What townsfolk as can be assembled - or bothered - are burying one of their fellows today, except that as the head of the council recognises, nobody knew much about him because he wasn't in town for long anyway. As he speaks the perfunctory sermon, the daughter of the mayor, Prudy Perkins (Joan Hackett), catches sight of something glittering in the grave - gold! No sooner has she pointed it out than gold fever strikes the area, and soon the place is overrun with prospectors. One of those is Jason McCullough (James Garner), who just might clean up this town...
By the time Support Your Local Sheriff! was released, the Western was shifting into its late period crisis from which it never really recovered, but where Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch shook things up through its violence, this was not interested in groundbreaking material and simply wished to make the audience laugh. Yet in its way, here was a film that was as much responsible for that decline as the Peckinpah, as while it was a hit, it did point to the theory that there was not much left to say about cowboys in the movies, paving the way for the better-recalled Blazing Saddles.
Where Mel Brooks had blasted the genre off the screen by decrying it with all the force of derision he could, however, director Burt Kennedy and writer William Bowers - both veterans of Westerns for a while by the stage they made this - were feeling very affectionate towards the conventions that had made movies like these such a success. But where something like Destry Rides Again or Way Out West, you could argue, did the same in their send-ups, here a sense of indulging a relative in his dotage was part and parcel of the humour here, and indeed the whole construction of the plot, which could just as easily have been played straight in other hands.
What saved this from belittling a formula that was fast turning hackneyed was the presence of Garner as the Sheriff of the title in the sort of performance he made look effortless, but was no less amusing for that. The conceit was that Jason was the smartest guy in town, something underlined by having the villains often not only refer to their lack of learning, but demonstrate it as well. The first baddie Jason meets is Bruce Dern's Joe Danby, one of the local family of ne'erdowells who help themselves to the profits of the gold and hold the town in the grip of fear. Joe is witnessed killing a man in cold blood, so becomes Jason's first target for arrest.
The fact that the jail is unfinished, with no bars on the cells, is no deterrent to the Sheriff's ingenuity. He's simply there because he wanted a job to fund his gold prospecting, and that type of eccentricity is what makes him in no way arrogant, and actually kind of fascinating as you wonder what he can do next to gain the upper hand. Garner's supremely bemused air doesn't quite conceal a mind like a steel trap, and the way which Joe is persuaded to stay imprisoned in the cell in spite of being able to walk out of it any time he would like is just one instance of the pleasure both filmmakers and audience take in Jason's sharpness. Walter Brennan shows up as the permanently pissed off patriarch, but doesn't get enough scenes with Garner to be much of a threat, though Hackett proved her worth as a quirky comic leading lady, something she never really capitalised on in the movies, and Jack Elam found a new lease of life as the comedy sidekick. Overall, it may have been one among many Westerns signalling the end of a long era, but it was a good one. Music by Jeff Alexander.