Monday, March 31, 2008

Regional Law Enforcement

This will be the first in an ongoing, occasional series of reviews where John (Me!) examines some great -- possibly overlooked -- classics of the past. Why the past? Because it's so hard to find those overlooked classics of the future. We'll (I'll) start with a favorite.

Support Your Local Sheriff! (d. Burt Kennedy)

With the prosperity of the American post-war period reaching its peak in the 1960s, came doubt. It was like a gambler on a streak at the card table; you love it, but you know it's got to end some time. And what then?

Many of the comedies of the era took greed and conspicuous consumption as their subjects, whether as overt slapstick (1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) or subtle social commentary (1967's The Graduate).

In that tradition, at the very end of the decade, Burt Kennedy's Support Your Local Sheriff! arrived, looking for all the world like a harmless goof on the western genre that was still wildly popular at the time. But at its core, it's a surprisingly thoughtful attempt to answer that same pressing question: Once you have all that wealth, what then?

As the film opens, the townsfolk of Calendar, Colorado (named only in the trailer) are busy burying one of their own, a man named Millard Frymore who died of ... something. A town elder hopes aloud in the eulogy that whatever Frymore died of, it isn't contagious. The disease might not be catching, but very soon, the whole town has a case of gold fever when Prudy Perkins (Joan Hackett), Frymore's intended and the daughter of the town mayor, spots a vein of gold at the bottom of the freshly dug grave. She dives in and brandishes a shovel at any who dare try to jump her newfound claim.

Soon the whole town is wealthy. Necessary businesses sprout up overnight, like a cot rental place and a brothel. Prices skyrocket. And the rule of law is abandoned as everyone seeks to get their share of the economic windfall. Money, in this town, is the literal root of all evil.

Into this hazardous, chaotic setting ambles Jason McCullough (James Garner), a wanderer who says he's making his way to Australia, but doesn't seem to be in any hurry to get there. He decides to stop in Calendar, dig up a little gold, then use it to finance the rest of his long journey. Or so he tells people.

The town councilmen have other plans. Led by Mayor Olly Perkins (Harry Morgan), they offer McCullough the somewhat lethal job of town sheriff, which he accepts as if it was his plan all along. Immediately, the new sheriff arrests Joe Denby (Bruce Dern) for murder and ingeniously locks him up in the freshly built town jail ("Best that money can buy") despite the fact that the cell bars haven't been installed yet.

The Denbys are the other part of the film's economic equation. They are outlaws and killers, but worse, they are literal middlemen; their ranch sits squarely between the town of Calendar and the place where the townsfolk must go to exchange their gold. Pa Denby (Walter Brennan in a role that seems a clear parody of his own part in the classic John Ford western My Darling Clementine) is a ruthless old thug, ready to march in and dust the uppity new sheriff, but when McCullough gives him just enough pause to make him start thinking (by sticking his finger in Danby's gun), he reconsiders. One of his lunk-headed sons asks him just what the new sheriff did to him. He responds:

"Well, he maybe made me a little more thoughtful. He maybe made me realize that now that we got a little money for the first time in our lives, and have a chance at a whole lot more, this'd be a dumb time to find out who's the fastest with a gun."

He could easily be talking about the Cold War. Money alters the whole equation. Without the money, in a time before the goldstrike, Pa Danby would have marched up to McCullough, shot him, and walked away without batting an eye. But money makes him cautious. Money makes him conscious of having something to lose. Money has done something to Pa Danby that not all the gunslingers and cattle rustlers and Injuns (excuse me, "Native Americans") of the Old West could do: Money has thrown a scare into him.

America must have experienced something similar.

Garner is at his easygoing best as the sheriff (excuse me, "Sheriff!"), calmly letting the chaos spin down around him before taking a hand and defusing things with wit and charm. He spends the whole film appearing not to be interested in the town's money at all; even his attempts at goldmining are half-hearted, at best. Then, at the very end, reveals the sly plan that has probably been his from the start. And yes, it involves becoming very rich.

Director Kennedy was a veteran of 1960s westerns: he had written and directed the Henry Fonda/Glenn Ford oater The Rounders and was at the helm for the sequel to The Magnificent Seven, Return of the Seven. He knows the milieu as well as his "Maverick" star and fills out the cast with veterans of the genre like Brennan, Dern, and the bug-eyed Jack Elam, all of whom help give the proceedings a familiarity that helps it slip its subversion in under the radar.

Once you've gotten all that money, what then? Support You Local Sheriff! suggests that the only reasonable answer is to take things in your stride with intelligence and good humor. I'll try it the second I get wealthy and I'll let you know how it works out.

4 stars.

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