Sunday 8 September 2013

Easy-going rider… Sam Whiskey (1969)

I have fond memories of this comedy western from its television screenings – perfect family entertainment at a time when we had only three channels to choose from… we were more easily pleased.

Having not watched it since, I was unsure how the future star of the mighty Deliverance and,er Smokey and the Bandit would fare when confronted with my older, more considered, gaze…

Sam Whiskey now appears like a slightly higher-budget TV movie with extensive use of standard backlot real estate and westerners who look like they bathe and have regular haircuts. It ambles along in a pleasant way but there’s not much jeopardy or tension.

Burt Reynolds in typical pose
Burt Reynolds plays Sam Whiskey an adventurer who has failed to make the big time and yet whose reputation is enough to arouse the interest of a damsel in distress seeking criminal expertise. Laura Breckenridge (Angie Dickinson) is looking to clear her late husband’s name by returning the $200,000 in gold he stole from the Denver Mint during the Civil War.

The gold bars went down with all hands on a paddle steamer and she is convinced that they can be retrieved and then returned before the routine inspection (not sure why this has taken so long…)

Laura is a very persuasive woman...
In spite of Mrs Breckenridge’s obvious charms, Sam is reluctant to under-take what looks like an impossible task but, she reinforces monetary incentive with repeated amorous inducements leaving Sam weak enough to agree… Dickinson plays the sex-kitten very well but you do wish she’d been given just that bit more to do. She has good chemistry with Reynolds but their relationship is too much of a one-note affair.

Sam recruits local blacksmith Jed Hooker (Ossie Davis) to help even though Jed sees right through his bluff and bluster and the an old friend, inventor O.W. Bandy (Clint Walker) who just happens to have a machine gun.

Burt Reynolds and Ossie Davis
From the outset they are trailed by an overweight man with thick lensed spectacles, Fat Henry Hobson (Rick Davis) who wants to take the gold for himself.

They find the sunken boat and using Bandy’s devices, dive down into the river to start retrieving the gold bars… but all the while Fat Henry and his men are watching…

But the tone of Sam Whiskey turns in the next few scenes as Jed and Bandy are captured by some ornery lookin’ hombres who look set to torture and slice the men in horrible ways - Anthony James as Cousin Leroy was always excellent at “unsavoury” and he is genuinely so in the few frames he’s allowed.

Sam swims over from his hiding place and unleashes Bandy’s machine gun which, miraculously, mows down the baddies while leaving his pals unscathed… and it’s all over in a flash of clinical retribution.

Ossie Davis, unsavoury Anthony James and Clint Walker
The film’s uneven tone becomes more focused as Sam and the boys arrive at the Mint and have to work out an ingenious method of returning the gold. As their deadline looks more and more impossible genuine tension is felt as their scheme unfolds…

Dickinson rehashes her sexy moves as she holds a genuine Bank inspector captive, whilst Sam’s inventive criminal skill is put to the test: perhaps Mrs Breckenridge knew exactly what she was doing all along?

No giving away the ending though…

Arnold Laven directs very effectively and gives his stars full reign, although it still feels like Reynolds and Dickinson barely get out of second gear… Talking of which, a scene of Angie "bare-from-the-waist-up" was cut to ensure the film’s family friendly rating, which may also explain the shift to cartoon violence mentioned above. The film plays it very safe.

Angie Dickinson
Dusty verdict: Well worth a watch if you’re in the mood for amiable entertainment, Burt Reynold’s cheek and Angie Dickinson’s endless charm.

It’s available on DVD from the usual places and probably screens on TCM every other week… I’ll be keeping my old VHS.

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