Thursday, May 21, 2015

Support Your Local Sheriff


Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: James Garner, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Bruce Dern, Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Henry Jones, Gene Evans, Dick Haynes

A delightful comedy western, using the popular theme of the stranger taming a lawless western town. The town is the Old West frontier town of Calendar, Colorado, the stranger is Jason McCullough (James Garner) a fortune seeker on his way to the promised land (No, not California, Australia).

Calender has fallen prey to the hysteria of a gold rush after the mayor’s daughter discovered gold in an open grave during a funeral ceremony. It has become a boomtown, but the only transportation route is controlled by the villainous Danby family and they ask a large fee for every shipment of gold brought out of town. The Mining Association urges the Town Council to appoint a new sheriff, but that’s easier said than done: three sheriffs were appointed in recent memory, two of them were killed, the third one ran off after no more than two hours of service.

McCullough decides to stay for a while but can't afford the prices asked for simple services in the boomtown, and therefore accepts the job of sheriff. The job isn’t particularly well-paid, but also includes board and lodging: McCullough will stay at the mayor’s place and the sheriff’s daughter Ruby will cook for him. The new sheriff breaks up a street fight, appoints the highly inadequate town drunk Jake as his deputy, and also throws the callous Joe Danby in jail after shooting a man in the saloon, thus invoking the wrath of the entire Danby clan upon himself. And of course the sheriff’s daughter falls for the new kid in town ...

The movie did fairly well at the box-office, but was not an immediate success among scholars and western buffs. Its reputation suffered from a couple of negative reviews, notably one by Roger Ebert, who thought it had no ideas of its own and was no more than a TV-movie dragged out to feature length (1). True, Support Your Local Sheriff is a town-bound western which often has the look and feel of a TV show like, for instance, Maverick, the show that had turned Garner into a household name. But there's more than meets the eye ...

Most western comedies attempt to parody the genre by turning genre clichés inside out, like for instance Cat Ballou, a clever deconstruction of the gunslinger myth, or sending them sky high, like Mel Brooks did in the immensely successful Blazing Saddles; other comedies feature incongruous figures on the frontier, characters who are completely unsuited for the role they're supposed to fulfil. Most of the time those characters are played by a reputed comedy star like Bob Hope (The Paleface) or Jerry Lewis (Pardners, also starring Dean Martin). There are a few irreverent and parodist jokes in this movie (Garner stopping old man Danby by putting a finger in the barrel of his gun), but irreverence or parody was not what the film makers were aiming at - at least not in the first place. Philip French calls it a light-hearted drama rather than a farce (2).

For most part the tradition western situations are played almost straight up. Almost, that is: not entirely. Instead of turning western clichés inside out, the movie pushes them just beyond the breaking point of credibility (3). Garner is - like many western heroes before him - the fastest gun in the West, but he only shows his skills reluctantly, because fame is a dangerous thing (a nice reference to movies like The Gunfighter about troubled gunslingers). When asked by the Town Council to prove what he’s capable of, he shoots a hole in a metal washer (twice), but he tames the town using his charm and wit. Some of the wildest jokes, like the one with the red paint (I won’t give it away) or Garner asking a time-out during a shootout, work, and work marvelously, because of the nearly realistic context in which they are shown.

Garner is wonderful in the lead and Joan Hackett is in every aspect his match; their flirtations (inevitably ending in the two having a quarrel) are priceless. Walter Brennan (reprising, in serio-comic style, his Old Man Clanton character from My Darling Clementine), Jack Elam, Harry Morgan and Bruce Dern all turn in excellent performances. Some of the dialogue (too many trite double entendres) and some parts of the score (too many quirky sounds) don’t really work, but otherwise this is a pleasure to watch from start to finish. Do yourself a favor and watch it.


* (1)
* (2) Philip French, Westerns, p. 147
* (3)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fort Massacre (1958)

Dir: Joseph M. Newman - Cast: Joel McCrea (Sgt. Vinson), Forrest Tucker (Pvt. McGurney), John Russell (Pvt. Travis), Anthony Caruso (Pawnee), Francis McDonald (Old Piute Man), Susan Cabot (Piute Girl)

Although it’s a minor production, shot on a reduced budget, this is one of the better ‘Indian westerns’ from the Fifties. It tells the familiar story of a small group of survivors who must try to get back to their outpost after an Indian attack. But if the premise is familiar, the execution is thoughtful and uncommon. The film is set in the last decade of the 19th Century, when the Apaches were fighting a desperate war in order to survive. The war has marked those who were involved in it - red or white - for life.

The soldiers have lost their Captain during the attack, and the highest person in rank, who now becomes their new leader, sergeant Vinson, is an Indian hater and a stubborn, inflexible person to boot:

"Do you think the Apaches are still following us, Serg?"
“I don't think, I follow orders, like a dog."

Actually the men think their new leader is not just stubborn, but downright insane. In various situations Vinson seems to look for a confrontation with the Apaches instead of avoiding them, as if he wants to kill as many warriors as possible. He first forces the men - who are outnumbered four to one - to ambush a group of fifty Apaches who are at a waterhole and subsequently he takes a shortcut to the fort which will lead them through hostile Indian territory. The men know that the sergeant’s family was slaughtered by Apaches and one of them, a new recruit who’s also a college graduate (functioning as the movie’s conscience) has witnessed that Vinson killed the last Apache at the waterhole in cold blood, after the warrior had raised his hands in order to surrender ...

Characterizations are a little clichéd (the Indian hater, the coward, the Indian scout, the stoic philosopher, etc.) and the script is also a bit too verbose for its own good, but the film is well-acted (especially by John Russell as the college graduate) and some of the conversations offer insight in the characters’ motivations and psychology. We know the sergeant has some good reasons to hate the Apaches, but only relatively late into the movie we learn what really happened on that fatal day, and how his wife and children died. It’s a pretty bleak and shocking story and I won’t give any more details about it in this place.

Joel McCrea
The character of Joel McCrea’s Indian hating sergeant is no doubt an echo of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, but he’s an even more extreme character: he cannot be redeemed without betraying the film’s premise, so he will not reach the end of the movie. McCrea turns in one of his best performances as the emotionally crippled man; he had a limited acting range and was even called a non-actor by some, but his minimal acting style serves the movie and the character very well. He reminded me a little of William Holden in The Wild Bunch, and oddly enough he even sounded like him (I’m talking about his voice now, not about his lines; even though he’s a doomed person, there’s no similarity to Holden’s gang leader Pike).

The film  eventually falls a little between two stools: they tried to make an 'adult' western (that's why it's so talky) and a real action movie at the same time. And then there’s this finale, set in a sort pueblo or cliff dwelling (the ‘fort massacre’ from the title) in which the soldiers, still under attack, entrench themselves; the sequence is marred by the introduction of two new characters, an elderly Piute and his grand daughter (who has adopted the Christian faith). Their introduction was probably meant to mitigate the movie’s pessimistic message (and to illustrate the plight of the red man), but it feels forced and the effect is almost counterproductive. But a labored finale doesn’t make a bad movie and the strong points easily outshine the shortcomings. Robert Aldrich and Alan Sharp must have had this movie in mind while developing Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

More Dead than Alive

More Dead than Alive (1969, Robert Sparr)  The title and the poster of the movie may give you the impression that this is a spag...