The (inaugural) Southern Movie: tick . . . tick . . . tick

“. . . tick . . . tick . . . tick,” released in 1970, tells the unlikely story of a small Southern town whose long-time white sheriff, played by George Kennedy, has been voted out of the office by newly enfranchised blacks. He has been replaced by a cool-and-collected, muscle-bound black family man played by football great Jim Brown.

Of course, the white townspeople are not fond of their new black sheriff, but neither are the few more militant blacks, who want this new empowerment to mean a reversal of the power structures: black on top, whitey on bottom! By contrast to both groups, Jim Brown’s righteous character, Jimmy Price, is determined to have law and order prevail— he is caught in the middle. Yet, he needs the help of the now-prostrated former sheriff, John Little, who is constantly harried and taunted by people who seem to blame him for losing the job.

While taking on the well-known racial issues of the day, this film throws in a few of the supporting characters that we expect to be there: an omnipresent Ku Klux Klan looming near every precarious scene, a troublemaking bigot from a notoriously shiftless family, and a self-important local bigwig. It’s all there. We even get a mass-violence scene full of lawless mayhem near the end. Though we never get to know exactly where they are in the South, Little’s wife at one point suggests that they move away, either to Atlanta or Birmingham, implying that their small town lies somewhere between the two.

“. . . tick . . . tick . . . tick” reminded me a poor-man’s “In the Heat of the Night” from 1967. (The writer of the film’s entry on Wikipedia had the same idea, I was not surprised to see.) We’ve got the difficult juxtaposition of two lawmen – one white, one black – in a small Deep Southern town where the racial balance is teetering and about to crash. This film’s rich bigwig seemed much like that film’s Mr. Endicott, and both films have their pragmatic mayor who seems to insert himself when necessary to keep the action moving.

However, “. . . tick . . . tick . . . tick” does a few things differently. Sorry to spoil the end, but— having the Klan to partner with the black sheriff, working together to rebuke a mob from an adjacent county, was an interesting twist. Also, in a move that I did think was pretty cool, near the end of the movie, the old white mayor has a good heart-to-heart with his long-time black butler about how the latter man has been eavesdropping for years and reporting the ill-gotten secrets to the black community. In perhaps too convenient a resolution, the men close the scene smiling and drinking together.

Overall, “. . . tick . . . tick . . . tick” is a pretty good movie. Not great, but not bad. The cast is strong enough: George Kennedy had, in 1967, recently won an Academy Award for this character Dragline in Cool Hand Luke. Jim Brown had been in The Dirty Dozen that year too. And Ralph Nelson, who directed the Sidney Poiter film “Lilies of the Field,” also directed this one. But by 1970, I doubt if this movie added much to the discussion of Deep Southern integration. Just more good ‘ol stereotypes, with a dash of hope tossed in at the end.

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