The Wheeler Dealers (1963) Blu-ray Review: It’d Be Funnier If It Weren’t So Damn True

Given a proper duration of passing time, just about anything that was once considered cool or comical may malform into something wholly other. And there is truly no better example than the hip 1963 screwball comedy The Wheeler Dealers ‒ an early theatrical effort from director Arthur Hiller which finds the great James Garner as a shrewd businessman with a big mouth and persona to match. Dressed to the hilt in classic Texan millionaire garb, Garner’s Henry Tyroon was the very sort of man whom the very sort of untrustworthy jerks who have ruined America solely in the name of personal gain ‒ from shady used car dealers to corrupt presidential administrations ‒ wrongly looked up to as children.

Naturally, when one looks at The Wheeler Dealers from such a cynical (however astutely accurate) point of view, well, it can prove to be more than just a little depressing. Fortunately, The Wheeler Dealers is just good enough to look past all that thanks to the casting of the always-likeable James Garner as our reasonably morally bankrupt hero ‒ even if you have to drink like Mad Men or enjoy one of Cheech and Chong’s preferred brands of cigarettes beforehand.

Now then, with that little rant out of the way, The Wheeler Dealers finds Mr. Garner as a hotshot oil speculator (the very sort that people have been trying to ban for years) who flees flies from Texas to New York City to seek a new scheme after his latest scoop dries up. Immediately, he determines a way to temporarily buy a cab and its driver (Robert Strauss, whom our film finds alive and well and still quite hard at work work within the industry, despite having appeared in September Storm a few years earlier) without losing ‒ or more importantly, paying ‒ so much as a dime. He even winds up buying a fancy five-star restaurant in a similar fashion when he realizes what a good gig they have, which should tell you what sort of a man Garner’s character is.

Fortunately for the sake of our senses and sensibilities, James Garner was one of the few American actors who could make such an unlikeable schemer seem like an OK guy. And in that respect, it works. Meanwhile, the late Lee Remick co-stars as the sole female stock analyst under the employ of a very ’60s (read: chauvinist) Jim Backus, whose company has somehow managed to survive despite the regularly issued bad advice it gives its clients. Looking for an excuse to sack the woman without facing a sexual discrimination lawsuit, Backus gives her the task of selling stock for a widget company that hasn’t reported a sale since the before the turn of the century. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you where the story goes with our two main characters.

I’m also quite certain I don’t think I need to tell you many of the characters in this film went to Hell.

But at least director Arthur Hiller knows how to cast the right people and milk them for every ounce of laughter they’re all worth. At the top of the pyramid scheme lies the assembling of Phil Harris, Chill Wills, and Charles Watts ‒ who are worth their collective weight in black gold as a trio of billionaire Texan oil barons eager to get in on whatever it is Garner may be selling, even if he isn’t actually selling anything. Then there’s Louis Nye (the actor guy) as a cynical and pretentious painter who is part of The Big Apple’s post-beatnik art world, which paves the way for one of the funniest walk-on parts ever captured to film featuring a young, unrecognizable Bernie Kopell as an outrageously flamboyant gallery attendee in a cameo that literally left me in tears.

And wait until you see John Astin in a supporting role as a government regulator who is keen to bring our chief wheeler-dealer down. Sporting the wrong kind of hairstyle (with matching shade), Astin’s very minor role in the film as a villain (yes, that’s right, Uncle Sam is the bad guy here) almost makes him look like what might have happened were a young Christopher Walken to play Gomez Addams. It’s almost as cool as gay Bernie Kopell’s majestic stroll across the frame. Elliott Reid, Pat Harrington Jr. (Schneider alert!), and Patricia Crowley also star in this enjoyable spoof of a world that has sadly become reality. James Doohan, Billy Halop, William Fawcett, Charles Lane, H.M. Wynant, and Bobby Barber are among some of the familiar faces who make cameos.

Mastered from a new 2k scan of a recently struck interpositive and meticulously restored for this Blu-ray presentation, this Warner Archive Collection release presents us with yet another outstanding HD transfer. Apart from a few feet of film where some secondhand (at best) stock footage was employed (to say nothing of the optical dissolves), the picture here is nothing short of perfect, and the DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono soundtrack (as taken from the original mono magnetic master) is just as perfect. English (SDH) subtitles are included with this WAC release. In terms of bonus features, The Wheeler Dealers only has one item to peddle onto the marketplace: an original theatrical trailer, which has also been remastered and is presented in 1080p.

Honestly, it’s hard to sell The Wheeler Dealers to the average James, but it still manages to Garner a chuckle or two as the film adequately embodies the classic screwball “war of the sexes” traits. Sadly, it also serves as a hard-hitting reminder of how America came to be in the sorry predicament it is in today ‒ a fact that becomes all the more depressing when you note screenwriter/novelist George J.W. Goodman helped found The Institutional Investor. Of course he did. At the same time, we must also accept this was Arthur Hiller’s first big-screen comedy (he followed with the much-better James Garner comedy, so I suppose one should expect this to be a little rough around the edges.

All qualms and unprofessional complaining aside, there’s a lot of talented people on display in The Wheeler Dealers, be they established professionals or aspiring artists on the rise. Needless to say, it’s the cast that helps to move the story along more than anyone else. And it is for that reason I recommend the film. Well, that and Bernie Kopell’s gay art lover, that is: for however politically incorrect it may seem now, it’s still a lot funnier than The Wheeler Dealers‘ actual subject matter itself. Give it a whirl and see what you think, kids.

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Luigi Bastardo

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