1857 in Kansas, and two men, one white and one black, are travelling across the Southern states together. The white man is Quincy (James Garner) and he poses as the master of the black man, Jason (Louis Gossett Jr), who acts out the role of the slave, riding into various smalltowns and performing a clever confidence trick. When these white townsfolk see them both, they naturally assume Jason is Quincy's property, thereby giving them the chance to buy Jason, whereupon either he escapes or his best friend assists him, either way they come out on on top and a few hundred dollars richer. It's such a perfect set-up, taking advantage of the bigots, that what could possibly go wrong?
And that's the rest of the story where this duo's lighthearted opportunism of a very grave subject comes back to bite them before the end of the movie. Skin Game was a modest hit in its day and designed to cash in on star Garner's then-recent Support Your Local Sheriff! and its sequel, two comedy Westerns which in turn were exploiting the star's most popular television role as the goodnatured lead character in Maverick. However, watching it today you may be reminded of two hits of the twenty-first century which also used the scandal of slavery to form their stories, as it would seem both Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained and Steve McQueen with 12 Years a Slave had watched this and taken a few notes.
Neither of those successes were comedies like Skin Game, but even in this film there were sincere points to be made, operating under the theme that some disgraces in human history were always going to be bigger than anything trying to make entertainment out of them, whether they be a quick joke or a whole movie. So while there were a number of easy laughs here which coasted on the charm of its four principal players - the always sharp Susan Clark was Garner's love interest, while Gossett's Jason won the heart of one of the decade's noted beauties Brenda Sykes - in Peter Stone's script we were frequently made aware that our heroes were playing with fire. That Stone used is pen name Pierre Marton and director Gordon Douglas also shot sequences but was uncredited speaks to behind the scenes upheaval.
Not that this comes across on the screen, if anything under the other director Paul Bogart's guidance it seems fitting this was once considered appropriate material for a television series later on (it never got past the pilot stage) since that was the arena he made the most impression in, but every so often there will be an instance of strong language (guess which word) or violence to remind you this was a cinematic experience in the first place. Garner and Gossett made a great team, both in a flippant manner as they start out, and later as a more serious examination of the differences society has forced upon them, and it's a pity they didn't go on to further movie collaborations: there was a buddy cop effort just waiting to happen here, if anyone had been savvy enough to pair them again (at least Gossett was on The Rockford Files).
All that said, it's as much the implications of the plot which keep the viewer watching as the star charisma, and they creep up on you because this starts out like one of those seventies con artist movies only set in the nineteenth century, until Quincy and Jason make their inevitable mistake and try their trick once too often. Here's where Edward Asner makes for a very convincing villain as the slavemaster who buys Jason with no intention of giving him back, no matter how much he protests he is actually a free man: when Asner sells him to Andrew Duggan's landowner, we see a ray of light as Jason explains his situation eloquently to this learned fellow only for his intelligence to be thrown back in his face under pain of death if he mentions it again. Even Quincy receives an unwelcome taste of what he has been unwisely playing with as he is whipped like a slave, a surprising scene in what is ostensibly a comedy, but Skin Game was like that, a caper flick which contained more depth than its unfussy, functional surface might indicate. Music by David Shire.