Thursday, 9 April 2015


It's easy to imagine a scenario in which James Best became a star. Not a huge star, certainly, but someone who got leading roles, instead of just being a character actor who excelled on both TV and in the movies. His obituaries led with his role as Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane in the Dukes Of Hazzard, something you always had the feeling he could have played in his sleep.

But he didn't, and his work almost elevated the Dukes, and provided some insight into why he never rose to leading man status. First, he made it look too easy, and often he made it look as if he were having fun, which he was. Second, the same easy grin and intelligent spark that made him a popular 'villain' for the Dukes worked against his being taken seriously in any number of roles. Third, his southern accent functioned in much the same way. And finally, Best's best work early in his career was done mostly in B movies, and it's hard to jump from character roles in those to leading roles in bigger films. So you can watch his progression through TV westerns and crime dramas of the 50s and 60s, maybe remembering him from an episode here or there, and then in bigger series and TV movies, with a few meaty roles in some of them.

But there are three films films I'd like to mention here, where you can see James Best's talent so clearly it's amazing it didn't take him farther. They were made by two of the greatest B movie directors, and they knew what they had.

First is Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome (1959) where Best plays Billy John, an outlaw captured by Randolph Scott's Ben Brigade at the start of the movie. The first seven minutes of the film are brilliant: Brigade alone walking his horse through a narrow corridor of stone, Best waiting for him sipping coffee, and telling his own neighing horse 'I hear him'. Bill John is wanted for shooting a man in the back, and he's laid a trap for Brigade, but Brigade's character overcomes the trap, and Billy John sends his gang off to find his older brother Frank. 'He'll know what to do'. As it turns out, this is exactly what Brigade wants.

But Best's few minutes are brilliant: alternately charming and petulant, he's something like the kind of alienated teen James Dean played. Dangerous and childish: you could see a different path for him quite easily. As it happens, his spark plays well off Scott's monolithic strength, but Best fares just as well when matching scenes with Pernell Roberts or James Coburn. Coburn, of course, would be the only one of the three to become a star. Ride Lonesome is one of my favourite films, A or B, and replays every viewing I've given it. Perfectly structured in Burt Kennedy's script, perfectly executed by Boetticher, and acted brilliantly by Karen Steele and Lee Van Cleef as well.

Best was the star of Sam Fuller's Verboten, also in 1959, and despite all the attention given Fuller, it remains underappreciated. Best plays an American soldier named Brent, who's wounded in action but saved by a German woman. He returns after the war and marries her, but has to quit the Army (it is Verboten to fraternise) so begins working for the military government distributing food. He gets his wife's brother a job, but it turns out the brother-in-law is part of a secret Nazi underground called Werewolf. You can guess the rest. Like much of Fuller's work, it is not subtle, but it is very dark and claustrophobic; beneath the surface it puts huge pressures on the characters, and Best is excellent in the slow burn of coming to grips with what is happening, and with love and loyalty.

These characteristics served him well four years later when Fuller cast him in Shock Corridor (1963) his film about a reporter (Peter Breck) who gets himself committed to a mental hospital in order to solve a murder that happened there. Best plays Stuart, who believes himself a Confederate soldier (the name of course evokes Jeb Stuart). When Best gets his scene it's amazing, as Breck tries to get information about the murder from him, he elicits the story of Stuart's breakdown; captured and brainwashed during the Korean War, he was unable to cope with the betrayal of his country. But as he tells this to Breck he details his sharecropper childhood, and his inner weaknesses. Which all gets turned off in an instant's sound: the kind of cue which amazed audiences when Walter Murch did it with sound effects in The Godfather or The English Patient, here it rides on James Best's eyes, and he nails it.

I wonder why Best wound up doing Hooper, while Charles Bail got to play a similar role in The Stunt Man. Bail and Best look an awful lot alike which reminds of the one interesting factoid I gleaned from the obituaries: Best's mother was an Everley; Don and Phil were his cousins by birth, and his given name was Jewel Franklin Guy. Jewel Guy probably wouldn't get you far in Hollywood. His mother died when he was three, and he was adopted from an orphanage by a couple named Best. On such small things do lives evolve, just as do careers.

Watch those films and see if you don't agree. I went to you tube today, and watched Best in an old Richard Diamond episode, The Merry Go Round case, from 1957. He plays a war buddy of Diamond's (David Janssen) who's gone bad, and gone off the rails, and he's riveting in his unpredictability. Track down any of the many TV shows James Best graced with his talent: he's worth it.

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