Yesterday, Memorial Day tributes were paid throughout the country to the men and women of the armed forces who gave their lives in service. Today, a 98th birthday salute is offered to a beloved character actor and World War II Army veteran of combat in the South Pacific – earning two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star – who died just last year. Beefy Spokane, Washington, native Clifton James (1920-2017) made a specialty of outlandish rednecks (his two portrayals of Sheriff J.W. Pepper in the Roger Moore James Bond capers Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) were prominent in his obituaries) and crusty authority figures, but his inimitable mug and manner contributed to the authenticity and impact of dozens of movies starting with The Strange One (1957) and figuring quite effectively in the latter-day John Sayles trio of Eight Men Out (1988, as Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey), Lone Star (1996) and Sunshine State (2002). Twilight Time offers three lively glimpses of James at work, more than holding his own in distinguished company.
The starpower doesn’t get any hotter than in director Arthur Penn’s sweltering Texas-set melodrama The Chase (1966, adapted by Lillian Hellman from a Horton Foote play), in which James plays a local hothead, under the sway of wealthy town nabob E.G. Marshall, who helps inflames tensions when word is heard that a hometown boy/fugitive convict (Robert Redford), whose murder rap is a bone of contention among the residents, is headed in their direction, potentially to dredge up some of the corrupt burg’s dirty linen. During a weekend in which the citizens, bitterly divided along racial, class and generational lines, threatens to erupt into an uncontrollable mob, one scene particularly stands out: the brutal and bloody beating of the principled but defiant sheriff (Marlon Brando), who won’t lead the charge in bringing the escapee to heel, by James and fellow vigilantes Richard Bradford and Steve Inhat. James is more law-abiding, and indeed law-enforcing, as veteran LAPD cop Whitey Duncan in The New Centurions (1972), adapted by In the Heat of the Night scribe Stirling Silliphant from Joseph Wambaugh’s novel and directed by Richard Fleischer. As an old-school cop who’s seen it all in the same vein as star George C. Scott’s Andy Kilvinski (who rounds up the prostitutes on his beat in his paddy wagon and plies them with alcohol in order to thwart their illegal activity), James’ Whitey believes in judicious police tactics to defuse situations before they reach the boiling point. Thus, in showing his assigned rookie patrol partner (Scott Wilson as Gus Plebesly) the ropes, he contributes key moments of frisky situational humor (conferring an “official divorce” on eccentric peace-disturbing marrieds at each other’s throats) and gravity (counseling a distraught Plebesly after the newbie mistakenly and tragically shoots an innocent man near a robbery location), in keeping with the dual elements of raucous black comedy and hard-hitting urban law enforcement grit that earmarked the popular Wambaugh bestseller as well as the Fleischer film. In uniform, albeit Naval blues as opposed to G.I. fatigues, James sets the plot in motion of Hal Ashby’s gritty and foulmouthed funny The Last Detail (1973) as the laconic Master at Arms who gives a pair of “lucky sons-o’-bitches,” lifer swabbies Jack Nicholson (as Billy “Badass” Buddusky) and Otis Young (as Richard “Mule” Mulhall), their chaser assignment to escort a sad-sack sailor (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison, where he’ll serve eight years for stealing $40. He’s not shitting them, he says in the raw and raunchy vernacular of the film’s Oscar®-nominated Robert Towne screenplay adapted from Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, because Mule is his favorite turd. Neither will this label shit you in commending the uniformly fine work of real-deal combat hero and Actors Studio alumnus James in the TT hi-def Blu-rays of The Chase, The New Centurions and The Last Detail (the latter exclusively available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30729/THE-LAST-DETAIL-1973/).