Nearly a decade after directing Sidney Poitier to his only Oscar in Lilies of the Field, Ralph Nelson returned to the race relations well with …tick… tick… tick…, an oddly punctuated, putatively gritty drama set in the deep south. The film does better by its black protagonist (Jim Brown) than Poitier mostly got — Brown’s Jim Price isn’t just an amiable, neutered stand-up guy — but it’s not quite as tension-filled and morally complex as it thinks.
Set in an unnamed small southern town with a large black population, the film opens on the final day of John Little’s (George Kennedy) tenure as sheriff. He’s been defeated in the recent election by Price, who has the popular vote on his side but not the support of the establishment or the generally racist white half of the population.
Vandalism and death threats become the new norm for Price, but perhaps even more damning is the indifference of the town’s mayor (Frederic March in his penultimate role) and Little himself, who doesn’t do much to help ease the transition.
After a drunk driver kills a little girl and Price arrests the man, tensions head toward a boiling point as a thuggish group of racists decide it’s immoral for a black man to be able to lock up a white one. Price isn’t the type to back down easily, but he’s outnumbered, and Little must decide whether his own sense of pride and racial misgivings are worth endangering the town’s sense of order over.
Yes, …tick… tick… tick… is a starker film than Lilies of the Field (how could it not be?) but the G-rated affair never really ratchets up the tension, and it’s hard to believe anything truly shocking will come of the film’s racial conflicts. Undercutting this further is the twangy, lighthearted Tompall & The Glaser Brothers soundtrack, which lends the film a distinctive flair but hardly works to create drama.
Ultimately, …tick… tick… tick… doesn’t resemble anything close to hard-hitting and its ending winds up resolving matters incredibly naively, but Brown makes the whole thing quite watchable with his physical intensity and tenacious attitude. His Blaxploitation efforts are bound to be more fun than this, but the film mostly has its heart in the right place.
The Warner Archive remastered edition DVD presents the film in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The color film stock is pretty grainy, but rendered nicely here, with the stray scratches and marks never appearing too overwhelming. The film is accompanied by a full-frame promotional TV spot.