Film: Very Good
Extras: Very Good
Label: Twilight Time
Released: February 16, 2016
Genre: Comedy / Spoof / Western
Synopsis: An itinerant gambler takes the job of sheriff and cleans up the town’s riff-raff, only to be targeted by a wealthy but not-too-swift family.
Special Features: Audio commentary with Cinema Retro film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo / Isolated mono music track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Also includes 1971 sequel Support Your Local Gunfighter / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com / Limited to 3000 copies.
Burt Kennedy’s specialty was the western genre, having written scripts for the TV series Lawman (1962), and directing Return of the Magnificent Seven (1966), the first of four sequels in United Artists’ popular franchise, but it’s perhaps his grasp of western tropes that made him the perfect director for Support Your Local Sheriff! – a western spoof written by William Bowers which predated Mel Brooks’ better-known Blazing Saddles (1974).
Whereas Brooks’ film is renowned (and criticized) for its political wrongness and more than occasional pubescent humour, Kennedy’s movie – itself very popular at the box office – kind of faded from the limelight, which is a shame given it shows James Garner in a role tailor-made for his deft ability to drift through ridiculous moments and never lose an ounce of dignity. Garner quietly produced the film, wanting to enjoy the freedom in selecting projects and seeing them through with minimal studio interference, and certain during the 1960s, United Artists was known as the company in which stars could develop personal projects (illustrated by Burt Lancaster’s decades-long relationship with UA).
The key to Sheriff’s success does hinge on Garner’s delicious portrayal of scoundrel McCullough, strolling into a lawless town and becoming the town sheriff before orchestrating a disappearing act and continuing his journey to Australia’s own wild frontier. The characters may be broad, but unlike Saddles, Sheriff doesn’t inject potty words or bathroom humour, and owes more to Warner Bros. cartoon spoofs of various genres.
When McCullough arrests Joe (Bruce Dern), the spoiled quick-killing brat from the dominant Danby clan, he tosses him into the unfinished jail that lacks both bars and cell doors. Joe knows he’s likely to be hanged for the cold-blooded murder witnessed by a then pre-sheriff McCullough, but he nevertheless stays ‘in jail,’ baffling his father and brothers who can’t understand why Joe won’t jump out through the open window. As Joe’s father Pa Danby, Walter Brennan almost steals the movie, playing the grumbly patriarch dead straight, but also clueless to his own poor grasp of practical problem-solving (as when trying to bust Joe ‘out of prison’).
Bowers’ witty script is filled with loony absurdities, and his characters are pulled from classic archetypes, yet warped by crazy scenarios and hysterical performances. McCullough’s love interest is Purdy (Joan Hackett), the town judge’s daughter who wears pants like a man, shoots to kill, but is a bit of a dunce in constantly tumbling into embarrassing circumstances.
Local drunk Jake (scene-stealing Jack Elam) becomes McCullough’s deputy and whipping boy, and his utterly poor knowledge of basic math guarantees he continually gets the worst possible cut of gold, carries the heaviest clutter, and is always left to clean up someone else’s mess.
Kennedy’s film is also packed with many genre character actors, including Harry Morgan, silk-voiced and slithery Henry Jones, and Willis Bouchey – actors whose faces are more familiar to film fans than their names.
The tired story of a man determined to clean up a messy, lawless town and exit once his job is done is anything but new, and yet it works in the film’s favour, allowing Kennedy to stage some marvelous moments of cartoon nonsense. (Garner telling his would-be assassins to “Hold it!” as he crosses the street is arguably the film’s shiniest moment.)
Jeff Alexander’s score is appropriately broad, Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography is neatly composed, and George W. Brooks’ editing is especially sharp, punctuating each joke with a perfectly timed cut.
Kennedy’s often been regarded as a workmanlike hack, perhaps because he lacked a distinct visual style and tended to excel in a genre that was heavily saturated in film and TV series, and soon to be branded as passé, but Sheriff demonstrates he knew how to craft good set-ups and punchlines, and push his characters just to the edge of pure ridiculousness, making them funny but not forgettable.
Cinema Retro film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo recorded a fine commentary for Twilight Time’s excellent release, proving both facts, footnotes, and nostalgia for this somewhat forgotten gem which used to get heavy play on TV stations, alongside its 1971 sequel-of-sorts, Support Your Local Gunfighter. Garner fans will enjoy the observations and details of how the actor chose to move into producing assorted projects, and Kennedy certainly gets a positive reassessment – not massive, but he’s singled out as a somewhat maligned and forgotten filmmaker whose directorial career began with The Canadians (1960), and peaked in the late sixties / early seventies before returning to TV. His final feature film was Comanche (2000), capping a lengthy and prolific career.
Twilight Time’s disc includes fine transfers of Sheriff and Gunfighter, each with its own isolated mono music tracks and respective trailers.
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review