Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Skin Game (1971)

Over the holiday weekend, one of the films I watched was the 1971 comic western Skin Game. (Note: do not confuse this with The Skin Game, an early 1930s movie from Alfred Hitchcock.) The movie is on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive and can be bought at the TCM Shop. It's certainly worth a watch.

The opening states, "Missouri, 1857", which should tell you something, certainly if you're an American. Quincy (James Garner) is riding a horse, with Jason (Louis Gossett, Jr.) tied up and walking behind Quincy. You can guess that Jason is Quincy's slave. Except that, as it turns out, he really isn't. Jason was born a free man in New Jersey, but he and Quincy are both con artists. They've developed an interesting con: Quincy sells his "slave" Jason and pockets the cash, only for Jason to escape soon afterward and go off with Quincy to the next town, where they'll do the same con again.

Of course, they're running out of towns in Missouri, having already worked their way through Tennessee and Kentucky, and Jason, being the one who winds up in bondage, would really rather quite while they're ahead. But Quincy persuades him to go on to Kansas, site of heated debate over whether slavery should be extended to the territory. Along the way they meet Plunkett (Ed Asner), who makes his money capturing runaway slaves and returning them south. He points out to Quincy that he never forgets a face, which means there's some obvious foreshadowing going on and that the two will meet again.

Anyhow, in Kansas, Quincy is just about to sell Jason again at an auction, except Jason falls in love with one of the other slaves and wants Quincy to buy her and give her her freedom. Well, Jason will do it out of his cut of the take. The only thing is, there's no take any longer, because in town, Quincy and Jason met the lovely Ginger (Susan Clark), who is a con artist, too. She steals Quincy's watch and then the bankroll! And Quincy isn't able to get a new bankroll because the slave auction is broken up by John Brown.

Of course, the con is bound to go wrong sometime, and that happens when, going through Missouri on their way back to Chicago, Quincy and Jason run into a former mark, who more worryingly happens to be in the same town as Plunkett. Plunkett buys Jason off of the man, and takes him south, leaving Quincy to try to find him.

Lucky for Quincy, he's able to find Ginger again, and with her being a natural con artist, she's sure to come up with a good idea for finding Jason and getting his freedom. But can Quincy and Jason really trust her?

There's a lot to like about Skin Game. It's the sort of easy-going comedy that James Garner was a natural at, and the material gives him a chance to shine once again. Lou Gossett shows that he could be adept at comedy, given the right material. Susan Clark also does just fine, although she had a bigger chance to cut her comic chops 15 years later on the TV series Webster. Gossett gets to deliver some trenchant comments about race; after all although Jason and Quincy are more or less equal as conmen, the whole master/slave dynamic is bound to cause some problems in their relationship. It's not Quincy getting examined like a piece of meat, or getting whipped.

There are quite a few good supporting performances, too. In addition to Asner, there's Royal Dano in his one scene as John Brown, and Juanita Moore as a life-long slave who has to help teach poor Jason how to survive slavery. One thing that I found fell flat for me was the introduction of some fresh-off-the-boat slaves who didn't speak English. They almost seemed to be there for comic relief since the Jason being captured plot line does get rather serious. But they really came across as too zany and almost irritating. But it's a minor flaw in an otherwise well-made light comedy.

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