Monday, September 2, 2019

James Garner and Sidney Poitier Host a Duel at Diablo

James Garner as Jess.
From the opening strains of Neal Hefti's guitar-driven theme, it's apparent that Duel at Diablo (1966) wants to break from the conventional Western movie mold. Its acting credits confirm that, with an eclectic cast headed by James Garner, Sidney Poitier (in his first Western), English actor Bill Travers (Born Free), and Swedish star--and Ingmar Bergman favorite--Bibi Andersson.

The central premise is straightforward: A Cavalry troop must transport ammunition from Fort Creel to Fort Concho, even as renegade Apaches threaten to attack and steal their cargo. However, this basic story gets flushed out with more details than the average Western. The Apaches are on the warpath because of poor living conditions on their reservation. The Cavalry unit is commanded by an experienced leader (Travers), but his soldiers are fresh recruits ill-equipped for combat.

Poitier in his first Western.
Jess Remsberg (Garner) wants to reach Fort Concho to exact revenge on the man who killed his Comanche wife. Meanwhile, Ellen Grange (Andersson), who was just awkwardly reunited with her husband, wants to return to the Apaches who kidnapped her. Her reason? To care for her Apache baby, who happens to be the grandson of the renegade tribe's leader. Got all that?

Duel at Diablo marks the reunion of Sidney Poitier with producer-director Ralph Nelson, following the duo's 1963 hit Lilies of the Field. It's quite a change of pace, but both men handle it well. Nelson effectively stages the action scenes against the stunning backdrop of Kanab, Utah (a popular locale for movie Westerns). Poitier brings grit and easygoing charm to his role as a former Cavalry sergeant who now sells horses and dresses in dandy duds. It's worth noting that no one comments on his race.

Swedish actress Andersson.
James Garner's role doesn't require much acting, but his always likable screen persona is put to good use. Dennis Weaver, who was then known mostly for playing Chester on TV's Gunsmoke, has a meaty role as Ellen's husband, who can't cope with what has happened to his wife. (This was one of two Weaver movies with "duel" in the title...the other being Steven Spielberg's Duel.)

Composer Neal Hefti's opening theme probably ranks in my Top 10 for Western movies. The rest of his score is pretty good except for a downright funky theme for the Apaches. Hefti was a prominent arranger, composer, and trumpet player from the Big Band era long before he began writing music for movies and television. However, TV fans probably remember him best for his memorable themes to The Odd Couple and Batman. The latter was a Top 20 Billboard hit for The Marketts.

Duel at Diablo was Garner's first Western since departing from Maverick. It's a solid, if unexceptional, contribution to the genre. Garner would fare better three years later in the lighthearted Support Your Local Sheriff. As for Poitier, his next three films would cement his status as an iconic star: To Sir With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

4 comments:

  1. My one viewing kept me interested while not thrilled. After reading your critique I believe I would like to see this again to see if the intervening years have changed my feelings one way or the other.

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  2. As much as I like Garner in this genre, it's hard to get into '60s colored (and dandified) Westerns. I guess I never got over the more realistic (to me) B&W grittiness of the '40s "My Darling Clementine" and '50s Jimmy Stewart/Randolph Scott films. 1959's "Rio Bravo" is probably the last of the bold colored films I liked, but at least there the color palette was toned down.

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  3. I think I like this better than all of you. To me it's a very good Western with an unconventional setup. I too found it interesting that no comment is made about Poitier's race. The movie also has a pretty good twist at the end.

    Two years earlier we can find the very fun Rio Conchos with Jim Brown as a black Cavalry sergeant.

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  4. This is one of the many reasons I visit your fab blog: You always introduce your reader to lesser-known films. That in itself is a treat.

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