Sunday, May 11, 2014

Skin Game (1971)

A few years before the US Civil War (going by the appearance of John Brown, I’d go with 1858), conmen Jason (Louis Gossett Jr.) – a free black man from New Jersey - and Quincy (James Garner) are touring the slave states in the South. Quincy plays the slave owner hitting on hard times who has to sell off his valuable and deeply harmless slave – Jason - quickly and cheaply. Once the deal is done and Jason locked away somewhere for the night, Quincy returns and frees his friend to repeat the same deal again in the next town.

The con is coming to an end though – the duo has played the trick in most every small town in the South by now, and there’s too much risk involved in bigger towns. Additionally, Jason is really growing tired of the whole affair, what with his slowly awakening political consciousness and the little fact that he’s taking the much higher risk of the two partners here. Quincy does convince Jason to do their thing one last time (and after that another last time), though, and as it goes with one last times, things go so wrong, they’ll not only find all their money stolen by con-woman and thief Ginger (Susan Clark) but their next attempt to get some pocket money lands Quincy in jail. Even worse, Jason finds himself an actual slave in the hands of the – appropriately – vile slave hunter Plunkett (Edward Asner). At least there’s honour among thieves, and Ginger might just come back and help Quincy out; and say what you will about Quincy, but he’s certainly not someone who lets what we can only assume to be his only actual friend end his life as a slave. Jason for his part clearly won’t just lie down and take it either.

The thing that’s most interesting about (as far as I know) otherwise undistinguished director Paul Bogart’s Skin Game is how well it manages to make a comedy about something that’s up there with murder and rape as one of the least funny things I can imagine, slavery. It does this without either pulling its punches when it comes to its depiction of slavery (this depiction is of course far less brutal than reality but that’s pretty much a given with anything you put on screen), or falling into the trap of pretending that slavery is funny.

A large part of the film’s humour is based on the joy we derive from seeing rich, powerful, and morally disgusting people put in their place by charming rogues, as evidenced by basically all caper movies ever made, or everyone’s favourite running gag in the Zatoichi films when our blind masseur does the trick that will only hurt the kind of people who’d cheat on a blind man gambling. There’s nothing nicer than seeing bad people get their comeuppance, and there are few people as deserving of said comeuppance than the slave owners. The film is too thoughtful to pretend its protagonists are some sort of Western (Southern?) Robin Hoods, though; they’re really doing what they do for their own gain, and while they are not out to hurt harmless people (much) they aren’t actually helping anyone either. Jason, as the one much more directly hit by the implications of what’s going on around them, does slowly come around to something more altruistic, but he only really takes care of somebody other than himself, and realizes that this skin game isn’t a game for the slaves around them, after he’s become a slave himself and is quite literally feeling the whip.

As you know, Jim, playing the sort of conman playing the games our characters here do was what James Garner spent much of his career on, and his performance is as perfect as they get. There’s the slightly smarmy charm, the curious core of what could be authentic friendliness, the willingness to fuck everyone over, but only up to a point, and the often misguided cleverness that may lead him into a good plan as much as into the kind of trouble you can get into when you’re congratulating yourself for your own cleverness too much – all played up to just the right amount, until you can’t help but like Quincy despite everything. Which, pretty much, is how Jason feels about him too.

Speaking of Jason, turns out that Louis Gossett Jr. is able to play the conman to the same level and style as Garner can, but with some really effective hints of fear, and a bit more sense than Quincy shows with all his cleverness. Gossett also handles the moments when Jason realizes a bit more about how the world around him works for the people who actually have to live in it wonderfully, developing a sense of responsibility his friend will never have, and sticking with it, without things getting preachy. And in the end, while Jason can’t change the world, he decides to save some people and take care of them. Which probably is the best you can do when you don’t want to be maimed by the wheel of history, the film suggests.

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