James Garner

Twilight (1998, Robert Benton)

Unfortunate bit of trivia to start us off—Twilight is supposed to be called The Magic Hour, but just around the time of release, Magic Johnson’s high profile (and quickly cancelled) TV show had the same title and they changed the movie’s title. Titles are both important and not. They definitely establish a work’s intention—you may know nothing about something but once you see the title, you ostensibly know something. The problem with Twilight’s title change is two-fold. While, sure, Twilight is The Magic Hour as far as a time of day when Los Angeles looks particularly hot and haunting, but Twilight also carries with it some implications given the film’s all about being old and dying. Whereas The Magic Hour does not carry those similar implications.

So about a hundred and fifty words to say, you most likely know it as Twilight, but it will always be The Magic Hour to me.

Twilight opens with Paul Newman having a beer at a Mexican resort, then another. He’s on the trail of seventeen year-old Reese Witherspoon; she’s run away with inappropriate older boyfriend Liev Schreiber. We get a little of the Newman charm as he extricates Witherspoon from Schreiber, but things soon go wrong; Newman’s passive gender expectations get him shot.

Fast forward two years and Newman’s living above the garage of seventies Hollywood stars Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Newman does odd jobs around the house, plays cards with Hackman, flirts with Sarandon, bickers with their daughter… Witherspoon. Hackman felt bad for wounded Newman and gave him a place to stay. Then Hackman got sick and they needed Newman around. The inciting action is Hackman asking Newman to run an errand… which may or may not have something to do with Hackman’s simultaneous news—his cancer is back and he’s not going to be doing anymore treatment, which is pissing off Sarandon.

What unfolds is a mess of dreams and nightmares. Newman’s got his own dreams and nightmares, but he’s wading through everyone else’s. There are the older folks’—retired ex-cops James Garner and M. Emmet Walsh, who’ve gone on to the private sector with differing results; Newman’s old cop partner, Stockard Channing, who’s got commonalities with the old ex-cops but very different dreams; Giancarlo Esposito’s Newman’s de facto old partner from private investigating days, still starstruck at the possible glamour of the profession. You’re in Hollywood, even if you avoid it, it’s a magical place where dreams come true. Even the obvious villains—Margo Martindale’s blackmailer, for instance, or Schreiber—are just mired in the cultural magical thinking. The script—by director Benton and Richard Russo—does an exceptional job layering in all that subtext. Essential in getting that subtext across is Piotr Sobocinski’s lush, deliberate photography, Elmer Bernstein’s lush, deliberate score, Carol Littleton’s lush, deliberate editing, and David Gropman’s… no, not lush and deliberate, but sharp yet functional production design. Twilight is very much about people in their chosen environments. The difference between locations speak volumes about the characters who live in them, who visit them, as well as the setting in general.

Because Twilight is exceptionally smart.

And should’ve gotten whatever title it wanted.

(The Magic Hour).

Anyway. Great performances. Benton and Russo’s script provides just the right amount of foundation, Benton’s direction stretches the canvas—all the mixed metaphors—and the actors then inhabit and expand. Should’ve gone with some kind of sculpture thing.

The best performance, just in terms of pure unadulterated success, is Martindale. She’s magnificent. But the most successful with the least is Esposito, who seems to be taking what ought to be a caricature and turning it into the film’s realest person. Witherspoon’s got some really good moments, ditto Schreiber. But it’s all about the older adults—though Newman, Hackman, and Garner are a decade and a half (at least) older than Sarandon. It’s all about the complicated relationships Newman’s forged with Hackman, Garner, and Sarandon; as the film progresses, we find out more and more about Newman before the opening mishap in Mexico. Twilight’s a Raymond Chandler story about seventies Hollywood done twenty years later with Hollywood stars playing type and against but also a character study. Kind of more a character story. It’s not really an L.A. movie only because Benton doesn’t dwell. He’s all about the locations, but showcasing the action occurring in them.

Because even though Benton does a great job with the supporting actors—Sarandon the most-it’s all about Newman. It’s not clear in the first scene—the Mexico flashback—because Newman’s got on sunglasses, but the film’s all about his performance. About how the events wear on him, how he reacts to them. Benton makes his cast sit in their emotional states—freezing them, just for a second or two—and shows how the pressure is crushing them. Not the pressure of their failures or successes, but the Hollywood dreams.

Again, should’ve been called The Magic Hour. Or something else entirely.

Hackman and Sarandon are both great. Garner’s got this wonderful flashy ex-cop turned studio security turned old codger part. He’s really enthusiastic about taking that extra reaction time. Hackman seems used to it, Sarandon’s different—but Garner’s visibly (albeit reservedly) jazzed; the performance does a lot to establish Garner’s place in the story, which is more often than not offscreen. Hackman and Sarandon, Garner, they’re places Newman visits. Sometimes for a long time, but he’s always a guest in those places. It’s very a Chandler-esque narrative.

Because Twilight is very much within the genre constraints of a mystery, which is the only thing wrong with it—Russo and Benton are careful never to strain said constraints too hard; they’re too respectful of genre. But what they do—what the film does—is magical enough.

Because it should’ve been called the damn Magic Hour.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; written by Benton and Richard Russo; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Carol Littleton; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, David Gropman; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; produced by Arlene Donovan and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar).



Mister Buddwing (1966, Delbert Mann)

Mister Buddwing is kind of amazing. And exceptional. But only if both those descriptors are used as pejoratives. Like. Wow. What a mess it is.

What’s funny is how director Mann maybe sees what he’s trying to do with the film but doesn’t see how he’s not achieving it. The film wants to be edgy mainstream and is instead occasionally rather painfully square. Most of the problem is leading man James Garner. He hasn’t got a handle on the performance—getting no help from Dale Wasserman’s screenplay and then somehow even less from Mann. Worse, Mann uses a lot of close-ups on Garner during the movie, usually for reaction shots, and he’s never good enough. He’s rarely ever giving a passing performance. Like, he just doesn’t get the part. No one does, apparently.

Garner wakes up in the first scene in Central Park, with Mann shooting in first person point of the view. The titles roll as Garner (we’ll soon find out) goes into the Plaza Hotel and looks at himself in a mirror. Pretty soon we figure out he’s an amnesiac who remembers absolutely no details of his life. Not even his name. He gets his first name from Angela Lansbury, who he calls when he finds her number in his pocket. Lansbury’s not great, but she’s a lot of fun. And the film will go awhile without any fun. So she should be in it more.

The last name he makes up coincidentally, narrating about it. Though it makes no sense why he so desperately needs a last name other than the script is trying to make the title’s relevance painfully clear. Garner’s narration is terrible. Poorly written, poorly delivered. And then it’s gone, which is weird because regardless of it being good or not, it makes sense. Garner spends a lot of the movie wandering around Manhattan by himself. It might help to know what’s going on since his expression has three varieties of blank. Blank ought to work for the character. Wooden even. But it doesn’t, because Buddwing is so amazing in how it never works.

There’s this amazing scene where Garner has been followed by an old man—the first half of the movie is lousy with over-interested supporting players talking to Garner so there can be exposition. Garner will eventually yell about how he can’t remember his identity; almost every scene has him yelling about not remembering. So the old man (George Voskovec) wants to blackmail Garner into being his manservant. It’s a weird, dumb scene and does absolutely nothing. Doing nothing would be fine if the film wanted to do nothing and, until that point, it seems like it might not want to do much. Garner has just had the first flashback scene, with Katharine Ross appearing as Garner’s years ago love interest. He thinks he knows her—in the present—then we get this long flashback sequence of obnoxiously cut together scenes—Fredric Steinkamp’s editing is really bad, both conceptually and practically (though a lot of both have got to be Mann’s fault)—where Ross plays the woman she’s not. Just in Garner’s imagination. Only it’s unclear how much of the flashback he remembers and how much of it is just for the audience’s edification. Narration might help clear it up. Even bad narration.

Only there isn’t any. There’s Voskovec harassing Garner instead.

It’s such a bad, deliberate move. Especially since the return to the present sequence opens up the film’s periphery as far as people go; Buddwing’s New York is really empty. Except cars. Mann’s inconsistent if there are people around Garner—who never interact because the film’s just the story of one ant among millions—sometimes there are montages with people in the background, sometimes the city’s empty. But there are always cars in the distance. It’s like they couldn’t get the shot they needed so they took the one they got and it didn’t work, which is pretty much the movie overall.

Eventually Suzanne Pleshette comes into the movie and then there’s a flashback where she plays the girl Ross had previously played. Later it’s Jean Simmons. Now, the flashback sequences are written even worse than the present, because they’re hurried along stylistically, but basically they’re all about Garner becoming more and more of an abusive shitheel. Now, the film would never characterize it as abuse, but it’s scary intense. Mann and Wasserman need to keep Garner sympathetic in the present so they have to demonize the “girls” in the past. They even do it in the present when Lansbury makes a too minor but very welcome near third act return.

Only then in comes Simmons and her present tense mystery woman—infinitely wealthy and drunk and with a past sounding just like the flashbacks and Garner’s memories. At least it seems like he remembers the flashbacks by the time the movie gets to Simmons. He never really shows it, not in performance or dialogue, but Wasserman’s script definitely implies it by the third act. We just missing it, even though the movie is supposed to be about Garner finding out his identity, not the audience finding it. Instead, the film informs the audience first, Garner offscreen. Dumb. And weird.

The third act actually has potential. It’s the strangest thing. If they’d pulled off the third act, Buddwing would probably work, even with Garner’s flat performance and Mann’s jarred direction. Because Simmons is fantastic. In the present. In the past she gets into the problem Ross and Pleshette had; Wasserman writes the part something awful. But in the present, just having fun, Simmons is fantastic. Makes up for Garner even.

Pleshette is affected in the present, but still sort of sympathetic. She’s nothing but sympathetic in the past because she gets the brunt of Garner’s abuse. It’s not really interesting—her affected present day performance—but at least it’s distinctive. Ross is background in her section, which seems weird since Lansbury at least gets her scenes. Ross just gets to be stalked. But in that genial sixties way because Wasserman’s shallow.

Strange small part for Jack Gilford—who wants to convince Garner he’s Jewish because Wasserman’s script is weird in addition to shallow. Joe Mantell’s terrible as a cabbie who seemingly tells Garner an important story. Raymond St. Jacques comes off best, even if he’s poorly written. He’s in the Simmons section and gets to enjoy in its heightened quality. Nichelle Nichols has a tiny part and is phenomenal. More than anything else in the film—even Simmons, who’s stuck with Garner—Nichols seems like she’s visiting from the alternate reality’s Mister Buddwing where it’s great. She definitely gets cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s best work in the film.

Fredericks shoots a really flat New York city, seemingly unintentionally. Or is it supposed to be so dull even when it’s obviously not.

Kenyon Hopkins’s score is similarly disjointed. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s wrong. The one thing the music needs to be right about, it’s never right about, even when it’s good. But it gets bad and wrong at some point near the third act and never gets any better. Even when Simmons shows up. She succeeds in the harshest of conditions.

Mister Buddwing would need to be seen to be believed. But it doesn’t need to be believed.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Dale Wasserman, based on a novel by Evan Hunter; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Fredric Steinkamp; music by Kenyon Hopkins; produced by Douglas Laurence and Mann; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Garner (Mister Buddwing), Jean Simmons (3rd Grace), Suzanne Pleshette (2nd Grace), Katharine Ross (1st Grace), George Voskovec (Shabby Old Man), Jack Gilford (Mr. Schwartz), Joe Mantell (1st Cab Driver), Raymond St. Jacques (Hank), Nichelle Nichols (Dice Player), and Angela Lansbury (Gloria).


The Great Escape (1963, John Sturges)

While The Great Escape runs nearly three hours, director Sturges and screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett never let it feel too long. Part of the quick pace comes from the first half hour being told in something like real time and another big part of it is the aftermath of the escape taking up the last hour. So for ninety minutes, the audience is getting to know and like the characters. It gives the escape aftermath a breakneck pace, even though Sturges doesn't do much different.

The Elmer Bernstein score also plays a large part. It's frequently upbeat and congratulatory to the characters (and sometimes the audience), but Bernstein also bakes in the possibility of tragedy. The music can go from light to dark in a second and the film trains the audience to prepare for such moves.

Also contributing to the film's relative brevity is how the script pairs characters up. Usually it's a strong personage with a weaker one, but the actors do such a good job–and Sturges often sticks with scenes of characters' frailties until they're uncomfortable–the pairings are never hollow. Even Steve McQueen, who gets a huge solo set piece at the end, starts off with a sidekick or two.

Most of the acting is spectacular. Richard Attenborough might give the best performance; him or James Donald. They both have the most responsibility and it clearly weighs on them. But James Garner, McQueen, Donald Pleasence, Gordon Jackson, Hannes Messemer–also all excellent.

It's an outstanding picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Sturges; screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, based on the book by Paul Brickhill; director of photography, Daniel L. Fapp; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Elmer Bernstein; released by United Artists.

Starring Steve McQueen (Hilts), James Garner (Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Bartlett), James Donald (Ramsey), Charles Bronson (Danny), Donald Pleasence (Blythe), James Coburn (Sedgwick), Hannes Messemer (Von Luger), David McCallum (Ashley-Pitt), Gordon Jackson (MacDonald), John Leyton (Willie), Angus Lennie (Ives), Nigel Stock (Cavendish), Jud Taylor (Goff) and Robert Graf (Werner).


Maverick (1994, Richard Donner)

Maverick is a lot of fun. In fact, it’s so much fun, when the film runs into problems in its second act, it’s impossible to be disappointed. It’s still so likable, one just feels bad it doesn’t maintain its quality.

There are two major problems. The first is the music. When the film starts–and for the majority of the run time–it’s a Western. It’s a very funny Western and has an affable Randy Newman score. Then it becomes a poker game movie… and the music inexplicably becomes modern country Western music. There’s one painful montage in particular where the music choice saps the energy of the film.

The second problem is the conclusion. William Goldman has a lot of fun with the twists at Maverick‘s finish and they’re nice to watch unravel… but it’s still a lot of padding. Alfred Molina’s character, for example, gets summarized in the conclusion instead of getting his due.

Molina gives the film’s most impressive performance. He’s creepy and dangerous; a very physical performance without much show of force. Just fantastic.

Mel Gibson’s great, so’s Jodie Foster, so’s James Garner. But the film’s made for them. I guess Foster, who doesn’t usually bring as much personality, is the standout of the three.

Graham Greene’s hilarious too.

Donner does fine. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond conceive an excellent Western. Donner primarily concentrates on the mood and the actors. Zsigmond and the scenery handle the rest.

Maverick is a joy, even with its bumps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the television series created by Roy Huggins; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Stuart Baird and Michael Kelly; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by Donner and Bruce Davey; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Mel Gibson (Bret Maverick), Jodie Foster (Annabelle Bransford), James Garner (Marshal Zane Cooper), Graham Greene (Joseph), Alfred Molina (Angel), James Coburn (Commodore Duvall), Dub Taylor (Room Clerk), Geoffrey Lewis (Matthew Wicker), Paul L. Smith (The Archduke), Dan Hedaya (Twitchy, Riverboat Poker Player), Dennis Fimple (Stuttering), Denver Pyle (Old Gambler on Riverboat), Clint Black (Sweet-Faced Gambler) and Max Perlich (Johnny Hardin).


Legalese (1998, Glenn Jordan)

Legalese’s cast order is a tad deceptive. First, James Garner headlines it. While he does have a large role, he’s not the protagonist—and he’s not even the regular likable Garner character. Legalese plays on that assumption, however. Then there’s Gina Gershon, who has a small part (though the film opens with her). Then it’s Mary-Louise Parker, who probably should be second-billed. Fourth is finally Edward Kerr… Legalese’s lead.

The film—from back when cable was doing inventive TV movies, not TV shows—is often excellent. It’s a light black comedy with Garner as a celebrity lawyer, Kerr as his protegee and Gershon as the client. Stewart Copeland’s score alone might make the film worthwhile, but Billy Ray comes up with this fantastic relationship for Kerr and Parker.

Kerr’s good in the lead; he can do earnest quite well and he never steps on the other actors, which might be why he never made it off TV. But Legalese works because of what Parker brings to it. Director Jordan seems to understand how essential she is to the film—even her reaction expressions—so it’s inexplicable why she’s mostly silent for the finish. It sends Legalese off on a slightly sour, easily avoidable note.

Still, it’s a good film. It overcomes Kathleen Turner’s broad performance as a media harpy and the strange inclusion of Brian Doyle-Murray as Kerr’s father (slash personified conscious).

Jordan does a fine job.

It’s too bad it doesn’t live up to its potential.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Glenn Jordan; written by Billy Ray; director of photography, Tobias A. Schliessler; edited by Bill Blunden; music by Stewart Copeland; production designer, Charles Rosen; produced by Cindy Hornickel and Jordan; aired by Turner Network Television.

Starring James Garner (Norman Keane), Gina Gershon (Angela Beale), Mary-Louise Parker (Rica Martin), Edward Kerr (Roy Guyton), Brian Doyle-Murray (Harley Guyton), Kathleen Turner (Brenda Whitlass), Scott Michael Campbell (Randy Mucklan) and Keene Curtis (Judge Handley).


They Only Kill Their Masters (1972, James Goldstone)

I don’t know if I can think of a more mild mystery than They Only Kill Their Masters. It’s a solid vehicle for James Garner, giving him a lot of leading man stuff to do and a fair amount of internal conflict. But it’s so slight, so genial, it doesn’t leave much of an impression.

Some of the film’s problems stem from the running time. Just under a 100 minutes, there’s not enough time to develop Garner on his own and have him investigate a murder (especially since he’s also got to be the one to discover it is a murder) and romance Katharine Ross. The romance kind of makes Masters special–Garner’s character fills out because he and Ross get together–and it’s maybe the only time I’ve seen Ross play a regular person. She does it very well.

But the romance eventually has to go to a back burner, to make time for the mystery, which is resolved terribly. There are two major revelations within eight minutes of each other and neither are particularly interesting.

Worse, the amazing supporting cast is mostly done by the end, so it’s all rapid fire resolution.

When the film’s not Garner investigating or Garner and Ross, it’s usually Garner and a supporting cast member in a nice scene. Maybe the best is Edmond O’Brien, who’s not just hilarious, but shows what Garner’s used to dealing with on a daily basis, providing some context.

It’s a decent, sometimes really good, movie. It’s just underwhelming overall.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by James Goldstone; written by Lane Slate; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by Edward A. Biery; music by Perry Botkin Jr.; produced by William Belasco; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Garner (Abel), Katharine Ross (Kate), Hal Holbrook (Watkins), Harry Guardino (Capt. Streeter), June Allyson (Mrs. Watkins), Christopher Connelly (John), Tom Ewell (Walter), Peter Lawford (Campbell), Edmond O’Brien (George), Arthur O’Connell (Ernie), Ann Rutherford (Gloria) and Art Metrano (Malcolm).


Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam (2010, Joaquim Dos Santos)

Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam is not particularly good. It has a lot of problems, which I’ll enumerate, but it also has a lot of undeniable strengths.

I’ll start with those….

I mean, it’s got James Garner voicing an old wizard. That casting alone makes it worth some kind of look.

And Dos Santos conceives some good action sequences (they’re all based on Superman and Superman II), but set to the delicate electronic score, they work.

Unfortunately, the writing’s weak. Michael Jelenic is fine on dialogue, but the plotting is dumb (why is a thirteen year-old living alone—who pays rent, buys groceries?).

Additionally, there’s some terrible CG and acting. Arnold Vosloo does a Bela Lugosi impression and George Newbern’s a weak Superman.

Plus, the end is—from Superman II again—a superhero beating up a regular person for kicks.

Still, it only runs twenty-five minutes….

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos; screenplay by Michael Jelenic, based on DC Comics characters created by Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; edited by Margaret Hou; music by Benjamin Wynn and Jeremy Zuckerman; produced by Bobbie Page and Dos Santos; released by Warner Premiere.

Starring George Newbern (Superman / Clark Kent), Jerry O’Connell (Captain Marvel), Arnold Vosloo (Black Adam), Zach Callison (Billy Batson), Josh Keaton (Punk), Kevin Michael Richardson (Mister Tawky Tawny), Danica McKellar (Sally) and James Garner (Shazam).


Tank (1984, Marvin J. Chomsky)

I wonder if the U.S. Army would like to get a movie like Tank out today. The movie’s politics are… well, they’re not hilarious, but they’re so blatant, it’s stunning. It’s a pro-Army film and an intensely anti-Georgia film. It likes Tennessee though. From Tank, a future cultural historian could surmise the residents of Georgia are a bunch of fascist, backward bigots, people from Tennessee are not. The U.S. Army, this future historian would also observe, was on the cutting edge of racial equality and family rights. The first half of the film, with James Garner and family moving to a new base and getting situated. The beauty of Dan Gordon’s script–besides how well he pulls off the one liners in the second half–is the unassuming first forty minutes. Tank could be about Garner and son C. Thomas Howell following the (undeveloped) death of Howell’s older brother, or it could be about Garner and wife Shirley Jones’s marriage as he gets ready to leave the Army. In many ways, the film is about those things, with the unexpected turn of events changing the story’s course. Gordon’s script runs out of steam after a while, once Garner has broken Howell out of jail, but Tank still works on its basic level–it’s a James Garner movie. The viewer engages with it on that level first. Everything else is gravy.

The second half of the film moves awkwardly; instead of sticking with Garner, Howell and Jenilee Harrison (from “Three’s Company”) in the fugitive tank, the film moves between the cultural reaction to them being on the lam, with some time spent with evil sheriff G.D. Spradlin. Tank‘s a movie about a guy with his own personal tank who uses it to break his son out of (unjust) imprisonment, which doesn’t imply a lot of restraint, but Gordon’s script stays reasonably grounded. It’s improbable and absurd, but the first forty minutes, with Garner charming the viewer, make it pass right by. There are occasionally some problems thanks to Howell’s lame performance (he has trouble emoting and emphasizing), but Tank‘s a fine ride until its finish. The ending’s got a fair amount of tension–then descends into slapstick for its send-off of Spradlin, who’s got to be one of cinema’s evilest villains. Gordon’s script, again sticking to a semi-reality, never gives Spradlin what he deserves.

The acting is all excellent (besides Howell). James Cromwell’s good as a dimwitted (but evil) deputy, Shirley Jones is great as Garner’s wife. Her turn in Tank, which relies on her making a deep impression off just a couple scenes, reminded me she’s an actor, not just the mom from the “Partridge Family.” John Hancock and Dorian Harewood are both good in too small roles. The big surprise is Harrison. She’s fine. It’s probably the best performance out of a female actor from “Three’s Company” ever.

One big disappointment is Lalo Schifrin’s score. It’s a bad score, the kind of 1980s music I never wanted to see Schifrin’s name on. There are some synthesizers and it’s always obvious. I had high hopes when I saw Schifrin in the opening titles, but once Garner gets into the tank, the score immediately… well, tanks.

Director Chomsky almost always directed TV movies, but he’s got a fine understanding of the theatrical frame. His direction’s never awe-inspiring, but it’s impossible to imagine the film directed any other way.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky; written by Dan Gordon; director of photography, Donald H. Birnkrant; edited by Donald R. Rode; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Irwin Yablans; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Garner (Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Zack Carey), Shirley Jones (LaDonna Carey), C. Thomas Howell (Billy Carey), Mark Herrier (SSgt. Jerry Elliott), Sandy Ward (Maj. Gen. V.E. Hubik), Jenilee Harrison (Sarah), James Cromwell (Deputy Euclid Baker), Dorian Harewood (Sfc. Ed Tippet), G.D. Spradlin (Sheriff Cyrus Buelton), John Hancock (Mess MSgt. Johnson) and Guy Boyd (Sgt. Wimofsky).


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).


36 Hours (1965, George Seaton)

George Seaton is a perfectly capable director and he’s got a lot of talent as a writer, but 36 Hours is fairly light. It’s set just before D-Day–and we all know D-Day happened, so the Germans aren’t going to win the big kahuna, which leaves only the little ones. Again, James Garner probably isn’t going to die, neither is Eva Marie Saint. There’s little suspense to the conclusion of 36 Hours and a thriller needs suspense….

The film is about the Germans getting ahold of a D-Day planner right before the invasion and setting him up in a fake U.S. hospital run by Rod Taylor, where everyone speaks English and they try to convince him (Garner) he’s had amnesia for six years. The first hour of the film doesn’t even rightly belong to Garner. It’s mostly Taylor and his dealings with the SS and so on. Taylor, of course, is a sympathetic Nazi, a doctor dedicated to relieving post-traumic stress. Taylor’s really good too, better than Garner, who’s on autopilot for most of the film–his character is incredibly shallow–except the few scenes between Taylor and Garner. Seaton started as a playwright (I think), but I do remember from The Big Lift, he really knows how to write male friendships. 36 Hours has one of those good friendships, or at least the foundation for one.

Unfortunately, the friendship is not the focus of the film… actually, 36 Hours doesn’t really have a focus. It takes place over a few days–much longer than 36 hours, those 36 hours are actually used up by the half-way point–and there’s uneventful chase scenes and McGuffins everywhere. There is a wonderful sequence at the beginning, set entirely to café music. I wonder if Seaton thought of it himself or if he knew what Welles wanted for the beginning of Touch of Evil, since the two are almost identical. The music in general, by Dimitri Tiomkin, is excellent. He never goes too heavy with it and the music helps bring out some of the more amusing elements to the story. It’s also got a good love theme, and since Eva Marie Saint is really bad, those scenes need all the help they can get.

To some degree, 36 Hours just came a little too late… It was released in 1965 and it just feels too much like an attempt to capitalize on The Great Escape. Seaton’s earlier World War II work had some revealing insight into Germany, but 20 years after the war ended, most of that insight is gone. Instead, he does it for light humor. A more serious tone wouldn’t have fixed 36 Hours, but it would have helped.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Seaton; screenplay by Seaton, from a story by Carl K. Hittleman and Luis H. Vance, based on a short story by Roald Dahl; director of photography, Philip H. Lathrop; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by William Perlberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Garner (Maj. Jefferson F. Pike), Eva Marie Saint (Anna Hedler), Rod Taylor (Maj. Walter Gerber), Werner Peters (Otto Schack), John Banner (Sgt. Ernst), Russell Thorson (Gen. Allison), Alan Napier (Col. Peter MacLean), Oscar Beregi Jr. (Lt. Col. Karl Ostermann), Ed Gilbert (Capt. Abbott) and Sig Ruman (German Guard).


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