Judge Patrick Naugle is a rootin-tootin cowboy in his own backyard.
Yesterday they fought each other. Today they fight together to stay alive!
Frontier scout Jess Remsberg (James Garner, The Great Escape) goes out of his way to rescue damsel in distress Ellen (Bibi Andersson, The Passion of Anna), and returns her to her husband, Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver, The Lawless Breed). Jess is searching for the murderer of his wife, who was a Comanche Indian. With the help of local horse breaker Toller (Sidney Poitier, To Sir, With Love), Jess will soon realize that the Granges have a stronger connection to his past than he ever could have expected.
With which film genre do you best associate James Garner? If you said "westerns," you are probably in the majority. Garner wore many hats during his acting career—including action hero, comedian, and television star—but the place that Garner has always felt most at home is in a rootin', tootin' shoot 'em up western. The handsome actor's biggest (and most fondly remembered) hit was NBC's comedic western Maverick. Bret Maverick was a gambler and a womanizer, and the series was an enormous hit with audiences and in the ratings.
After Maverick's run, Garner moved on to the big screen in films like Boy's Night Out (with co-star Kim Novak), the Steve McQueen prison breakout The Great Escape, and the amusing Support Your Local Sheriff. Garner's career continued through the decades with the actor playing everything from Wyatt Earp (Sunset) to the President of the United States (along with Jack Lemmon in My Fellow Americans). Yet, the western genre is where Garner has always been most welcome, starting with Garner's first western film after Maverick ended its run, 1966's Duel at Diablo.
Duel at Diablo coasts solely on the personalities of its two major stars. James Garner is a man who couldn't be unlikable if he tried. Garner has always had just the right amount of grit and sass to pull off characters like Jess Remsberg, and Duel at Diablo is no exception. When he's playing the tough guy, Garner tends to have a twinkle in his eye that lets you know he's got good intentions, even when he isn't acting quite-so-honorably. Sidney Poitier makes for a formidable screen presence with Garner. The supporting cast is made up of other famous folks, including the John Hoyt (Blackboard Jungle) as an Apache Chief and Dennis Weaver (who starred in Steven Spielberg's first film, Duel) as the shifty Willard Grange.
There are a lot of western troupes that are covered during Duel at Diablo's runtime. Gunfights abound using rifles and pistols, ten gallon hats cover the terrain, and clichéd Apache Indians show up and put on a mean face for the American Calvary and cowboys. The screenplay by Michael M. Grilikhes (his only feature credit) was based on the book Apache Rising by Marvin Albert. While the novel may have been exiting, the film version doesn't do much to pull away from the pack of westerns that deluged theaters during the late 1950s and early '60s.
Duel at Diablo comes close to feeling more like a Civil War crossover than an out-and-out western. There are plenty of scenes featuring Calvary solders on horseback, giving orders and trailing wagons adorned with American flags. The mix of cowboys and Calvary gives Duel at Diablo a bit of a unique feel; director Ralph Nelson (who teamed previously with Poitier on Lilies of the Field) films the story in a very straight forward, matter-of-fact manner that offers up clear cut action and gunfights. In fact, considering how haphazardly filmmakers like Michael Bay record action scenes these days (using handheld shaky cams), it's a near revelation that we can follow the action in Duel at Diablo as closely as we do.
The film doesn't reinvent the western wheel, but I guess that's really not the point. This is, at its essence, a cowboy/war film filled with action, a bit of filler, and an entertaining performance from James Garner. It's not great cinema, but it is a fine time waster on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Duel at Diablo (Blu-ray) is presented in 1.66:1/108p HD widescreen. Kino Lorber's work on this transfer is very good—the image retains a warm filmic quality while appearing generally bright and colorful. Some of the night scenes tend to have a bit of a washed out quality (and imperfections can be spotted from time to time), but overall the transfer is solid with dark black levels and a clear, attractive image. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono in English. Duel at Diablo is a very front heavy mix that doesn't offer much in the way of dynamic range or fidelity. Even so, the track supports the film well and is a good representation of the original theatrical experience. Also included on this disc are English subtitles. The only extra feature is a theatrical trailer for the film.
The day after I wrote this review for Duel at Diablo, the news broke that James Garner had passed away at the age of 86. Cinema has lost a true titan of class, talent, and geniality. I was glad I had just sat through Duel at Diablo because it made me recall how good of an actor Garner was. Kino Lorber's work on this disc is good, but the lack of supplements is a bit of a travesty, especially considering Garner's passing.
Worth a shot.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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