BluRay/DVD Reviews

BRET MAVERICK (WB Archives)

By • Jul 1st, 2014 •

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‘Maverick’ fans prayed that this day would come. I was among that group; I’d grown up on the weekly episodes and, like everyone else, responded to the cool, charming, irreverent, self-deprecating character created by James Garner, as well as the clever teleplays and rich B&W photography.

But one should always be careful of what one wishes for. 1n 1981, almost two decades after the original series ended, Garner reprised his role as the now-infamous poker player in BRET MAVERICK, a one-hour weekly series in color that lasted only a season. Well produced but less-well cast, it was a pleasure seeing Garner inhabit his classic creation again, even if some of the old magic had dissipated.

If I were to lay the blame for this uneven series on someone’s shoulders, it might be whoever had final casting power. Garner is mature but good. His ‘Rockford Files’ (1974-1980) pal Stuart Margolin is over the top but fun as Philo Sandeen, a conniving, bogus Indian. And Ed Bruce as the wary, scowling, deposed Sheriff who ends up overseeing the local saloon against his better wishes (and sings the show’s theme song, which he wrote with his wife Patsy) is perhaps the best of the bunch. But the rest of the recurring cast – and that includes Ramon Biere as a cold-hearted local businessman, Richard Hamilton as a cynical ranch hand, John Shearin as a clearly inadequate Sheriff, David Knell as the ‘innocent kid’ working for the local newspaper, and Darleen Carr as the ever-annoying newspaper editor – none of this recurring batch ever succeeds in winning our sympathies.

The first two-hour double episode is directed by Stuart Margolin. It establishes the series characters, and the basic over-riding narrative (Maverick’s nomadic days are over – he settles down [or does the closest thing to it for one such as he] in a relatively new frontier town called Sweetwater). This feature-length intro is pleasant, exhibiting all the virtues and flaws that the series would consistently contain. Certainly enough virtues to make Garner fans dip their toes a little further into the water, hoping that things would improve.

But the ensuing episodes aren’t entirely fulfilling. In episode # 4 – ‘Anything for a Friend’ (directed by African-American Actor/director Ivan Dixon, who previously directed nine episodes of ‘The Rockford Files’), Billy the Kid is shielded by Ed Bruce’s character. I liked it, but wanted to like it more. And in episode # 5 – ‘The Yellow Rose,’ directed by William (TOM HORN, ‘The Rockford Files’) Wiard, Bret wins a young Chinese woman in a card game. The local women get up in arms about it, and he generally faces criticism on every front while grudgingly trying to do the right thing about this unfortunate situation he’s inherited. When, finally, after two acts of playing hostile and uncommunicative, the pretty young girl calls him “Mav’rick,” revealing that she’s been able to speak English the whole time, it should have been a heart-melter. It’s effective, but it doesn’t win us over the way it should have.

‘The Mayflower Women’s Historical Society’ has two plots diverging. The primary plot, featuring Maverick at the mercy of a prim, aggressive, thrill-seeking woman from back East, borrows from TRUE GRIT for her character, and for the relationship between the two of them. The sub-plot, which allows Darleen Carr a brief romance and shows off her cheekbones, is reminiscent of the Sergio Leone-produced MY NAME IS NOBODY. It has its moments, but tries to pull a dubious plot twist or two over on us, and doesn’t quite take us in.

‘The Not So Magnificent Six’ has an awkward structure, as if the script was written for a 90-minute timeslot and they had to trim it to an hour. Maybe it was originally meant to be a 2-parter? There are two of those as it is – easy enough to imagine that this was intended as a third. In it, a writer, pressured by his publisher to come up with something really commercial for his next book, hatches the idea of a tome about the now legendary Maverick, and the man who killed him. He contacts six killers to do the job. That particular concept never quite feels logical. The six killers don’t understand the thinking behind it, and neither do we. Add Stuart Margolin to the mix, and we’ve got more talk than action, and little of it is believable.

‘The Eight Swords of Dyrus and Other Illusions of Grandeur’ has Sig Haig as part of a magic act that comes to town. Haig has achieved cult status due to his roles in earlier films like SPIDER BABY (’67), a number of Blaxploitation films from the 70s, Rob Zombie’s HOUSE OF A 1000 CORPSES, and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, etc., etc. So I entered this screening hopeful of a fun performance by the actor, maybe in tone with the kind of outrageous material that Stuart Margolin had been delivering. Haig looks good, but abandons his larger-than-life persona to fit the role. Nothing special here.

After all my mixed feelings, suddenly we come upon episode # 13 – ‘The Vulture Also Rises,’ and we’re treated to a more serious story than we’ve had up till now. Garner is playing it straight. Even Margolin is playing it straight for the first half. And in a sub-plot involving neither Garner nor Margolin, a prim woman we hardly know becomes a psychotic sex addict. This sub-plot isn’t resolved well, but it’s an impressively weird counter-balance to what’s transpiring elsewhere in the script. As if this weren’t offbeat enough, character actor john Anderson plays a celebrated General accompanied by a real black wolf on a leash. ‘Vulture’ is a wonderful change of pace for the series, imaginatively plotted, partially, at least, by a new screenwriter in the Maverick stable – Rogers Turrentine, who helped develop ‘The Rockford Files’ and contributed to a number of other TV series such as ‘Magnum, P.I.,’ ‘Northern Exposure’ and ‘Homicide: Life on the Street.’ I can imagine that by this time the writing may have been on the wall for the series, but episode # 13 is a superior piece of 80’s TV.

The final episode, ‘That Hildago Thing,’ becomes more purposely vague as it goes on. I understood Bret’s minor scam, which drives a number of confrontations. But I never figured out what the major scam was all about. I think it was probably meant to be a McGuffin; we weren’t really supposed to know, and it really wasn’t all that important to the wrap-up, which contains a fun surprise, possibly motivated by the cancellation of the series. I’ll leave it for you to discover said surprise for yourselves.

In that final episode, Guthrie is re-elected Sheriff, Maverick is more of the old scamp than he was when the retread began, and in general it’s a pleasant episode, enlivened by a nostalgic cameo by front-toothless Dub Taylor, and a solid, underplayed performance by Hector Elizondo. At the helm, and new to the series’ family, was African American producer/actor/director Thomas Carter. He was 28 when he got this assignment, and is still directing today – shows such as ‘Harry’s Law,’ ‘Brotherhood,’ and ‘The Mob Doctor.’

In his memoir, ‘The Garner Files,’ Garner doesn’t say anything substantial about ‘Bret Maverick.’ But many little clues lead me to believe he cared about the show, and was stoic about its fate.

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