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James Garner's Five Best Sleeper Films

A look at the late Garner's underrated gems.

James Garner's Five Best Sleeper Films
© 1964 - Warner Bros. All rights reserved.
Julie Andrews and James Garner in The Americanization of Emily.

Almost every obituary for the quietly great James Garner, who died on Saturday, July 19, concentrated on his TV triumph, The Rockford Files, which made it easy to forget that this marvelously artless actor had a fine film career, too. True, Garner didn’t have a lot of hits. Who cares? The handsome actor went for the art, not the simpleminded smash. After his career-defining turn as Hendley "The Scrounger" in The Great Escape, this understated Okie made a slew of wonderful sleepers. Here are some of the best. Box office be damned.

This understated Okie made a slew of wonderful sleepers

The Americanization Of Emily (Directed by Arthur Hiller, MGM 1964)
Supposedly his favorite role, Garner plays the scales of cynicism so gracefully in this anti-war gem, he makes them sound like a symphony. Here, he’s essentially a high ranking pimp, keeping Rear Admiral Melvyn Douglas supplied with luxury goods and girls. Garner falls in love with Julie Andrews and allows himself to be turned into a hero, after accidentally being presumed dead. Watch for Garner’s Paddy Chayevsky-penned speech about ghoulish generals and the widows they make of soldier’s wives. Deftly delivered with his trademark airy ease. And calling out war and heroics for the simple bullshit they so often are.

36 Hours (Directed by George Seaton, MGM 1965)
Based on a short story by Roald Dahl, in this taut, terrifying film, Major Jeff Pike (Garner), who’s just heard Eisenhower’s secret plans for the invasion of Normandy, is waylaid, drugged and awakens in what he thinks is a U.S. Army hospital. Believing the war is over, he has no problem, telling shrink Rod Taylor about the (supposedly) long-finished invasion. Garner slowly realizes his graying hair and bad eyesight have been faked and D-Day hasn’t yet happened. He must then race to undo his disastrous behavior before it’s too late. Making for one pulse-pounding thriller. How does it end? You’ll have to rent it to find out.

Garner and Sally Field in Murphy's Romance.
Garner and Sally Field in Murphy's Romance.

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Marlowe (Directed by Paul Bogart, MGM 1969)
Neither as hardboiled as Bogie or as etherized as Elliott Gould, Garner plays Chandler’s famous shamus as a laid-back cat who could be Jim Rockford’s first cousin. “I’m a trained detective” is Marlowe’s constant, feckless mantra. Whether his office gets decimated by Bruce Lee, or he’s screamed at by blowhard Carroll O’Connor, Garner stays cool. Loaded with lots of lovely L.A. ambience, Marlowe would make a fine double-bill with Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Plus, Garner’s deadpan expression when Lee reduces his office to rubble is positively priceless.

Murphy’s Romance (Directed by Martin Ritt, Columbia 1985)
A forgotten film, made for every woman who’s put up with the wrong man for too long. This folksy gem, stars Sally Field, as a divorcee, whose rascally husband keeps coming around. Armed with the same act that looks like charm and smells like bullshit. Garner plays a much older guy, who really loves Field and is tired of her treating him like her “damned uncle.” When Garner finally kisses Fields? Baby, she stays kissed!

Twilight (Directed by Robert Benton, Paramount 1998)
A moody little noir, this haunting story stars Paul Newman as an aging private eye, hired to retrieve a young Reese Witherspoon. Along the way, Newman spends time playing cards with dying pal Gene Hackman and crossing paths with old colleague, Garner. Who -- heavens! -- actually turns out to be crooked. Watching these wonderful, wounded old bulls say their cinematic goodbyes to youth is incredibly moving. Don’t miss it. As far as missing the elegant, self-mocking Mr. Garner? Maybe we shouldn’t even try. It may prove to be impossible.

 
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