WE ARE BESET by a crop of western about extremely competent people. In Sam Whiskey, a dreary little film which proceeds shakily on the mistaken assumption that the audience is interested in what's going on, the title character engineers and executes a gold heist--crushing his adversaries and winding up in a clinch with Angie Dickinson. Along the way, he meets with no serious obstacles. In Support Your Local Sheriff, a food picture by Burt Kennedy, James Garner cleans up the town and wins the girl with computer-like dispatch, supremely faster, smarter, and better looking then anyone--and well aware of it.
It should be noted that Kennedy's film purports to be a comedy and consequently makes much of its hero's uncanny superiority. On the other hand, Sam Whiskey simply lies, since its hero, played by someone named Burt Reynolds, is plainly incapable of doing anything competently and is indeed fortunate to have a director and a writer (their names elude me) who want to pretend that he can. Mr. Reynolds, who was probably in a TV show once, plays as if he were trying to become a child star, and Sam Whiskey is distinguished only by the quiet talents of Miss Dickinson (a long way from Hawks) and Clint "Cheyenne" Walker, a good actor.
Support Your Local Sheriff earns most of its laughs by subverting western clichés; a mayor referring to his daughter says to Garner, "She takes after her dear departed mother." "Mother died?" Garner says with appropriate sobriety. "No, she just departed," says the mayor dryly, exiting screen left. The film abounds with set-up/tag-line jokes which work well, carrying it through a story line which parodies both Hawk's Rio Bravo and Ford's My Darling Clementine (Sheriff holds murderer despite efforts of murderer's family). One takes Burt Kennedy seriously; he wrote a series of Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott films now recognized a minor masterpieces, and directed some excellent films including Welcome to Hard Times and The War Wagon. The complete lack of conflict in Sheriff makes it a little lightweight, but it's handsomely made, and a lot more clever than most new American films.
TOM GRIES' 100 Rifles demands somewhat more attention if only because Gries made Will Penny, an interesting little Charlton Heston picture that opened and closed last year despite unusually good reviews. Will Penny alternated some alertly-written unconventional scenes with great globs of familiar nonsense, finally falling to pieces with an unnecessarily downbeat ending. Its photography, by Lucien Ballard, consisted of tightly cropped, often two-dimensional compositions avoiding self-consciousness and trickery. The whole venture had a ring of effort and honesty about it, despite its failings, and I went to see 100 Rifles to investigate how many of Will Penny's virtues could be traced directly to Gries. Well, no I didn't either; I went to 100 Rifles to see Raquel Welch undressed and a lot of killing, just like everybody else.
If you're into that sort of thing, 100 Riflesproves a swell massacre, teeming with hatred, passion, sex emotion, plot, O God all sorts of things like that. I dimly registered that Gries had shot it well and put it together much better than he had Will Penny, and cheered with a 900 per cent black audience as Jim Brown made passionate love to Raquel Welch. Fernando Lamas, looking almost as good as he did in all those Esther Williams pictures, made a great slimy villain bent on exterminating all those nice Yaqui Indians, and the magnificent Miss Welch doesn't act so bad either.
Like Bandelero!, a similar film, the mortality rate is very high so you should be careful who you take to it. I remember in the middle of the twenty minute slaughter that ends Bandelero!, the beautiful girl I had dragged along said to me, quite seriously, "I hate you for this!" I took my mother to 100 Rifles, which was also a mistake. You can't be too careful about these things if you want to enjoy long happy chunks of cinematic annihilation.
But I digress. As a patient reader may have guessed, I felt like seeing some westerns last week, and though I'd better review them in order to justify my lunacy. The western is a great art form and a truly heavy genre. The lightweight western is all fine and good, but we must remember that three or four of the ten greatest American films are westerns, serious and important works. If for no other reason the traditions of the form should be understood and on occasion maintained, lest corruption weaken and ultimately destroy an invaluable part of American art. Burt Kennedy, who worked with Boetticher, a great moralist, should think twice before he makes another low-key spoof; and Tom Gries should be congratulated for punching some emotion and feeling into what could have been a completely mindless action picture.