced the Blu Ray format far more than Western fans.

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    • John, there are still some Columbia titles appearing in Italy, though these may well be using the same source as the French releases – Relentless, which I think I mentioned before, looks very good.
      Those Mill Creek Blu-rays are attractively priced but the region locking means I won’t be buying any, sadly.

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  3. As I mentioned on the previous reply I thought
    THREE HOURS TO KILL was a very good choice.
    Not too many folks fighting Alfred Werker’s corner
    although the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick did call
    him underrated recently.
    He more or less closed his career with 6 Westerns
    although his final film was a JD drama.
    THE LAST POSSE (also a RTHC pick) was far
    away the best of these, and a couple of the films were
    “gimmick” Westerns. DEVIL’S CANYON is an absurd but
    fun combo of Western and Prison flick.
    CANYON CROSSROADS was a modern day Western
    concerning Uranium claim jumpers-helicopter chases and
    all. Then there is the much sought after AT GUNPOINT
    which sadly is an Allied Artists picture not owned by Warners,
    so the chances of seeing this film in the correct ratio
    (2.35) are pretty slim.
    Werker’s final Western was the grim austere REBEL IN TOWN
    which I believe is stuck in Colin’s “to be viewed” heap.
    (How’s “the heap” going these days Colin? 🙂 )
    Unlike many veteran directors Werker seemed to resist
    the move to television. THREE HOURS TO KILL as Colin
    correctly says is a whodunit in Western form and very entertaining
    it is too.

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    • I’m happy with what I’ve seen of Werker’s work so far, I like what he’s able to do with a limited budget. I’m very fond of At Gunpoint and it’s very sad that there isn’t a copy in the correct ratio available.
      And the “heap”, John, retains its generous proportions, steadfastly resisting all efforts to reduce it to any significant extent. 🙂

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  4. It didn’t take long for my copy to arrive via Amazon and I viewed it today.
    Can’t say it did a lot for me. The theme was good but I wanted stronger supporting characters. Donna Reed and Dianne Foster didn’t have much to do , which is sometimes the case in westerns for the female characters.
    I don’t think Donna really benefitted from being in From Here To Eternity. Her career path didn’t go up as it should have done, in movies anyway.
    I do like Dianne Foster in the few films I have seen her in.
    I could see this plot working better for me in a modern noir setting in black and white.
    The denouement wasn’t much of a climax. There was only one character left that could have been the killer.
    The ending reminded me of a certain Miss Stanwyck at the end of Forty Guns!
    A neat twist at the end when the crowd wanted another lynching.
    One of those films which I felt could have been more dramatic with a stronger script and characters.
    And, dare I say it, I don’t find Dana Andrews a natural for westerns. Or maybe I just prefer him in modern settings.
    Sorry to be so negative. It just illustrates yet again we all see films differently.

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    • That was fast, and thanks for popping back to leave your thoughts on the movie. Firstly, I’m sorry it didn’t satisfy more. Perhaps I’m more forgiving of this kind of B fare, but I didn’t have a major problem with the development of the supporting cast and actually felt the glimpses we got of them and their characters served to establish them fine, and was a way to work around the budgetary limitations.
      As you say though, we can’t all get the same reactions to material and I do like to hear people chip in and point out what didn’t work so well for them – it would be something of an echo chamber otherwise.

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  5. Hi Colin. I just wanted to echo the more positive sentiments expressed above in regard to THREE HOURS TO KILL. This is an excellent, taut little Western that never outstays its welcome. However, I do agree with Vienna regarding Dana Andrews who, although an outstanding urban Noir protagonist, never looks comfortable on a horse. It’s a genuine art to bring in a quality product on a relatively small budget
    and the various (mainly straight to video fare) attempts to revive the Western today with similar budgetary restrictions the likes of Alfred Werker, D. Ross Lederman or Lambert Hillyer would find an embarrassment. BONE TOMAHAWK, which I’ve yet to see, was evidently made fairly cheaply, and my friend John Knight has described it using language unfit for an open forum. However, I would absolutely recommend DIABLO starring Scott (son of Clint) Eastwood. Not an unqualified success but well worth seeing and beautifully made to boot. There are times when one feels as though one is watching a previously undiscovered Clint Western circa 1965. Changing the subject: I notice that John mentioned on another thread the Australian R4 release of the 1949 GREAT GATSBY. I can confirm that this release,
    although far from perfect, is well worth picking up and is as good as it gets at the moment. It’s astounding
    though that a picture of this cultural importance and undoubted star-power has never been given the Criterion or MOC treatment and been properly remastered. Lack of decent source elements perhaps? So GATSBY is partially off the ‘missing list’ but, as an undoubted Ladd completist, I wait more in hope than expectation for a ‘proper’ release of CHICAGO DEADLINE and also HELL ON FRISCO BAY in widescreen!

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Nick, and for confirming that the R4 DVD of The Great Gatsby is at least an acceptable edition. I also share your hopes for those missing Ladd titles, BTW.

      I couldn’t agree more that successful budget filmmaking is a real art and, possibly because we don’t have anything like the studio system to provide structure or even apprenticeships, largely a dead one these days.
      That’s heartening about Diablo though. As for Bone Tomahawk, I’ve seen that and could add a few choice terms to express my own dislike for the finished product too.

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  6. Great to see Nick here,always welcome. Nick’s a very busy chap, and I wish he had time to be more frequent on these blogs.
    I think Nick enjoyed DIABLO more than me, but by anyone’s standards it’s a stunning looking film (unlike BONE TOMAHAWK I might add). DIABLO is a psychological thriller in a Western setting and viewed as that it’s pretty good.
    No. I won’t repeat my dislike for BONE TOMAHAWK, a gross-out horror flick in a Western setting. All I will say however is that men sporting pony tails should NOT be making Westerns.

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    • I’m certainly going to make a point of looking out for Diablo, it sounds interesting at the very least.
      Bone Tomahawk is indeed an ugly film, visually and in terms of ideas, theme and plot. There is one particular scene that is both gross and gratuitous, although the entire concept is a mean-spirited one in my opinion, and really adds nothing to the genre, or even cinema for that matter.

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  7. Thanks for sharing, I need to see this film now, saw a similar Western with Richard Widmark and Donna Reed – Backlash 1956 dr. John Sturges. Looking at your review, it pales in comparison.

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  8. I recently caught Three Hours to Kill and found it to be very enjoyable. Am a big Dana Andrews fan – and absolutely love Canyon Passage mentioned above by Jerry – one of my favorite 25 Westerns ever – back to this movie – I think the premise is great – man returning to the town that nearly lynched him but the execution maybe not so much. But as I said I still found it a pleasure -perhaps because I had never heard of it before so it was a nice surprise. I also really enjoyed the music which you mention. Reading blogs such as yours Colin and others I have come to pay attention to things I never did like Cinemascope, the producer (happy to see Harry joe Brown here), the supporting actors, and more importantly the Director and DP – these little details that i never thought of before now give me a great sense of anticipation as the credits roll!
    Tim mentions Backlash as a comparison piece – that’s also a movie I enjoyed – the great Richard Widmark and I think Donna Reed has a little more to do in that one. Gosh I do love Westerns made in the 1946-1962 era – or many of them anyway.

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    • Thanks for popping in and commenting. There’s never a classic era western too far away from discussion in this place, so many who contribute here share that love of the films, particularly but not exclusively westerns, from those years.
      And yes, all the frequently unsung cast and crew members add so much to the enjoyment of these films too.

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      • Colin –
        you are welcome i very much enjoy the site and your reviews about movies I haven’t seen and learning in more depth about movies that i have seen. I don’t have much to add other than enthusiasm and appreciation for the work you do.
        I do love many other types of movies – exception horror films – but for the past year I have really been stuck on Westerns – so many I haven’t seen.

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        • Well thanks, that’s very kind of you. Horror is a genre I kind of blow hot and cold on, I love the old Universal and Val Lewton films as well as AIP and Hammer stuff, but I cannot be doing with the modern version – far too cruel and depressing.
          One of the great things about westerns in particular is the depth and range of the genre; so many films were made that I feel there’s always something new out there.

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  9. Well said all along the line, Colin. A quick and to the point duster with a good story. Cast and crew are all good with director Werker giving it all a nice look. Werker was imo a rather under-rated helmsman with more than a few tight little westerns.

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