By 1971 the American Western was in a pathetic state. The genre’s chokehold on television was lessening, Gunsmoke and Bonanza had just a few years left in prime time. Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah exploded the whole traditional notion of a Western. The former opening the floodgates to knock-off Spaghetti flicks, and the latter introducing a gore and a moral hardness that seemed contrary to the whole attitude of the classic cowboy film. John Wayne, and Joel McCrea were pumping out formulaic Westerns, paeans to a bygone era that felt hopelessly out of touch with their time. The young directors of the new Hollywood started their careers with “Anti Westerns” that sought to indict the whole idea of a romanticized American West.
Yet in this toxic climate James Garner still clicked. He wasn’t entirely new school, having launched his career in the late 50s, but his signature character, Maverick, would work in any period or context. In the waning days of the classic Western Maverick filled in the gaps, he was a novelty since he found a way to skirt the macho honor code everyone else seemed bound to. In the tumult of the counterculture, he was able to play up the absurdity of the gunfighter and their world better than the anti westerns ever could. The audience was left laughing while the good guys managed to win the day. All Garner did to mark the transition was grow out his sideburns.
So it is with “Support Your Local Gunfighter”. The setting is a barely plausible town built directly surrounding a mine. When the workers blast open new tunnels, all the buildings in the town center shake, dust falls from the ceiling and poker chips fly off the tables.
The look of the film is decidedly made-for-tv, with studio-lot sets, but thats okay. The complexity is in the characters. The always reliable James Garner aside, you get a power mad Colonel (John Dehner) who’s taken Napoleon as his life model, posing under his portrait for effect; the doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood (Dub Taylor); the feisty gun totting heiress who wants admission to a proper New York finishing school (Suzanne Pleshette); and on and on.
Garner’s con game this time is especially expansive, including bilking two spinster saloon owners; casting the town drunk as a feared gunfighter; and playing Yojimbo with the town’s most powerful families. Of course success in all these endeavours comes initially, but the feature length allows for each thread to live a bit longer, and get wonderfully complicated. Weighing down Garner’s prodigious skills is a debilitating addiction to roulette, and a tattooed love letter to a former mark that covers his whole chest.
Support Your Local Gunfighter reunites Garner with Harry Morgan and Jack Elam from Support Your Local Sheriff. Chuck Connors is drafted into this world, seemingly shipped in from a more traditional Western, and pays dearly for it