Bruce Dern

Inherit the Viper (2019, Anthony Jerjen)

Inherit the Viper is an unfortunately titled but acceptably mediocre crime drama about rural siblings Margarita Levieva, Josh Hartnett, and Owen Teague running an opioid business. Levieva’s the merciless boss, Hartnett’s the reluctant muscle, Teague’s the enthusiastic but uninvolved teenager. Everything’s going fine—well, outside the occasional fatal overdose for customers—until Teague decides he’s got to go into business for himself. Only he’s not very bright and his idea is to steal his family’s product to sell on the side, forcing Levieva (who wanted to get Teague involved) and Hartnett (who didn’t) to make some tough, momentous decisions. Renewed interest from local law enforcement (Dash Mihok) and a justifiably enraged recent widower (Brad William Henke) complicate matters.

So, a fairly standard family crime drama.

Andrew Crabtree’s script throws a lot at the characters but in targeted bursts. Viper never overreaches. Crabtree and director Jerjen never do anything they aren’t sure they can successfully execute. The film’s got some great production values—Jerjen, cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet, editors Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda put some drone shots to great use for establishing shots, showcasing the desolate, failed rural community. Jerjen’s composition for the talking heads scenes, which are most of the film until the final third or so, is usually the same parallel shot, giving the actors each their space. Even though Jerjen’s got the patience for the talking heads and showcasing the actors (really, the film often plays like a demo reel for its stars more than a serious dramatic effort), he never gets in close enough to really look. When Levieva finally shows her humanity, when Hartnett finally shows his fear, Jerjen doesn’t have any way to help the actors rise above the script, which is fairly pat as far as character motivation and development go. Both the script and the direction posit the characters as somewhat tragic, even though the point of Levieva is she would reject that tragedy and it would be consuming the soulful Hartnett, who has a much better understanding of the world—ostensibly due to his time in Iraq War II, but more because the script needs it—than his peers.

Well, except of course how the film then positions other people as the good folks just facilitating the opioid ring without actually getting their hands too dirty (special guest star Bruce Dern plays a bar owner and friend of the family’s absent, smalltime crook dad).

Instead of Levieva or Hartnett, the film focuses on Teague. It’s both a trope—the child grows up—and the most economical. Hartnett getting more of a focus would mean more to do with pregnant girlfriend Valorie Curry and, even though the film starts spotlighting Levieva, she barely gets any character development throughout. And, when she does, it feels like the film’s trying too hard. Because to transcend the material, the script would need to be better and there’d need to be more of a budget (the film looks great, moves well but it’s obviously streamlined as can be). Jerjen does what he can with the constraints the production’s got and it works. The drone shots do get tiring by the end but more because they never really impact how the narrative plays; they’re always technically solid. Especially set against Patrick Kirst’s score.

For over half the film, Viper acts like it isn’t going to rest the whole thing on whether or not Teague can carry it through the third act to the finish, then it hands it off to Teague and, sure, he can get it to the finish but… not spectacularly. It’s a pass and no pass situation. Teague passes, adequate, no reason to rejoice.

Levieva’s the film’s best performance, even with her character going off some rails in the third act. Hartnett’s good, but it’s a propped up majorly supporting role; Teague’s not compelling enough, Hartnett picks up the slack for it. It’s unclear whether Jerjen would be able to do more. He’s got a lot of technical chops as a director and he’s pretty good with the actors, but Viper never seems thoughtful enough. Jerjen’s successfully realizes the script but without any imagination. It’s like he’s too good, technically, to have to be inventive.

Inherit the Viper—the title’s even worse once you find out what it means—isn’t bad, it’s just rote, even with its cast’s solid efforts.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Jerjen; written by Andrew Crabtree; director of photography, Nicholas Wiesnet; edited by Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda; music by Patrick Kirst; production designer, Tracy Dishman; costume designer, Emily Batson; produced by Michel Merkt and Benito Mueller; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Margarita Levieva (Josie Conley), Josh Hartnett (Kip Conley), Owen Teague (Boots Conley), Valorie Curry (Eve), Dash Mihok (Kyle), Chandler Riggs (Cooper), Brad William Henke (Tedd), and Bruce Dern (Clay).


The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)

The King of Marvin Gardens is an extremely quiet film. Jack Nicholson’s protagonist is a radio monologist, which suggests the viewer should listen to the content of his dialogue, but the secret of Marvin Gardens is that content’s unimportance. After a brief introduction to Nicholson’s job and life, the film immediately moves him into an unknown circumstance. He goes to Atlantic City to meet up with his older brother, played by Bruce Dern.

Dern and Nicholson’s characters are completely dissimilar–Nicholson’s a monk, Dern travels with two ladies (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson), Nicholson’s an introvert, Dern’s an obnoxious talker–and director Rafelson, Nicholson and Dern are very careful to show their relationship. Rafelson and photographer László Kovács shoot a lot of Marvin Gardens in long shot (or at least medium long shot). It seemingly exaggerates the viewer’s distance from the characters, but it’s actually just how far away from one another everyone is situated, viewers and characters alike. Marvin Gardens presents this intriguing situation–Dern’s shady, but big money, business dealings, his relationship with the two women, the oddness of Atlantic City in off-season–and positions the viewer to ascribe certain reactions to Nicholson. After all, Nicholson is the audience’s entry into this weird setting, isn’t he?

Not really is the answer. And, as the film moves on, Nicholson, Rafelson and screenwriter Jacob Brackman have these occasional callbacks to remind the audience maybe they should have been paying more attention. Dern’s got a showy role, Burstyn has the film’s showiest, even Robinson is more shocking than Nicholson–but it’s all about Nicholson. It’s all about what his performance does and how Rafelson uses it in the film.

There aren’t really any set pieces–the most excitement comes at the beginning, with Nicholson arriving in Atlantic City; Rafelson’s vision of Atlantic City is empty, hollow, cold. There’s no music in Marvin Gardens, no score, I don’t even think any soundtrack music, just the wind. The cold wind battering these palatial, empty hotels.

Nicholson’s performance is the film’s initial hook–Rafelson opens on Nicholson performing a monologue in extreme close-up, no cuts, just this insight into the character. Only, Nicholson’s not the most reliable monologist (something the film goes out of its way to warn the audience not to expect). But in such weirdness, such grey quirkiness, such utter sadness, he’s a reference point.

It’s a breathtakingly constructed film. It’s not a character study. Rafelson and Brackman aren’t exactly deceptive about the film–there are the warnings, there are their attempts to remind the audience of important reveals–but they don’t want to fully engage how devastating it can get. Even when there’s danger, it always appears controllable, manageable.

One of the most awkward–and wonderful–things in the film is how little chemistry Nicholson and Robinson have with one another. Their scenes, even though the characters aren’t hostile, have this dreadful discomfort about them. Rafelson’s got a lot of trust in Nicholson, Nicholson’s got a lot of trust in Rafelson. It works out.

The King of Marvin Gardens is an exceptional film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Jacob Brackman, based on a story by Rafelson and Brackman; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by John F. Link; production designer, Toby Carr Rafelson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), Scatman Crothers (Lewis) and Charles LaVine (Grandfather).


Smile (1975, Michael Ritchie)

Smile is the story of the week of a regional beauty pageant in a northern California town. It’s not exactly the story of the pageant, though it does look at some of the contestants, but it also looks at how the event affects the locals.

Bruce Dern gets top billing and he does tie most of the story threads together. He’s a car salesman and the lead pageant judge. His son (Eric Shea) gets in trouble related to the pageant contestants, his best friend (Nicholas Pryor) is married to the pageant organizer (Barbara Feldon). Through Feldon, there’s a lot more with the pageant itself, but no real direct ties. The film’s two salient character relationships are between Dern and Pryor and how they experience their lives and then between Joan Prather (the film’s closest thing to a protagonist) and Annette O’Toole as two contestants who are rooming together for the week.

While director Ritchie is fantastic and Richard A. Harris’s editing is amazing, Jerry Belson’s script is the thing to Smile. He’s got a lot of great jokes, these sad, little realistic jokes. There are a couple moments–usually with the direction and editing helping a lot–of uproarious humor. But Smile is usually very real and very depressing.

Excellent performances from the entire cast, particularly Dern, Pryor, Prather and O’Toole. Feldon’s good too, as is Michael Kidd as the down-on-his-luck Hollywood choreographer.

Smile is wonderful; Belson and Ritchie create a magnificent clash of hope and reality.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Michael Ritchie; written by Jerry Belson; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Richard A. Harris; released by United Artists.

Starring Bruce Dern (Big Bob Freelander), Barbara Feldon (Brenda DiCarlo), Joan Prather (Robin Hudson), Annette O’Toole (Doria), Nicholas Pryor (Andy DiCarlo), Michael Kidd (Tommy French), Geoffrey Lewis (Wilson Shears), Titos Vandis (Emile), Dennis Dugan (Logan), Melanie Griffith (Karen), Maria O’Brien (Maria), Colleen Camp (Connie), Paul Benedict (Orren Brooks), William Traylor (Ray Brandy), Dick McGarvin (Ted Farley), Eric Shea (Little Bob), Adam Reed (Freddy), Brad Thompson (Chuck), Denise Nickerson (Shirley), Caroline Williams (Helga), Kate Sarchet (Judy) and George Skaff (Dr. Malvert).


The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967, Roger Corman)

Director Corman and–probably more so–writer Howard Browne construct The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as a docudrama. Paul Frees narrates the entire film, introducing characters, providing their backstories–Corman sometimes mutes the film’s dialogue (during boring parts) so Frees can explain a little about the person. Massacre might be mostly authentic in its portrayal of the titular event, but it doesn’t matter. Frees, Browne and Corman could sell anything.

The film’s layered. It opens after the massacre and quietly backs up to explain it. It uses flashbacks a couple more times, specifically to explain the hatred between gangsters Al Capone (Jason Robards) and Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker). Corman doesn’t open with either of them. Instead he opens with George Segal as a sociopathic gangster working for Meeker. It’s good Segal and Robards never have a scene together because they would have–and gloriously so–ripped the sets apart with their teeth.

Robards’s performance has a couple weak spots, but he still transfixes. As written, the character ranges from sorrow to anger immediately and Robards plays it beautifully. Segal has almost no quite moments; watching him is waiting for him to erupt. But he always remains somehow likable, probably because no one in Massacre is particularly likable. Segal just has the charisma to weather it.

Other excellent performances include Clint Ritchie and Frank Silvera (though the film loses track of Silvera).

Corman’s got some great shots; Milton R. Krasner’s an able photographer. Perfect score from Lionel Newman.

Massacre is fantastic.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Roger Corman; written by Howard Browne; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by William B. Murphy; music by Lionel Newman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jason Robards (Al Capone), George Segal (Peter Gusenberg), Ralph Meeker (Bugs Moran), Jean Hale (Myrtle), Clint Ritchie (Jack McGurn), Frank Silvera (Nick Sorello), Joseph Campanella (Albert Wienshank), Richard Bakalyan (John Scalise), David Canary (Frank Gusenberg), Bruce Dern (Johnny May), Harold J. Stone (Frank Nitti), Kurt Kreuger (James Clark), Paul Richards (Charles Fischetti), Joe Turkel (Jake Guzik), Milton Frome (Adam Heyer), Mickey Deems (Reinhold Schwimmer), John Agar (Dion O’Bannion), Celia Lovsky (Josephine Schwimmer), Tom Reese (Ted Newberry), Jan Merlin (Willie Marks), Alexander D’Arcy (Joe Aiello), Reed Hadley (Hymie Weiss), Gus Trikonis (Rio), Charles Dierkop (Salvanti), Tom Signorelli (Bobo Borotto), Rico Cattani (Albert Anselmi), Alex Rocco (Diamond), Leo Gordon (Heitler), Jonathan Haze (Boris Chapman), Dick Miller (Adolph Muller) and Jack Nicholson (Gino); narrated by Paul Frees.


The ‘burbs (1989, Joe Dante)

Until The 'burbs gets around to actually having to pay off on its premise–the strange new neighbors are really serial killers–it’s quite good. There’s no way the third act pay off can deliver and the film’s quality takes a number of hits in the last half hour or so. Olsen’s script is, technically, at fault… but it’s hard to think of how the narrative could have unfolded and not had problems.

What the film does have, even with the last act problems, is some of Dante’s most enthusiastic work. The film’s perfectly casted–I counted three times the actors were trying not to laugh during a scene–and he gets these great performances. Olsen’s script sets up these fine characters, Dante and the cast are able to turn them into something even better… then the script abandons them. At one point, Carrie Fisher just disappears. Instead of figuring out how to incorporate her (or even just keep her around), Olsen sends her away. Coincidentally, Fisher disappears about the time the film hits the bumps.

Tom Hanks is very good in the lead. He manages not to get overshadowed by Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun, who are a lot wackier. Wendy Schaal’s good as Dern’s wife (she too disappears though) and Brother Theodore is hilarious as one of the villains. Corey Feldman is a tad broad… and looks a little old for a teenager.

Amazing Jerry Goldsmith score.

With its marvelous Dante direction, The 'burbs is almost a success.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; written by Dana Olsen; director of photography, Robert M. Stevens; edited by Marshall Harvey; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, James H. Spencer; produced by Larry Brezner and Michael Finnell; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Hanks (Ray Peterson), Bruce Dern (Lt. Mark Rumsfield), Carrie Fisher (Carol Peterson), Rick Ducommun (Art Weingartner), Corey Feldman (Ricky Butler), Wendy Schaal (Bonnie Rumsfield), Henry Gibson (Dr. Werner Klopek), Brother Theodore (Uncle Reuben Klopek), Courtney Gains (Hans Klopek) and Gale Gordon (Walter Seznick).


The Hole (2009, Joe Dante)

The Hole is, I believe, intended to be a family-friendly (I can’t believe PG-13 movies are now supposed to be family-friendly) horror film directed by Joe Dante. As opposed to Dante directing a family-friendly horror film. It’s Joe Dante doing work for hire, something I’m not really familiar with him doing often.

Dante’s direction here is fantastic, even if there are the occasional “3D ready” shots. He actually doesn’t do too many of them and instead concentrates on maintaining a constantly ominous atmosphere. Only after the story resolves itself does the narrative get predictable and start falling apart. I’ve never seen those “Goosebumps” videos, but I imagine they’re a lot like the last fifteen minutes of The Hole.

But until then, it goes very, very well.

All of the credit goes to Dante, who doesn’t just construct the atmosphere, he gets good performances out of his young cast. The film’s short and small–it takes place almost entirely in one house–but the low budget doesn’t reveal itself until the end, when it wouldn’t matter anyway. So Dante’s basically got three actors–Chris Massoglia, Nathan Gamble and Haley Bennett–acting scared in a restricted area.

The script unfortunately requires Massoglia to frequently be way too thoughtless when it comes to younger brother Gamble’s safety, but Dante makes it painless.

Teri Polo has almost nothing to do. Her limited screen time still drags.

The Hole should have been a lot better, but it’s still rather decent. And just beautifully directed.

Great Dick Miller cameo too.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; written by Mark L. Smith; director of photography, Theo van de Sande; edited by Marshall Harvey; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, Brentan Harron; produced by Claudio Fäh, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak and Vicki Sotheran; released by Bold Films.

Starring Chris Massoglia (Dane Thompson), Haley Bennett (Julie Campbell), Nathan Gamble (Lucas Thompson), Bruce Dern (Carl) and Teri Polo (Susan).


Last Man Standing (1996, Walter Hill)

Before Last Man Standing came out–when it was, presumably, going to be a hit because Willis was on one of his career upswings–I remember seeing Walter Hill say this film, his film, was going to improve on the source material (that source material being Kurosawa’s Yojimbo).

Hill borrows more liberally from the first remake of that film, A Fistful of Dollars, and adds some idiotic ingredients. The narration from Bruce Willis is atrocious, which isn’t a surprise, but worse is Willis’s performance. He got a big payday for this one and he’s clearly not interested in it, which isn’t surprising. It’s visibly–thanks to terrible performances from Bruce Dern, Ned Eisenberg, Michael Imperioli and Leslie Mann–a disaster. Hill’s script is full of lousy dialogue and is poorly paced, as he doesn’t seem to understand the viewer is going to recognize some of his “homage” to Dollars.

The music, from Ry Cooder, is awful. The opening, with it and Willis’s narration, would be enough to get up and walk out of the theater and demand a refund. It was a huge bomb (it barely made enough money in the States to cover Willis’s paycheck, let alone the other costs).

Hill doesn’t seem to understand what he should and shouldn’t be doing. Instead, he makes this confusing reality where the viewer has to participate instead of enjoy… and Willis brings zero charisma to the role. He does a lousy Clint Eastwood.

It’s not even worth watching as a curiosity.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Hill; screenplay by Hill, based on a film by Kikushima Ryuzo and Kurosawa Akira; director of photography, Lloyd Ahern II; edited by Freeman A. Davies; music by Ry Cooder; production designer, Gary Wissner; produced by Hill and Arthur M. Sarkissian; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Bruce Willis (John Smith), Bruce Dern (Sheriff Ed Galt), William Sanderson (Joe Monday), Christopher Walken (Hickey), David Patrick Kelly (Doyle), Karina Lombard (Felina), Ned Eisenberg (Fredo Strozzi), Alexandra Powers (Lucy Kolinski), Michael Imperioli (Giorgio Carmonte), Ken Jenkins (Capt. Tom Pickett), R.D. Call (Jack McCool), Ted Markland (Deputy Bob), Leslie Mann (Wanda) and Patrick Kilpatrick (Finn).


Diggstown (1992, Michael Ritchie)

I forgot MGM still made movies in the 1990s. The aura of bankruptcy and failure has surrounded Leo for so long… it’s distracting. I remember my Diggstown laserdisc sleeve. It’s been at least ten years since I’ve seen the movie. It’s still a great time and I’m left, as I always was when finishing it, perplexed. How did James Woods not have a successful film career as a leading man? Diggstown might have even his last major lead role.

Diggstown has a large cast–figure twenty recognizable cast members–and the casting is brilliant. It might have been the first movie I ever saw Oliver Platt in. The film’s broken up into three parts (not the acts, however). The prison prologue, the set-up, then the long boxing sequence (Louis Gossett Jr. fighting ten guys, which is why the cast is so large). Each section feels different, with Woods owning the prologue, but Platt getting the most attention in the opening of the set-up. It’s a bombastic role and Platt’s perfect for it. There isn’t a bad performance in the entire film (Ritchie’s a fine director of actors), but the acting from Platt, Woods and Gossett is just amazing. Each one of them turn in singular performances–so it’s unfortunate Diggstown doesn’t offer them much more to do.

The film’s funny, endearing and constantly enjoyable, but there’s a certain lack of depth to it. There’s nuance in the film–when Gossett and Woods meet up at the beginning, they’re having an intricately guarded conversation, combining the acting, the direction and the editing. But the nuance doesn’t carry over to the film. It has a simple close. There isn’t much opportunity for a deeper story here, but there’s some (the flirtation between Woods and Heather Graham evaporates as the boxing part of the film begins).

Instead, it’s just a good time, with a great, self-aware performance from Bruce Dern. I’m not always a fan, but when Dern’s on, he’s really on. The supporting cast–John Short, Duane Davis, even Michael DeLorenzo–has some standouts as well.

Diggstown is a well put together film–Ritchie doesn’t have a single unsure directorial moment, every move is confident–and it makes Diggstown one of the finer junior members of the era’s films. Diggstown is a contained, inclusive filmic narrative–the viewer isn’t supposed to engage with Woods as a celebrity, only his performance. There’s even a “Roots” reference and, even if it was supposed to be an in-joke with Gossett, it doesn’t come off as one.

Before I finish up, I need to mention James Newton Howard’s score. The score’s great, really changing pace as the film does–not only does Diggstown have those twenty or so characters for the viewer to remember, it has a lot of locations too–Howard keeps up with everything, developing the score inline with the narrative.

On one hand, I wish Diggstown had a little more depth–the film has room for it, Ritchie and the cast can certainly handle it, but maybe not… It’s a solid, smart, well-made comedy. I remember when I first saw it, on videotape, I couldn’t wait to see what Woods and Platt did next. Platt did well enough, Woods provided a frequent disappointment. Even this time through, sixteen years after it came out, it’s hard not to be excited at the talent on display in the film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Ritchie; screenplay by Steven McKay, based on a novel by Leonard Wise; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Don Zimmerman; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Stephen Hendrickson; produced by Robert Schaffel; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

Starring James Woods (Gabriel Caine), Louis Gossett Jr. (Roy Palmer), Bruce Dern (John Gillon), Oliver Platt (Fitz), Heather Graham (Emily Forrester), Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb (Wolf Forrester), Thomas Wilson Brown (Robby Gillon), Duane Davis (Hambone Busby), David Fresco (Fish) and Willie Green (Hammerhead Hagan).


The Driver (1978, Walter Hill)

There are limits to how much patented Walter Hill machismo one person can take and The Driver pushes its limit early on. Well, maybe not too early on, since the movie runs ninety minutes. It doesn’t help Ryan O’Neal doesn’t talk, Isabelle Adjani chokes through her English dialogue, and Bruce Dern turns in an exceptionally lousy performance. Dern’s bad acting is is a giant flare warning one away from The Driver. No one trying to make a good film–I mean Adjani’s character could just be learning English too–would allow Dern’s performance. But Hill isn’t trying to make a good movie. He’s trying to make a tough, macho movie, making his casting choice of O’Neal hilarious.

O’Neal’s not particularly bad–since he doesn’t have much dialogue, there’s a lot less of a chance it’s going to be as terrible as the other characters’ dialogue–but he looks lost. His expression reminds of a deer trapped in the headlights, or an actor who stumbled on to the wrong set one morning and couldn’t get off.

Hill spent a lot of time choreographing his chase scenes, but they’re not any good. They’re gimmicky and boring. He reduces the police cars to objects, not vehicles containing people, in an attempt to desensitize the viewer for when O’Neal causes the cop cars to flip over or crash. Then he makes the cop hunting O’Neal (Dern in that atrocious performance) a vicious, corrupt bastard, so the audience will immediately side with baby-face O’Neal. I mean, he was in Paper Moon, after all.

Maybe if Hill’s direction weren’t so artless, The Driver would be a little more tolerable. There’s a mythic director’s cut to the film, running thirty minutes–thirty terrible minutes, I’m sure–longer. I can’t imagine how much more bad dialogue, boring action and lousy performances one film could contain. Dern’s real bad in this film, I’m not exaggerating; it’s one of the worst performances I can remember seeing from a movie not lensed in someone’s backyard. And even the music’s bad. But on the plus side, I think the opening titles were competently presented. No visible misspellings or capitalization errors.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Walter Hill; director of photography, Philip Lathrop; edited by Tina Hirsch and Robert K. Lambert; music by Michael Small; production designer, Harry Horner; produced by Lawrence Gordon; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ryan O’Neal (The Driver), Bruce Dern (The Detective), Isabelle Adjani (The Player), Ronee Blakley (The Connection), Matt Clark (Red Plainclothesman), Felice Orlandi (Gold Plainclothesman), Joseph Walsh (Glasses) and Rudy Ramos (Teeth).


Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969, Burt Kennedy)

From the first scene of Support Your Local Sheriff!, I thought of one thing: Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks lifted the tone of the frontier townspeople scenes, just giving them ribald dialogue. In Sheriff, the humor poked at the Western stereotypes is smarter and funnier. The characters themselves are–in character–aware of the absurdities of the genre (without having to drive off set). It’s surprising, as Sheriff is on DVD, no one else has ever made this observation about the two films….

Sheriff sets itself firmly in a traditional Western context with its cast. In addition to having Walter Brennan in it, it has Harry Morgan and Jack Elam. Seeing Brennan do comedy is a wonderful sight. James Garner is great in the lead and he just walks through the film. It keeps him busy and keeps him funny and Sheriff reminded me there once was a Western comedy genre. The Western used to be such an American film staple, it had room for its own subcategories. The Western–with a reusable set–used to be enough. Get some actors, a script, and you could turn out a good (but not great) film. Kevin Costner basically followed that principle when he made Open Range, only applied his more developed reasoning of the genre to the principle–and he made a great film there.

Maybe no one ever recognized Sheriff because it’s a comedy, not a spoof. You’re laughing at the characters and situations or along with the characters, not along with the actors and there’s a substantial difference. Since it is a comedy, Sheriff has a number of nice character relationships going. Actually, all of the character relationships Garner is involved in (with his boss Morgan, his sidekick Elam, nemesis Brennan) are great. More, there’s the romance with Joan Hackett, who’s hilarious as Morgan’s clumsy daughter. Her scenes with Garner have this playful dialogue where each statement goes through an examination by the other character then a reexamination by the original speaker. It’s hard to explain, but it’s quite funny. Also funny is Bruce Dern as Brennan’s dimwitted son who sets off the film’s series of events. I never knew Dern could be so funny. He should have gotten an Oscar for it.

Support Your Local Sheriff! operates on a level anyone with a reasonable knowledge of Westerns can understand (you need to know Walter Brennan and recognize Jack Elam). Or maybe not. My fiancée doesn’t know Walter Brennan’s Western films (I don’t think), but she did recognize Jack Elam, and she was laughing throughout….

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Burt Kennedy; produced and written by William Bowers; director of photography, Harry Stradling Jr.; edited by George W. Brooks; music by Jeff Alexander; released by United Artists.

Starring James Garner (Jason McCullough), Joan Hackett (Prudy Perkins), Walter Brennan (Pa Danby), Harry Morgan (Olly Perkins), Jack Elam (Jake), Henry Jones (Henry Jackson), Bruce Dern (Joe Danby), Willis Bouchey (Thomas Devery), Gene Evans (Tom Danby), Walter Burke (Fred Johnson), Dick Peabody (Luke Danby) and Chubby Johnson (Brad).


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