James Garner

Sunset

1988

TriStar Pictures

Directed by Blake Edwards

Produced by Tony Adams

Screenplay by Blake Edwards

Story by Rod Amateau

Some movies I can just never figure out why they become major hits at the box office while a movie like SUNSET goes virtually ignored. It’s a movie that deserves more of an audience than it’s enjoyed, especially now that there’s such an interest in pulp adventure because that’s exactly what SUNSET is. Pure pulp from start to finish and starring two of the most likable actors in Hollywood history and they know how to play this material the way Liberace knew how to play the piano.

It’s Hollywood, 1929 and the movie industry is making the transition from silent to sound films. Movie producer and studio boss Alfie Alperin  (Malcolm McDowell) wants to make a big epic about legendary United States Marshall Wyatt Earp. Alperin pressures the equally legendary western actor Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) to star in the movie and mostly as a publicity stunt hires Wyatt Earp himself (James Garner) as technical advisor. Now, I’m pretty sure you know something about Wyatt Earp but I don’t know how much you know about Tom Mix. In short, let’s just say that he pretty much defined the image of the Western Hero in movies during the 20th Century. He’s a guy worth doing your homework on as he’s had such an influence on pop culture he’s been featured in novels written by Philip Jose Farmer, mentioned in an episode of “Doctor Who” and has been a supporting character in the DC Elseworlds one-shot “Batman/Houdini: The Devil’s Worskhop.”

Wyatt Earp and Tom Mix actually get along quite well together and that comes in handy because they’ve hardly started working on the movie before they have to start working on a case of murder involving an old girlfriend of Earp’s who’s now married to Alfie Alperin. The case leads them to a high-class brothel owned by Cheryl King (Mariel Hemingway) who makes it clear to Earp right from the start that she’s got a thing for older men. Nudge nudge wink wink. Mix has got his hands full with his own girlfriend Nancy (Kathleen Quinlan) who, like any good girlfriend in a movie of this sort knows a little too much than she should and gets captured one to many times but that’s okay because then we get to see Our Heroes rescue her.

I have a hunch why SUNSET wasn’t a hit in theaters. Given that Bruce Willis was mostly known for his hit TV show “Moonlighting” at the time and James Garner is regarded mostly as a light comedic actor, audiences were probably expecting a comedy romp. SUNSET does have its humorous moments but it’s a straight-up murder mystery that I think Raymond Chandler would be proud of to have written. And it’s as complicated as a Chandler mystery as well. Earp and Mix have to navigate their way through crooked cops and the even more crooked studio executives who pay them off. It’s a pretty dark depiction of Hollywood and a story you have to pay attention to between the fistfights and wisecracks.

Both James Garner and Bruce Willis are plain, flat-out fun to watch. This is the second time James Garner has played Wyatt Earp and he’s great. His Earp is a guy who’s been around and he knows how things work. Especially in a town as corrupt as Hollywood. People see James Garner as mostly a light comedic actor but he can play just as tough as he demonstrates several times in this movie. Bruce Willis as Tom Mix holds his own with his far more experienced co-star and I think it’s because Willis as Mix probably did the same thing Willis in real-life did: he didn’t try to bullshit his co-star. Willis as Mix knows he’s a movie cowboy and doesn’t try to pretend he’s anything other than that. But during the course of their adventure he more than earns the respect of Garner as Earp and I strongly suspect he did so in real life as they worked on this movie.

Only thing I didn’t like about this movie? Malcolm McDowell plays a character that’s blatantly based on Charlie Chaplin and given the horrendously monstrous nature of Alfie Alperin the performance leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But he does make for a terrific bad guy, along with E. Emmet Walsh as a crooked studio cop, Richard Bradford as a corrupt police captain and Joe Dallesandro as a mobster.

What else did I like about SUNSET? It’s got two of my favorite and most beautiful actresses of the 1980’s: Mariel Hemingway and Kathleen Quinlan. ‘Nuff said. And there’s terrific music provided by Henry Mancini. Bruce Willis wears this all black outfit with roses that I wish I could wear. But I think he and I are equal in doing the tango. The comradeship of Wyatt Earp and Tom Mix as two genuinely tough guys having an adventure and enjoying it while they build a friendship. The scene of them riding to rescue Nancy. Their gunfight with a bunch of thugs that causes Wyatt Earp to have flashbacks to the O.K. Corral.

So should you see SUNSET? Absolutely. If you’re a fan of pulp adventure then I’d put this on your must see of movies along with “The Phantom” “Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow” The Indiana Jones Movies and “The Rocketeer.” The period flavor is perfect, the performances are marvelous and yes, the story takes liberties with historical fact but who gives a damn? As far as you’re concerned, it’s all true.

Give or take a lie or two.

102 minutes

Rated R

Duel At Diablo

1966

United Artists/MGM

Directed by Ralph Nelson

Produced by Fred Engel and Ralph Nelson

Written by Marvin H. Albert based on his novel “Apache Rising”

DUEL AT DIABLO is one of those westerns that when I mention it even to fans of westerns I get a blank look and a “say wha?” It’s one of those movies that appear to have been long forgotten even though it stars three of the best loved and most popular actors to have worked in Hollywood: James Garner, Sidney Poitier and Dennis Weaver. But even fans of those stars seem to have never heard of the movie and that’s truly a shame because DUEL AT DIABLO, while not a masterpiece of the genre is a damn good western for a number of what I believe to be strong reasons and we’ll get into those after a summary of the plot:

Army scout Jess Remsberg (James Garner) while on patrol out in the desert comes across the hideous remains of a man brutally tortured by the Apache.  On the trail of those Apaches Remsberg rescues a woman from them. Not only is Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson) not grateful to be rescued she actually was looking for those Apaches for reasons that will become quite important to the plot later on. Remsberg returns Ellen to her husband Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver) who is more upset that the horse his wife had taken is dead than anything else.

But Remsberg has his own problems to think of as he finds out from his old friend Lieutenant Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers) that his Comanche wife was murdered and scalped. McAllister doesn’t know who did the killing but he knows where there is a man who can point Remsberg in the right direction. But he won’t tell Remsberg the name until he agrees to scout for him. McAllister has to escort a unit of twenty-five inexperienced soldiers green as Christmas trees to Fort Concho and McAllister badly needs Remsberg to help him get them there. Once at Fort Concho, McAllister agrees to give Remsberg the name of the man. Willard Grange goes behinds McAllister’s back to get permission to accompany the unit to Fort Concho with his supply wagons.  This doesn’t make McAllister happy at all but the guy who’s really pissed off is Toller (Sidney Poitier) a veteran of the 10th Calvary Buffalo Soldiers who was contracted to provide forty horses to the army. Toller has only broken half of the wild horses and he won’t be paid for the other twenty unless he goes with the unit and breaks the horses on the way.

Once the unit gets on the move they quickly find themselves in one hell of a mess. The local Apache chief Chata (John Hoyt) has gone on the warpath and the unit must pass right through his territory. He targets the unit as one of Grange’s wagons is filled with ammunition and because Ellen Grange has the one thing he cares the most about: his grandson, the child Ellen Grange had with Chata’s son when she was held captive by the Apache.  Ambushed by the Apache, the badly outnumbered and inexperienced soldiers must somehow hold out at Diablo Canyon while Remsberg attempts to evade the Apache and ride to Fort Concho to get help before they’re wiped out.

DUEL AT DIABLO has a lot of selling points that I think make it worth your time to watch and here’s number one: we’ve got three of the most likeable actors in Hollywood. They’re all known for playing easy-going guys full of warmth, charm and with strong moral and ethical souls. Not in this picture. Garner, Poitier and Weaver play three men who are hard, brutal, violent and in a lot of ways downright unpleasant. Matter of fact, in the first thirty minutes of the movie Garner, Poitier and Weaver threaten to kill one or the other at least once and there’s a tense moment later on when Poitier and Weaver face off for a gunfight. I recently watched the movie a few days ago and I don’t think I can recall a single moment where any of them even so much as smiles. It’s a radical departure for them as actors and I enjoyed watching the three of them enjoying playing against type. Especially James Garner. If you had never considered him a badass before, you will after seeing this movie. I really like his look in this movie. From start to finish he’s unshaven, sweaty and appears to have not taken a bath in weeks nor does he appear to give a damn.

DUEL AT DIABLO also may be the first American western where elements and style of the growing Spaghetti Western genre were being used. Like Spaghetti Westerns, there’s nobody in this movie who is entirely good or bad. We understand why everybody is doing what they’re doing or acting the way they do even if we don’t agree with it or like it. The locations, set design and photography are very much like Spaghetti Westerns as well as the violence which is really brutal at times. We’re not talking Sam Peckinpah level slaughter here but it is a harshly realistic depiction that I don’t think one expects to see in a pre-“The Wild Bunch” American made western.

What else did I like? I like how Toller’s ethnicity was never pointed out or made an issue. Even though McAllister and Toller don’t get along it’s due to their differing opinions on how things should be done, not because Toller’s a black man. I like how Ellen Grange and Scotty McAllister have distinctive accents. All too often I hear movie fans complain about characters having accents and I think that’s a highly insensitive and downright ignorant to say. Especially when it comes to Westerns where I’m betting you couldn’t walk twenty feet in any direction without hearing half a dozen different accents as everybody and their mother were coming to America to make their fortune. Having character with accents in Westerns reminds us that this is a country of immigrants. Something that we all need to be reminded of once a while. I also liked the music score which also sounds more like a score you’d hear in a Spaghetti Western.

So should you see DUEL AT DIABLO? Absolutely. The movie has excellent performances and a great story. Right from the start when a huge, bloody Bowie knife slashes a X through the United Artists logo, DUEL AT DIABLO is promising it’s not like your usual Western. And it delivers on its promise.

103 minutes

Mister Buddwing

 1966

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directed by Delbert Mann

Produced by Delbert Mann and Douglas Lawrence

Screenplay by Dale Wasserman

Based on the novel “Buddwing” by Evan Hunter

James Garner is one of the most liked, best respected and just plain real people working in Hollywood to this very day.  I feel like he’s a friend since I remember watching him in the TV western “Maverick” with my father when I was a kid back in the late 60’s/early 70’s.  And through the years I’ve watched and enjoyed James Garner in both movies and TV shows.  I could be wrong but I’d be willing to bet that James Garner was the first TV star to parley that small screen stardom to movies successfully both financially and critically.

Most certainly he clicks with audiences.  Even when I was a kid my father would say that anything James Garner was in, he’d watch.  And even today my father will drop anything he’s doing to watch “The Great Escape”.  And Mr. Garner has most certainly secured his spot in Television History as the star of what many consider to be the best Private Eye series ever: “The Rockford Files”.  Me, I’d give that honor to Tom Selleck and “Magnum, P.I.” but we’ll save that argument for another time.

I’ve always liked James Garner more in movies.  Such as “Skin Game” where he and Lou Gossett, Jr. played pre-Civil War era conmen.  Or “The Great Escape” or “Grand Prix” or “Marlowe” or “They Only Kill Their Masters” or “Support Your Local Sheriff” with the delightful Joan Hackett who had Demi Moore’s voice long before Demi Moore was born.  And knew how to use it better.  And then there’s the great western “Duel at Diablo” he made with Sidney Poitier and Dennis Weaver.  Here you have three of the nicest, most gentlemanly men in Hollywood playing total bastards and having a great time doing it.  In later years James Garner delighted me in movies such as “Victor/Victoria” and a movie that I am making your homework assignment for the week: “Sunset” a pulp action adventure from 1988 with Mr. Garner playing an aged but still badass Wyatt Earp acting as consultant to movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis).  The two of them get involved in a whole lotta hijinks I wouldn’t dare spoil for those of you who haven’t seen “Sunset” But take it from me: it’s a helluva fun movie.  And most of it is due to the performance of James Garner.

MISTER BUDDWING begins with a man (James Garner) waking up on a Central Park bench.  He has no memory of who he is or how he got there.  A search of his pockets turns up a train schedule, a folded up piece of paper with a phone number written on it and two white pills.  He has no identification but he is wearing a silver opal ring.  The opal is cracked and there is an inscription inside the ring.  All of these are the only clues to his identity.

He calls the number and finds it belongs to a prostitute (Angela Lansbury) who says she doesn’t know him but gives him coffee, money and sends him off on a day long quest to find out who he is.  That quest will introduce him to three very different women.  All of these women he calls ‘Grace’.  They tell him that they aren’t Grace.  But he follows them into some very disturbing scenarios.  Some that appears to play out his past life.

Who is Grace?  Is she real?  Are these real women or just psychotic fantasies of Mister Buddwing?  Are they aspects of the real Grace his disturbed mind has fragmented into separate personalities?  Who are they and who is he?  MISTER BUDDWING isn’t the type of movie you plan for a Saturday night when you and your lady or you and your boys just want to kick back with a fun movie.  It’s one of those movies that likes to play with your head.  Halfway through the movie Mister Buddwing is presented with the possibility that he’s an escaped mental patient with homicidal tendencies.  Certainly his behavior might seem to suggest that.  But as the day goes on and he has his encounters with the three Graces (Katherine Ross, Suzanne Pleshette and Jean Simmons) He gradually comes to realize that there’s a more horrifying reason behind his amnesia.

MISTER BUDDWING is a movie I place in the same catergory with “Angel Heart” It’s a movie where the main character is trying to solve a mystery and the solution turns out to be worse than the mystery itself.  Oh, MISTER BUDDWING is nowhere near as graphic as “Angel Heart” but the solution of the mystery is no less frightening.

The performances are all out of the box.  Angela Lansbury is terrific as the over-the-hill whore who puts Mister Buddwing on the path to find out who he is.  And as the three aspects of Grace: Katherine Ross is just okay.  Suzanne Pleshette has always been one of my favorite actresses and one who I felt never got the career she deserved.  She also looks totally hot in a scene where she’s wearing a white trenchcoat and go-go boots.  Some of the hotness is taken out of what happens later on in that scene.

Jean Simmons is totally amazing with her platinum blond hair and whorish attitude.  It’s a performance unlike any you might have seen her in before and it’s amazing to watch.  And if you needed any other inducement to watch this movie, there’s a scene with Nichelle Nichols and Jean Simmons down on their knees in dresses up to here shootin’ dice and exhorting; “Give it to me the hard way BABY!”

It’s also a movie worth watching for the beautiful black-and-white photography and the view of a New York that doesn’t exist anymore.  Movies like MISTER BUDDWING I recommend not only as a good movie but as a history lesson.  The New York in MISTER BUDDWING I barely remember but it’s one that is worth you visiting.

So should you see MISTER BUDDWING?  Well, unless you have Turner Classic Movies, you won’t.  It’s not available on DVD or Netflix.  But if you are a fan of James Garner and you have TCM on your satellite/cable provider then by all means, please give it a viewing.

110 minutes

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

2001

Walt Disney Pictures

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Produced by Don Hahn
Associate Producer: Kendra Holland
Written by Tab Murphy, Gary Trousdale, Joss Whedon, Kirk Wise, Bryce Zabel and Jackie Zabel

I remember reading a bunch of articles in various movie magazines such as Cinescape and Cinefantasque a couple of months before ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE hit movie theatres.  Most of the articles were gushing on and on about the producers hiring the same linguist who created the Klingon language for Star Trek to create an Atlantean language for the movie. Now, you have to wonder why the producers went to all that trouble since the Atlantean language is heard on screen for maybe 30 seconds and written Atlantean is hardly seen.  And in any case, the main character translates it for the rest of the characters (and thereby for us, the audience as well), so what’s the point of going to all the trouble to invent a new language? After seeing ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE, I figured it out: the producers had to do something to justify the incredibly thin and tired story. After spending all that money on a brand new language and the animation, they probably didn’t have much left over to pay one good writer. Which may explain why there are six credited writers: my guess is that they were so bored with trying to write this story that they just passed the script around in a sort of round robin: whenever someone got tired of writing, they just passed it on to the next poor sucker in line.

Milo Thatch is the grandson of the great archeologist Thaddeus Thatch and the old man has passed down his dream of finding Atlantis to Milo. However, Milo is stuck working as a janitor, frustrated beyond words because he can’t get anyone to believe his theory and finance an expedition. Maybe the fact that he has absolutely no evidence that Atlantis exists has something to do with it. And one day, outta nowhere, with no forewarning or setup, this crazy old millionaire shows up and drops into Milo’s lap a book that shows him where Atlantis is and has even built a submarine and hired a crew to help Milo find the Lost Empire. Now there are so many things wrong here that I audibly groaned when I saw this scene. But I digress….let’s just simply go on ahead with the rest of the story, okay?

Milo meets Commander Rourke and his second-in-command, the beautiful and calculating Helga and a colorful assortment of multi-national specialists in various fields (doctor, communications expert, demolitionist, etc) that made me sit up and pay attention for a while since I thought that they were going to be a crew of goofy, eccentric but supremely skilled and capable sidekicks like Doc Savage’s Amazing Five or Buckaroo Banzai’s Hong Kong Cavaliers. No such luck. They’re on board mostly for comic relief, except for the black doctor and Latina teenage mechanic who actually have interesting back-stories.

They get on board this way cool submarine that looks like a 19th Century prototype of The Seaview from Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea and find Atlantis in record time, losing most of the crew and the way cool sub and from there the movie continues on a limp and predictable path as Milo finds that Commander Rourke and his crew are really out to steal the magnificent giant crystal that powers Atlantis. And I’m not giving anything away here because almost right from the first time we meet Rourke he’s whispering in ominous asides to Helga and we’re shown mysterious crates full of oversized guns being loaded on board the sub. And so Milo has to appeal to the better nature of the mercenaries to get them to change sides and help him save Atlantis from Rourke.

The animation is absolutely spectacular, especially the opening sequences where we see Atlantis sink and the ending, which is a terrific action sequence, but that’s all I can recommend in  ATLANTIS:THE LOST EMPIRE. At 95 minutes, it zips by in a bewildering daze. Atlantis is found in the first half-hour of the movie and there is absolutely no time to get to know the secondary characters and/or their motivations. In a desperate attempt to give the characters some dimension, the filmmakers stick in a scene where the characters sit around a campfire and actually tell Milo their back-stories. But by then, it’s too late. I wasn’t interested in what happened to any of these characters and was only in it for the eye candy of the outstanding animation work.

And it’s a shame because the voice work is also quite good. There’s a real problem when the bad guy of a movie is more charismatic and appealing than the good guy, but that’s what happens here. James Garner does such a good job as Rourke that I found myself hoping he’d pitch Milo off a cliff and actually get away with stealing the crystal. Michael J. Fox is his usual energetic self as Milo. Leonard Nimoy voices The Atlantean King and there’s other familiar voices such as Cree Summer, Phil Morris, John Mahoney, Claudia Christian, Jim Varney and Don Novello all of who no doubt jumped at the chance to collect a nice voiceover check while waiting for a live action movie or TV show guest spot.

It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE and I realize that I’m not the target audience for this movie, but I have a hard time believing that even kids would find this material exciting or thrilling.  And let’s face it…you don’t blow up a way cool sub like that in the first 30 minutes of your movie…any kid will tell you that.  And there’s just too much metaphysical New Age mumbo-jumbo involving crystals and mysterious life-force energies and all kinds of mystical double-talk that does nothing but try to make you think that there’s something going on here. ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE could have been a smashing Edgar Rice Burroughs/Jules Verne type of adventure and all the right elements are there. My advice to the producers is: next time, forget about creating new languages and tell a good adventure story.  My advice is to go Netflix George Pal’s “Atlantis: The Lost Continent” if you want to see a really good movie about Atlantis.

95 minutes
Rated PG and that’s a stretch. I’d have given it an outright G.