Space Cowboys (2000)

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I can’t fill up a spaceship with geriatrics.  In 1958, the members of Team Daedalus, a group of top Air Force test pilots, were ready to serve their country as the first Americans in space. When NASA replaced the Air Force for outer atmospheric testing, they were pushed aside for a chimpanzee by nemesis Bob Gerson (James Cromwell). The team retired, but the dream of going into space has never died. Forty years later, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) is called into NASA to see Gerson who’s now a NASA project manager. A Cold War Russian communications satellite is freeflying and out of control and the archaic control system is based on Frank’s old SKYLAB design. He gathers the old guys from the Right Stuff days – widower Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) and pastor Tank Sullivan (James Garner) and they go through the rigorous  training of any young team,  trying to do in 30 days what would normally be done in 12 months. Then Frank is told he can’t go up but he also finds out one of his team has cancer. When he finally assembles everyone and they’re joined by Ethan (Loren Dean) and Roger (Courtney B. Vance) the younger astronauts supposedly there to do the real work, he sees that the satellite is nuked, a violation of the Outer Space Treaty You don’t need to be putting foolish notions in the head of a fool. From a screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, star and director Eastwood fashions an old geezer take on the men on a mission movie, with a nostalgic harking back to the test pilot days when the moon was still a dream in the sky. Gathering a cast of veteran actors (Jones has a big role, Sutherland some comic moments, Garner is poorly served) they literally go through the motions of contemporary space flight and have to face some difficult home truths as well as the inevitable jeopardy.  That the premise’s hook is that the KGB stole the designs in the first place tells us a lot about what might really been going on all this Hot Non-War time with those lovely Russians. There’s all the technology and the moon yearning to consider but really this is about a bunch of ageing flyers achieving their ambitions and getting to their final destination with some romance provided on the ground by Marcia Gay Harden with medical advice from Blair Brown. The coda of course is a tribute to Dr Strangelove and you can’t say much better than that in the original geriaction movie that is quite literally the final frontier. An amiable, charming work, filled out with the smooth sounds of regular Eastwood collaborator Lennie Niehaus. They were around when rockets were born

 

Move Over Darling (1963)

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Suppose Mr Arden’s wife came back, like Irene Dunne done. Did. Five years after her disappearance at sea, Nicky Arden (James Garner) is in the process of having his wife declared dead so he can marry his new fiancée Bianca (Polly Bergen) when Ellen (Doris Day) materialises and the honeymoon is delayed but Nick finds out Ellen wasn’t alone on the island after the shipwreck after all …  A remake of one of the greatest screen comedies starring two of my favourite people? You had me at hello! This got partly remade as Something’s Got To Give with Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin but got put on hold.  Her premature death led to this iteration of Enoch Arden and My Favorite Wife, which was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack and Leo McCarey (upon whom Cary Grant modelled much of his suave screwball persona for their collaboration on The Awful Truth, another ingenious marital sex comedy.) Arnold Schulman, Nunnally Johnson and Walter Bernstein reworked that screenplay for the Monroe version (she agreed to star in it because of Johnson, and then George Cukor had it rewritten which upset her greatly); and then Hal Kanter and Jack Sher wrote this.  We can blame Tennyson for the original. The set for the Arden home was the same from the Monroe version and it was based on Cukor’s legendarily luxurious Hollywood digs. We even get to spend time at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Garner and Day are brilliantly cast and work wonderfully well together, making this one of the biggest hits of its year (it was released on Christmas Day). They had proven their chemistry on The Thrill of it All and make for a crazy good looking couple. With Thelma Ritter as Nicky’s mom, Chuck Connors as the island Adam, and Don Knotts, Edgar Buchanan and John Astin rounding out the cast, we’re in great hands. The title song, co-written by Day’s son Terry Melcher and arranged by Jack Nitzsche, was a monster. Terrific, slick, funny blend of farce and sex comedy, this censor-baiting entertainment is of its time but wears it well. Directed by Michael Gordon.

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)

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I’m slow – but you’re slower!   Travelling con man Latigo Smith (James Garner) drifts into a small Western gold rush town called Purgatory, he decides to take advantage of a local rivalry between gold-mining factions. Recruiting the shifty Jug May (Jack Elam) to pose as a notorious gunfighter, Smith sets his scheme in motion, while also taking time to romance the lovely Patience Barton (Suzanne Pleshette) who likes nothing better than to shoot up the town. However, after his ruse is uncovered, Smith incurs the wrath of the real hired gun (Chuck Connors) among others, leading to a big shoot-out and his inability to ride a horse is artfully exposed:  or is it? …  This unofficial ‘sequel’ to Support Your Local Sheriff features a variation on the conman/trickster persona of Garner (playing a different character) and while James Edward Grant gets the screenplay credit it had an uncredited rewrite by director Burt Kennedy who came to make a speciality of the comedy western following his early genre work in the Scott/Boetticher cycle. This isn’t quite as sharply parodic as the earlier film and it doesn’t possess its coherence rather a series of amusing vignettes including explosions and a bar-room brawl but it has great work by Elam as the oafish sidekick whom Garner identifies to the locals as sharpshooter Swifty Morgan, nice characterisation as the bawdy madam by Joan Blondell, sporting a chihuahua (and she has a visit by fellow proprietress Marie Windsor!) and lovely support by Pleshette as the blast-happy daughter of Harry Morgan who masquerades as a prostitute but is the real love interest. Garner is great, as ever!

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

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I’ve never made any secret of the fact that basically I’m on my way to Australia. Calendar Colorado is a lawless town rich on the proceeds of a gold find during a funeral and it needs someone to pull it into shape. A sharpshooting chancer Jason McCullough (James Garner) claiming to be on his way to Oz takes a well-paid job to clean up as sheriff, hired by mayor Olly Perkins (Harry Morgan). That involves putting the Danby family in line so he imprisons idiot son Joe (Bruce Dern) in a jail without bars by dint of a chalk line and some red paint … This sendup of western tropes gets by on its good nature and pure charm with Garner backed up by a hilarious Joan Hackett as the accident-prone Prudy Perkins whose attractions are still visible even when she sets her own bustle alight. Jack Elam parodies his earlier roles as the tough guy seconded as deputy while Walter Brennan leads the dastardly Danbys, hellbent on making money from the guys mining the gold before it can be shipped out. Written and produced by William Bowers and directed by Burt Kennedy, that expert at a comic take on the genre whose serious side he had exploited in collaboration with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott the previous decade. Bright and funny entertainment from Garner’s own production company, Cherokee.

Grand Prix (1966)

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The only thing to do here is drive as fast as you know how and hope your car doesn’t brake. Have you ever been to the racetrack at Monza? It’s eerie. It has an aura of death about it. It seems to be hanging in the gloom of all those tall trees. Probably the memory of those spectators killed trackside 1961:  and the final race here in the fictional reconstruction of the 1966 season told from the perspectives of four drivers is at Monza and the death is of a driver, whose broken body is strung up on a tree as his car flies off the north ridge. It’s shocking. This is a brilliant film, still the best by far of all the motor racing films, with an opening 20 minute sequence on the street circuit at Monaco that is one of the best in the history of cinema. Of course it helps to be a petrolhead, but the screenplay, by Robert Alan Arthur, is clever and artful, blending action and storytelling and characterisation as efficiently as you’ll ever see in that opening, using the TV commentary to introduce us to Pete Aron (James Garner) who causes a terrible crash sending Brit driver Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) into hospital with appalling injuries and destroying both their Jordan-BRM cars. Pete is forced to look for a drive in Japan with Toshiro Mifune doing a take on Soichiro Honda. Twice world champion, Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is looking for another title but has young team-mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) to contend with. If there isn’t enough drama on the track, there’s a complex of love lives off it, with Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) looking for love and finding it for a spell with Pete while her husband continues to relive his late brother’s career despite being drugged to the hilt; the married Jean-Pierre falling for American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint); and Nino meeting Lisa (Francoise Hardy – nope, she doesn’t sing!) in a bar with an amusing exchange of perfunctory sentences before they get together and she becomes the perfect racer girlfriend, attending the races, timing the laps. This is a great sports film and one that is redolent with both danger and romance. It’s amazing looking and I only wish I could have been around for the original release in Cinerama which would do justice to the split-screen and the amazing Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Lionel Lindon with Saul Bass. It’s as tightly wound as a suspense thriller with the threat of death on every corner and it’s tough on the business side of this most unforgiving sport and the obsession of its participants. For fans there’s the joy of seeing real-life heroes like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, oh, a whole host of legends. Adolfo Celi does a take on Enzo Ferrari aka Manetta and real-life BBC reporter Raymond Baxter interviews Nino at Brand’s Hatch. Years later, in 1996, my acting hero (Garner) met my driving hero (Jacques Villeneuve) at Monza to celebrate the film 30 years after its release:

Garner was a fine driver and after shooting this – doing all his own driving and one fire stunt with butane that nearly went fatally wrong – he founded the American International Racers team, running cars in Formula A (just below F1), driving in the Baja 100, all leading to his eventually being inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

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The Racing Scene is a documentary following the team in 1969 when he finally broke it up because of the money and time commitment. He drove the pace car at the Indy 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985. What a mensch. He said after making Grand Prix – thanks to his Great Escape castmate Steve McQueen dropping out! – he simply had to be involved in the sport.  This won Academy Awards for editing, sound and sound effects (none for the magnificent Maurice Jarre score) but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Simply sensational. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose wife, Evans Evans, has an uncredited role.

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Sunset (1988)

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Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Rod Amateau’s unpublished manuscript about the friendship between movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and real life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) had the potential to be something quite brilliant:  it doesn’t carry it off due to inconsistencies of tone (never quite slapstick, never quite thriller) and performance (Willis didn’t heed his director to take his role seriously) but it retains its interest. Hollywood’s well-preserved 1920s villas provide a magnificent backdrop to a story set in 1929 just when the industry was getting to grips with the transition to sound. Earp in real life had moved to Los Angeles in 1910 but here he’s newly arrived and hired on a silent movie set to advise Mix and they get embroiled in a murder at the Kit Kat Club, a high class brothel where the whores are movie star lookalikes (shades of LA Confidential) run by the cross-dressing Cheryl (Mariel Hemingway.) Earp tries to help his old girlfriend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who happens to be married to studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly disguised version of Chaplin, and her son, who is in constant trouble and goes missing. The mystery at the story’s heart involves police corruption with those reliable villains M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Bradford and Warhol stud Joe Dallasandro showing up as a gangster. There’s a scene at that year’s Academy Awards (not anatomically correct, but still fun) and lots of really interesting performances in the wings including John Fountain playing his grandfather, the legendary John Gilbert. Willis’ unpreparedness made for a difficult time and Garner (a gentleman) commented on it, a rare instance of his speaking out against a colleague and his own performance really saves the film. Garner had of course worked with Edwards before – on Victor/Victoria. His interpretation of Earp is markedly lighter than his earlier one in Hour of the Gun.  There’s a cute running joke about his inability to drive a car – he does it a lot and in real life Garner was an accomplished racer and stunt driver particularly on The Rockford Files. In a neat nod to that, Dermot Mulroney makes his debut – he would play (my beloved!) Rockford in a TVM reboot. The other pluses are the LA locations used including the Ambassador Hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, Melody Ranch, Bell Ranch and Orange Empire Railway Museum. Not great Edwards but worth a watch for the idea and Garner, with the usually reliable score from Henry Mancini as well as delectable photography by Anthony B. Richmond. A missed opportunity to make a satisfying Hollywood murder mystery but heck with all that talent I’ll take this anyhow.

The Thrill of it All (1963)

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This has been a sentimental favourite since I was probably ten years old and it should be grist to the mill of card-carrying feminists, but there you go. Doris is the homemaker and mom of two married to ob-gyn James Garner whose stories about her kids’ bathtime make her the ideal shill for Happy Soap – the company grandee is the father-in-law of Garner’s oldest patient, soon to be a first-time mom. Day’s frequent absences from home and her growing stardom cause chaos on the domestic front. Carl Reiner’s screenplay takes potshots at TV, commercials, male-female relationships and everything in between in what is a sight gag- and joke-strewn satire of contemporary life and it proved huge at the box office. Doris is great playing a very comedic role straight and Garner is perfect as the harried confused husband who is victim of a great sequence involving his car and a swimming pool he didn’t know was in his yard. My granddad’s fave rave Zasu Pitts has a funny role as the paranoid housekeeper, Reiner himself plays the hilariously repetitive soap opera roles, Edward Andrews is superb as the oldest father in town and Ross Hunter (and Day’s hubby Martin Melcher) proved he could produce another winning contempo-comedy starring Day, with all the values he’d been putting into Sirk’s marital melodramas and without the kind of formula you might have expected at this stage of their collaborations following the Rock Hudson series. Bright shiny glossy fun! You’ll feel just like you washed with Happy Soap. Directed by Norman Jewison.

The Great Escape (1963)

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The famous (blacklisted) screenwriter Walter Bernstein once said that the success or failure of a film could be determined by its premise. Paul Brickhill’s true account of hundreds of Commonwealth POWs doing their darnedest to escape from Stalag Luft III by a tunnel made for a sentimental classic that still thrills and excites no matter how many times you watch it. Almost twenty years after hostilities had ceased there was no let-up in war films and everyone knew what side they were on. James Clavell and WR Burnett adapted the book. Burnett had adapted Gunga Din which was shot as Sergeants 3 by director John Sturges a couple of years earlier.  He was good at handling action and The Magnificent Seven also demonstrated his capacity to bring an ensemble together in a balanced way albeit in a fashion that flattered the egos of the stars. A surprising cast was assembled and boy did they deliver the goods – even James Coburn, utterly miscast as an Aussie, entertains. Amongst their number James Garner does a William Holden as the Scrounger, whose friendship with the Forger (Donald Pleasance) gives them both a taste of freedom, Richard Attenborough is terrific as steadfast Roger Bushell (a variant on Alec Guinness’ turn in Bridge on the River Kwai),  Gordon Jackson has the unfortunate task of replying to the Nazis at the station, and David McCallum is Ashley-Pitt or Dispersal, the man with the blond pageboy cut who falls at the last hurdle.  It falls to James Donald to pass on the bad news.  It is however Steve McQueen as Virgil Hilts, the Cooler King, who cemented his place in film history bouncing off the barbed wire fence on that motorbike. Cool is the word. To quote Susie Hinton, The Motorcycle Boy Reigns! Simply a classic.