Director Joseph Sargent’s true gift as a director was an ability to transport you directly into whatever story he was telling. In his best films, if only for a couple hours, Sargent so expertly captured the texture, sweat, grit, mood, dirt, dust, time and place of his setting, you actually felt as though you had visited. Long after you might have forgotten the plot, the feel of the movie kept calling you back.
Between 1959 and 2008, 49 years, in both television and feature films, Sargent amassed an incredible 89 director credits. On top of winning 4 Primetime Emmys for his work in television (including the outstanding television movie that launched “Kojak”), Sargent forever cemented his legacy in 1974 with “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.”
Sargent’s adaptation of John Godey’s novel not only surpassed its source material, its stature has only grown over the last 40 years as people rediscovered the gritty, urban thriller on home video.
Although “Pelham” is a definitive time capsule of the crime-ridden, graffiti-covered, dirty streets of 1970’s New York City we assumed were gone forever (until Bill de Blasio’s election), it is still timeless. The story of 4 ruthless criminals who hijack a subway car is secondary to bigger themes that look at the sausage-making of municipal politics, slow-moving bureaucracies, and fractured race relations (“You, ah, sounded taller on the radio.”).
A year earlier, Sargent directed another favorite of mine, an early star-turn by Burt Reynolds in “White Lightning.” Just as he would a year later with New York, Sargent masterfully grasps the mood and flavor of the Arkansas bayou and the good ole’ boy free spirit of the moonshine business. You feel the heat, bugs and the sweat, you taste and smell the dust of the back roads.
Reynolds is pure movie star, Bo Hopkins is almost his equal, but Sargent’s gift for atmosphere is what elevates what could have been a standard 1973 drive-in car chase entry into something closer to a noir thriller.
My third Sargent recommendation is the 1995 miniseries “The Streets of Laredo.” With the help of a top-notch script (co-written by Larry McMurtry) and a magnificent cast, including The Mighty James Garner, Sargent performed the impossible: a worthy sequel to the 1989 masterpiece “Lonesome Dove.”
Garner plays an aging Woodrow Call on the hunt for Joey Garza, a twisted but savvy Mexican serial killer. The world of South Texas and Mexico is so rich and alive, you feel as though you’ve been on the bounty hunt right along with the rest of them. Like “Pelham” and “White Lightning” this makes “Laredo” endlessly rewatchable.
Check out the rest of Sargent’s work here. You’re almost certain to find a personal favorite.
John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC