Directed by Ralph Nelson
Produced by James Lee Barrett and Ralph Nelson
Written by James Lee Barrett
tick…tick…tick was made 46 years ago and if we were as truly as enlightened and progressive a society as we like to believe we are then we would look at this movie today and be horrified that once upon a time Americans of one skin color treated other Americans with different skin color in such disgracefully disgusting ways. tick…tick…tick would be looked upon and regarded as a quaint cultural artifact depicting a period of American history that no longer exists. The fact is that the issues at the heart of tick…tick…tick are issues that are still unresolved and still being dealt with in 2020 says something about our society and us a human beings, I think. First and foremost, its entertainment, one with a solid story backed up by good performances. But it’s also got something to say about America in 1970 and what it says still resonates today.
Sheriff John Little (George Kennedy) of Colusa County, Mississippi is working his last day on the job. He lost the last election to Jim Price (Jim Brown) who is going to take over as Colusa’s first black sheriff. The white citizens of Colusa aren’t making Little’s last day easy for him, either. He’s regarded with contempt by them, most of whom he’s grown up with. They think he should have fought harder to keep his job. Indeed, the town’s leading racist and most powerful citizen, D. J. Rankin (Clifton James) tells Little that if Little had decided to ignore the lawful results of the election and keep his position, the local chapter of the KKK would have supported him. But Little doesn’t want that. At heart he’s a good man who believes in the law. He turns over his badge, gun and office to Price and settles down to live the life of a retired man of leisure.
Jim Price isn’t having a smooth transition to his new job. The white deputies who worked for Little refuse to work for a black man and quit. One of them (played by the always dependable Don Stroud) even attempts to goad Price into a gunfight by not turning in his gun and wearing it openly around town, saying he wants to be the first white man in the South to shoot a black sheriff dead. Price’s wife, Julia (Janet MacLachlin) hates the whole thing and in her mind has already counted her husband as being dead and buried. The town mayor (Fredric March) flat out tells Price to not do anything or make any decisions without clearing it with him first.
But Price goes ahead and makes a decision when a six year old white girl is killed by a drunk driver. The driver, John Braddock (Bob Random) is the son of the most powerful men in the neighboring county and has every confidence that his father will get him out. By force if necessary. The senor Braddock does come to the Colusa jail and tries to order Price to let his son out and is turned away. He vows to return with an army.
With no other recourse left to him, Price has to reluctantly accept Little’s help and accepts him as his deputy. The two men now have to work together to try and persuade the black and white citizens of Colusa to stand together with them to see that justice is done.
tick…tick…tick was directed by Ralph Nelson who directed one of my favorite westerns; “Duel at Diablo” and what the two movies share in common is the theme of men who don’t like each other being forced to work together. It was written by James Lee Barrett who adapted the movie “In The Heat of The Night” for television and tick…tick…tick does share a lot of themes with that movie. They’d make for a great double feature for home viewing.
Jim Brown holds the center of the movie in that way that only Jim Brown can. Whenever he’s in a scene he owns that scene, no doubt about it. But the acting honors here are shared by George Kennedy and Clifton James. George Kennedy was actually a much better actor than he gets credit for and tick…tick…tick is a good showcase for his talents. And it’s such a shame that Clifton James is always remembered as the buffoonish J.W. Pepper from the James Bond movies “Live And Let Die” and “The Man With The Golden Gun.” He’s actually extraordinarily good in dramatic roles and in this one he hangs in the background for much of the movie, projecting quiet menace. His character is the type of man who because he wields so much power he doesn’t have to go around saying or doing much. Because when he does speak or move, it means something. Fredric March has a terrific scene where he invites his black butler of eighteen years to come into his study, share a brandy with him and talk honestly about the relationship they’ve had. It’s a scene that’s not only funny but powerful because it’s rooted in the truth of their respective places in their society as a black man and a white man. Bernie Casey is also in this one in a small but pivotal role and it’s always enjoyable to watch him work on screen. Especially with Jim Brown and I only wish they had done more film work together.
Although the movie ends on a hopeful note it also acknowledges that the racial issues it has explored are not solved. 46 years later they’re still not solved and that what makes tick…tick…tick still relevant. It’s not light entertainment but it is a movie that is absolutely worth your time to watch.
Be advised that The ‘N’ Word is used casually and extensively in this movie by both white and black characters. So if you’re sensitive to its use in a fictional narrative don’t say I didn’t warn you.