Burt Reynolds became a bankable star in the 1970s, he had to cut his teeth somewhere, both as a supporting player on a show like Gunsmoke (1962-1965) and in a handful of B-movies from the late 1960s like Navajo Joe, 100 Rifles, Impasse, and in 1969, Sam Whiskey, a generally forgotten B(ish)-western with a solid cast.
An orphan who grew up on his own during the 1840s/50s/60s, creating his own instantly recognizable reputation, Sam Whiskey (Reynolds) has done it all from being a cowboy to a shotgun driver on a stagecoach, an Army scout to a cattle rancher. Well, he's now gotten himself into something deep that could prove rather difficult. A widow, Laura Breckenridge (Angie Dickinson), approaches Sam with a favor, her dead husband having robbed the U.S. Mint of $200,000 worth of gold bars, but the ship it was being transported on sunk in the middle of a deep river. Laura doesn't want it back but to put it back so her husband's memory can be saved. With help from two partners, O.W. Bandy (Clint Walker), a quirky inventor, and Jed Hooker (Ossie Davis), a blacksmith, Sam goes about putting his plan into action, but there's some other parties who want the gold just as bad.
There are some movies out that that just don't want to be watched. I recorded this western from director Arnold Laven off of MGM-HD on TV over the last couple weeks only to receive a surprise. MGM doesn't use commercials, instead using a mid-movie intermission. Well, when the intermission came back, the credits for a new movie we're rolling. What the heck?!? Thankfully, it popped up on the schedule again, and I was able to watch the last 40 minutes. There's nothing classic about this comedic western, but if nothing else, it's cool to see this generally light-hearted, funny western in a time -- the late 1960s -- when the western was anything but. At times, it has the feel of an extended TV episode (mostly because of the town sets) with a limited budget. Expect an easygoing story with some fun characters, and you won't be disappointed.
Not yet the instantly recognizable leading man with the sex appeal and the bankable background, Reynolds looks to be finding his groove early of things to come in the future. His Sam Whiskey is an amiable if somewhat devious drifter who's done a little bit of everything to make some money. In the coming years, Reynold would eat a part like this for breakfast. It looks easy for him. He's charming and smooth, a quick thinker who always see the potential for a big payoff. He's also constantly singing, a little dirty ditty dubbed Mary McCarty, which adds to the general goofiness of the story. As for the humor, it leans toward the scandalous in certain departments. How exactly does Dickinson's Breckenridge convince Sam to help her? Sure, the money works, but so does jumping into bed with him. Dickinson disappears for vast stretches of a 97-minute movie -- watch out, Lady, men at work -- but her part is good, especially when she's forced to babysit a kidnapping victim (Woodrow Parfrey). Still, Reynolds and Dickinson have a pleasant chemistry throughout.
Much of the story revolves around Sam, Walker's Bandy and Davis' Hooker, a kind of oddball teaming but one that works surprisingly well nonetheless. Reynolds is Reynolds, the smooth, confident leader while the other two play well off Reynolds' antics. Walker especially plays against type, forsaking his usual strongman character for a smart, quirky inventor who's putting his alcohol-fueled life behind him...or at least trying, sometimes successfully. Davis as the blacksmith gets to play the straight man to the antics around him for the most part. His Jed Hooker isn't about to get conned by Sam, seeing through his shenanigans as they pop up. With much of the story following this trio on the trail, recovering the gold and eventually replacing the gold, it's never a bad thing when you've got three likable stars working together to carry the story.
The strongest part of 'Whiskey' comes in the second half -- after that doomed "intermission" -- when Sam, Bandy and Hooker try to put the gold back into the U.S. Mint in Denver. That's right, putting the gold back. 'Whiskey' is a comedic western, but this extended sequence is very well-done in the old drama department. Almost working like an anti-heist, the trio must work inside a well-guarded mint in the dead of night, guards patrolling all around, the mint superintendent (William Schallert) slowly figuring out their plan. An especially enjoyable sequence, improving on the first half of the movie that, while good, is a tad slow-moving at times. A good, not great comedy western overall.
Sam Whiskey (1969): ** 1/2 /****