Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)

Support Your Local SheriffI’m a fan of the western genre who likes his westerns played straight. Sure, there are comedic westerns that work, flicks like Blazing Saddles and the Three Amigos to name a couple, but for the most part….meh. While not a classic, 1969’s Support Your Local Sheriff! has plenty of positives, especially for a western comedy.

Following a gold strike, the town of Calendar, Colorado sprouts up almost overnight. The town founders can barely keep up with the ever-growing town as prospectors, gamblers, drifters, troublemakers, bandits and cowboys rule the town. Then, one day an amiable drifter named Jason McCullough (James Garner) rides into town and takes the unwelcomed job as sheriff. He’s on his way to Australia but figures he could use the work in the meantime. His first job? Arrest Joe Danby (Bruce Dern) for murder, a shooting Jason saw happen in the saloon. Joe’s father, Pa Danby (Walter Brennan), rules over the territory though and rounds up all his family to go rescue his son. Jason has to start figuring what to do; keep up with the job or bail and head for Australia.

By 1969, the western genre had changed courtesy of the spaghetti western and released the same year, The Wild Bunch. Things were darker, bloodier, more violent. ‘Sheriff’ avoids those changes, going for a lighter tone in a story that loosely resembles the 1959 classic Rio Bravo (and also has touches of High Noon). A veteran of the genre, director Burt Kennedy handles things well, adding some excellent humorous touches along the way without being too heavy-handed. It’s got the look of a TV western, but it’s fun throughout, clocking in at 92-minutes with an episodic storyline. It was followed up two years later with a like-minded, sorta unofficial sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter!

In the late 1960s, Garner was a frequent star in westerns, including Hour of the Gun and Duel at Diablo and even ventured into spaghetti westerns with 1971’s A Man Called Sledge. He’s perfect casting to play Jason, an amiable drifter with a somewhat cloudy past who is nonetheless lightning-fast with a gun but doesn’t like to use the gun if necessary. He stands by what’s right and has plenty of good ideas to keep folks on their toes. Garner plays the material straight, his charming on-screen presence underplaying scenes that could have been easily overplayed. He delivers lines with such ease, stealing his scenes with an impressive supporting cast. Garner manages to put a new, different and funny spin on that archetypal western character, the drifter riding along from town to town. Credit to Garner for an excellent leading role.

In the romantic lead department, Joan Hackett plays Prudy, the daughter of the town mayor (an excellent Harry Morgan). They’ve got some chemistry — Garner and Hackett — but the scenes feel a little forced, slowing down an otherwise fast-moving story. So often cast as a shifty-eyed, murdering back-stabber, Jack Elam steals the movie as Jake, Jason’s unlikely deputy. Quick with a gun and quick with a solid one-liner, Elam and Garner are perfect together, the duo returning two years later in ‘Gunfighter.’ Henry Jones, Willis Bouchey and Walter Burke round out the town board, the pleasantly corrupt folks running the town with Morgan’s Mayor Olly Perkins. Brennan looks to be having a ball as Old Man Danby, DernGene Evans and Dick Peabody as his dim-witted sons.

The problem too often with comedic westerns is that they’re simply trying too hard for the laughs. ‘Sheriff’ has those moments, a slapstick fist-fight in a muddy street notably early on. Its strongest moments are those instead that underplay the moment. Jason’s jail doesn’t have bars installed yet, but he convinces Dern’s Joe Danby to stay in the cell just the same. Sick of showdown after showdown with hired guns, Jason starts to throw rocks at a rival gunfighter. In the midst of a gunfight, Jason spectacularly finds a way to get across a street unscathed in a scene that always, always makes me laugh. The movie is full of those little moments that bring a smile to my face with ease.

A lot to like here, from the cast that looks to be having a ton of fun, notably Garner, Elam and Brennan with Dern stealing his scenes as well. The humor and comedy is perfectly played in this lighter-hearted western that manages to push a lot of the right buttons. I’m not a comedy western fan, but this one is a winner.

Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969): ***/****

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The Great Escape (1963)

I have two favorite movies, neither of which I’m able to pick one over the other.  I love them both, and all other movies come after it, first is 1960’s The Alamo which I’ve reviewed before and then there’s 1963’s The Great Escape. Introduced to it at a young age when I showed an interest in history, I’ve probably seen it 25 or 30 times straight through, and another 75 or 100 catching bits and pieces. For me, it is that rare perfect movie. Great story, impressive cast, exciting action, and one of the best soundtracks ever. You can’t ask for much more.

In World War II, both the Allies and Axis forces had to deal with how to handle prisoners of wars. In Germany, the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, was placed in charge of these Allied prisoners, placing them in P.O.W. camps all over their occupied territory. These prisoners — as was their sworn duty — tried countless escapes over the length of the war in typically small groups, sometimes getting as many as a dozen out. But one true story set the bar for heroism and courage among the prisoners, the true story of 76 prisoners escaping Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Literally hundreds of prisoners were involved in the effort as the escape even had an impact on D-Day some three months later.

It’s 1943, and a new prison camp has been built. The German Luftwaffe has taken the worst prisoners from all their camps and thrown them in this new camp that features all the security aspects they’ve learned from previous camps.  In this “perfect” camp, the Germans (Hannes Messemer is the commandant) intend to watch these men very carefully. Leading the prisoners is Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), dubbed ‘Big X’ for his leadership at the top of the ‘X Organization,’ a team of prisoners working together to bust out as many captured soldiers as they can. Bartlett has bigger plans though this time around. Instead of just getting two or three prisoners out, he intends to get 250 out of the camp with a large-scale plan that includes three extremely long tunnels under the barbed-wire fence. The plan seems impossible, but the prisoners go to work, slowly working their way toward escape.

Do you know the line ‘They don’t make them like they used to?’ This movie applies. Director John Sturges (one of my favorites and an underrated filmmaker overall) turns in his all-time best film, one that stands at or near the top in the lexicon of World War II movies. It is based in fact, sticking to the details and truths in the story, without getting bogged down.  There is action, humor (never overplayed, just natural humor arising from the situation), and characters you love and are generally rooting for. Composer Elmer Bernstein turns in a score that is one of the greats, especially the main theme, listen HERE. Bernstein’s score both drives the story as needed and keeps it grounded in the quieter, emotional scenes (including one where a tunnel is discovered and its tragic consequences).  Sturges filmed in Germany — as his assistant said, ‘Germany looks like Germany.’ An entire camp was built, an exact duplicate of the actual camp, bringing this 1963 epic up another notch in terms of realism and authenticity.

Sturges’ movies were famous for their male-dominated ensemble casts, but this may be his most impressive. Start with Steve McQueen as Hilts, the motorcycle-riding ‘Cooler King,’ the role that shot him to international stardom. Then there’s James Garner as Hendley, the scrounger, and Attenborough as Bartlett, the prisoner’s top man, a brilliant mind who comes up with this improbable plan. Not bad, huh? Oh yeah, there’s also James Donald as Ramsey, the senior British officer, Charles Bronson and John Leyton as Danny and Willie, the tunnel kings, James Coburn as Sedgwick, the manufacturer, Donald Pleasence as Blythe, the forger, David McCallum as Ashley-Pitt, “dispersal,” and Gordon Jackson as MacDonald, the intelligence officer. Other prisoners include Nigel StockJud Taylor and Angus Lennie in a small but essential part as Ives, Hilt’s progressively wire-happy partner. A more impressive cast could be impossible to assemble.

What is amazing is that even with all those stars — some on the rise, some already established — is that they all register, they all make a lasting impression in a positive way. More on McQueen later, but Attenborough delivers a career-best as Big X, the driven even obsessed leader who wants to take the war back to the Germans, not sitting out the war comfortably as his captors intend. Garner’s Hendley bonds with Pleasence’s Blythe in some of the movie’s most touching scenes, two very different people forming a friendship. Bronson and Leyton as the tunnel kings certainly make an impression, carving three tunnels out of the Earth 30 feet below the surface. Bronson is at his best, a Polish flyer with claustrophobia who hides his fear of small, enclosed spaces and digs. Coburn doesn’t get a ton to do compared to the others, but is his usual, laconic self. There is not a weakness in the cast from top to bottom.

When movie fans think of The Great Escape, they usually go right to Steve McQueen, a rising star who got his crack at the big time here and didn’t disappoint.  His Capt. Virgil Hilts is one of his most iconic roles, the loner, trouble-making American prisoner who attempts escape attempt after attempt.  What’s funny is that his character basically disappears for vast stretches of the movie, only to reappear after a stint in the cooler and steal every scene he is in. This is McQueen at his laid back, scene-stealing best. With all the notable actor’s actors around him, he is the unquestioned star thanks in great part to the finale, a motorcycle chase across Germany with his captors in hot pursuit. It is one of the greatest chases sequences ever, caped with one of the most impressive stunts ever, a 7-foot jump by stunt man Bud Ekins over a high-strung barbed-wire fence. McQueen is my favorite, but this is always his best to me.

With a final run-time of 2 hours and 53 minutes, Sturges’ true story doesn’t have to rush along at a lightning pace…but does anyway. The first 105 minutes or so focus exclusively on the escape attempt, putting all the little details together that need to happen. The first and biggest of course is the digging of the tunnels, 30 feet down and over 300 feet straight out. A track is built to transport prisoners/diggers, and wooden boards are needed to shore up the entire length of the tunnel. Up above, forgers create documents, tailors make clothes, Intelligence gathers information, all part of an elaborate system of security and watchmen to make sure nothing is discovered by their ever-vigilant German guards. It would have been easy for this movie to get bogged down in these details, but The Great Escape revels in them, making the mundane and possibly boring, exciting at a breakneck pace.

It is a movie called ‘The Great Escape’ though, and it is at its most exciting once the prisoners do escape, 76 of them in the dead of night spread out all over the German countryside. The escape attempt covers the last hour of the movie, an incredible extended sequence that is hard to top. It is almost entirely dialogue free, Bernstein’s score playing over the action the whole way. Finally free of their camp, the prisoners make their efforts to hopefully reach freedom, some by train, some by bikes, others by planes, and in Hilts’ case, a stolen German motorcycle.  Sturges was an action master, and this may be his tour de force sequence.

I could go on and on with this movie, and I’ve already sort of done so. My head is full of little tidbits of information that I’ve picked up over the course of repeated viewings.  Above all else through the drama, the facts, and the action is that Sturges gets the tone right from Paul Brickhill’s source novel, and most importantly, the true story it is based on. These men did the impossible in an impossible situation. Knowing their chances of escape back to freedom were slim, they plodded on when they could have just as easily quit. If you didn’t know and just read the details — check out the Wikipedia entry HERE for more details — you would say there’s no way this happened, but somehow, some way, it did. The ending hits you square in the stomach as it should, but the movie ends on a positive note; McQueen’s Hilts once again in the cooler, bouncing his baseball off the wall.  You may capture him again, but you’ll never stop him from trying.

A perfect movie, one of the best around, and one of my two favorite movies.

The Great Escape <—trailer (1963): ****/****

Up Periscope (1959)

up-periscopeWith the premier of Maverick on TV in 1957, star James Garner became a huge star across America. He wasn’t limited to television roles though, quickly transitioning to feature film roles as well. One of his earlier efforts as he rose to fame was a World War II submarine story, 1959’s Up Periscope.

It’s 1942 and the U.S. is beginning to push back against the Japanese in the Pacific. With an invasion of the Marshall and Gilbert Islands forthcoming, a U.S. Navy frogman, Lt. Kenneth Braden (Garner) has been assigned an incredibly dangerous mission. Allied intelligence hasn’t been able to break a key Japanese code so Braden will be a passenger on the USS Barracuda, a submarine led by Commander Paul Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). The sub will sneak him onto a Japanese-held island where Braden will steal/photograph the code without being discovered. Meanwhile, the sub will wait off-shore until Braden can accomplish the mission. Can he though against nearly impossible odds?

Not remembered as one of the submarine genre classics that came out in waves following WWII, ‘Periscope’ is a solid if not flashy entry that’s worth a watch. Is the mission itself pretty goofy? You bet it is! But it’s exciting and features a strong cast, especially up at the top. Director Gordon Douglas had a string of these movies over the 1950s and 1960s, none of them considered classics but almost all of them damn entertaining.

Garner may always be remembered most for his starring TV roles, notably Maverick and The Rockford Files. To a newer film audience, probably for his key part in The Notebook! As a younger actor, Garner was as steady as they come. The Great Escape is my favorite Garner part, mostly because he makes it look so easy. That’s the case here. Garner’s Braden is cool, underplayed and ready for whatever the mission can throw at him. He’s not GI Joe though either (thankfully), just a capable officer who knows potentially what awaits him (he’s told not to get captured on the Japanese-held island). For lack of a better description, Garner is/was almost always likable on-screen. That’s certainly on display here.

Talk about two underrated actors, Garner and Edmond O’Brien are excellent together. Far from friendly, just two officers trying to do their job. O’Brien’s Stevenson is coming off a patrol that saw one of his crew die, maybe in needlessly cautious fashion. Fresh off the patrol, the crew is less than trusting. The veteran commander has to prove himself, both to himself and to his crew, all while trying to go by the book in a nearly impossible mission. Rock and a hard place for sure. Their chemistry though is excellent, heated and uncomfortable at times but never forced.

Among the crew, Alan Hale Jr. – pre-Gilligan’s Island – is a scene-stealer as Lt. Malone, a fun-loving and long-time ensign who everyone likes. There are also parts for Carleton Carpenter, William Leslie, Richard Bakalyan, Edd Byrnes, Henry Kulky and uncredited parts for Bernie Hamilton and Warren Oates (his first movie role). Slow-going early as we meet Garner’s Braden romancing Andra Martin’s Sally Johnson. Thankfully, there’s a twist in store for this kinda forced love story. Not your typical love story forcibly jammed into a war story!

All the war conventions are there here in ‘Periscope,’ the claustrophobic setting, the tension-ridden encounters with the enemy, both above and below the water, and that all-too familiar ping of the radar echoing through the conning tower. It’s in the last 45 minutes as Braden sneaks onto the island where the movie especially hits its groove. Stevenson and the Barracuda wait at the bottom of the island’s lagoon, their fresh air running out with each passing minute. A bit of a secret agent mixed with a submarine war story. A nice, little mix!

Worth a watch, especially for fans of the WWII, submarine and adventure genre! Also worth mentioning, the score borrows from Max Steiner’s Warner Bros. score from 1945’s Objective, Burma! which would also be sampled 3 years later in Merrill’s Marauders. It’s a good score so it’s definitely not a bad thing.

Up Periscope (1959): ** ½ /****

36 Hours (1964)

36_hours_movieposterOne of the greatest secrets in the history of the world is remarkable to fathom even now, some 70 years later. That secret? The Allies ability to keep the location of the D-Day landings under wraps despite the extreme efforts in the German intelligence field to deduce the location. It was a moment(s) in time that literally changed history. One of the more underrated World War II movies ever made covers the topic from the intelligence perspective, 1964’s 36 Hours.

It’s late May 1944 and the impending Allied invasion of the European mainland is on everyone’s mind. Where will the Allies land? Will it be at Pas-de-Calais? At Normandy? And when? Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner), an American intelligence officer, is one of the few who knows the truth, who knows all the details of the coming invasion. Unfortunately, German intelligence knows his status too and kidnaps him while he’s meeting a contact in Lisbon. Their plan? A German doctor, Major Gerber (Rod Taylor), has developed an incredibly in-depth plot to get Pike to reveal where the coming invasion will take place. Gerber intends to convince Pike that it’s 1950 and the war is long since over. There’s no way he could pull it off, is there?

The history behind the story in this 1964 WWII espionage thriller is fascinating in itself. An invasion featuring hundreds of thousands of troops and materiel, planes, tanks, guns, food and ships that would start the road to the beginning of the war was kept under wraps for months despite Herculean efforts of the German intelligence staff to procure the truth. What better basic premise to spin off of for a criminally underrated World War II movie?

I’ve seen this movie three, maybe four times and come away more impressed each time. I don’t want to give too much away featuring Gerber’s plans to confuse and manipulate Pike into giving away the site of the D-Day landings, but let it be said…I would have fallen for the plan. Hair dye, newspapers, records and radio stations, hundreds of actors at a U.S. hospital in post-war Germany, the effort is staggering. The key though is the details, with Taylor and Eva Marie Saint representing the point people on the dupe. Posing as an American doctor and a nurse with a tortured past from the war, the success of the mission depends on the duo’s ability to pull off the ruse. Just sit back and watch their plan develop. It is amazingly entertaining — and uncomfortable — to watch.

The 1960’s were a heck of a time for Garner (in between hit TV shows), and he delivers an excellent performance here. He is the viewer, holding a valuable piece of information, but not quite sure what’s going on. His Pike is highly-trained and highly-intelligent so there’s no way this German effort to trick him works, right? Right?!? Half the fun here is going for the ride and seeing him start to piece things together. Taylor similarly gives a fascinating part as Gerber. He’s not an evil doctor, not a bloodthirsty Nazi, but an intelligent, well-meaning doctor who clearly thinks so outside the box. The cat-and-mouse game between him and Garner is what holds the movie together, Taylor beautifully underselling his part as he tries to deduce a secret that potentially turns the tide of the war. Excellent lead performances from 2 of my favorite actors.

The third lead performance is a gem too, Eva Marie Saint as Anna, a concentration camp survivor enlisted as part of the plan because of her ability to speak English. In bits and pieces, we discover her tortured past, that past tearing her up inside as to what to do concerning Pike and Gerber. She’s got excellent chemistry with both Garner and Taylor, the trio dominating the 115-minute run-time. Also look for Werner Peters as the SS officer tasked with “overseeing” Gerber and his plan, an expertly creepy part, and John Banner as a German home guard soldier, an interesting part a year away from his debut as dimwitted Sergeant Schultz on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes.

If there’s a weakness in ‘Hours,’ it’s in the last 40 minutes. The tension and mystery early is classic, an easy 4-star review. But once some twists and turns are revealed, the story limps along to the finish. It just can’t sustain the momentum built up over the first 75 minutes. Still, this George Seaton-directed thriller is worth it for that first half alone, especially with a Dmitri Tiomkin score and beautiful black-and-white filming in Yosemite National Park (standing in for Germany!). Give it a watch for sure.

36 Hours (1964): ***/****