In Memory of James Garner: A Review of Murphy's Romance

In memory of James Garner, my continuing series on Criminally Neglected films takes a look at one of his forgotten gems: Murphy’s Romance, which is currently out of print.

"Save a horse. Ride all of US!"
Not many people under 30 have heard of Murphy’s Romance, and that is a shame. It's arguably one of the ten best love stories of all time. It's not spectacular in scale, not bogged down with style, and not given to flights of fancy that instigate Oscar-bait monologues. Murphy's Romance is simply... simple, realistic, loving of its characters, and with a sense of time and place so authentic that it strips us of the awareness we are even watching a movie. It becomes an experience—a slice of life that plays out before us, and we are hooked.

The film also has one of my favorite characters in any movie: Murphy Jones, played with the kind of wit, charm, and life you rarely see. He is played by the late great James Garner, who is not just the title character, but is the delicate string that holds the entire movie together. His mannerisms in every scene display a wisdom and slyness of his character, and the way he looks at Sally Field should be taught in acting class. He gazes at her; he doesn't stare. He doesn't search her eyes for answers to corny questions. There is nothing cliché about this character. He's just real.

" Look at your man. Now back at me.
The man you wish yours could be. Old Spice.
Whistle the tune for
your damn self.
I'm too busy being awesome."
Emma Moriarty (Sally Field) is a single mom who grew up on a farm, knows horses and hard work. She moves out to the country to fix up a ramshackle old house and barn in order to start a business of boarding and training horses. Her son Jake is played by also late Corey Haim, who plays his role somberly as a boy who misses his dad, and is kind of clueless as to the workings of this new life. This role could have been a thankless one if Haim didn't play it so well. His eyes express the weight of the small world on his shoulders, and we can see that weight lifted in the presence of his dad (Brian Kerwin) and when talking to Murphy about the little things that bother him.

Emma happens across Murphy Jones' drug store when advertising her business. In this first conversation, we already know that these two are destined to fall in love by the film's end. That's how these movies work: 1) We introduce the main characters and know from the start they are compatible. Step 2) We watch as a series of wrenches are thrown in the works to put off this revelation. Usually, this is a maddening exercise in avoiding the obvious, and it gets old quick. In the case of Murphy's Romance, we are given a realistic dilemma, not a series of ridiculous, over-the-top occurrences that scatter our radar of reality.

"Take aim!!! Now fire!"
But love stories are not about their plots; the few smart love stories that have come out of Hollywood over the years recognize this and treat their characters with intelligence. Murphy's Romance has a cast of performers who embody their roles with an almost improvisational realism—no one seems like they’re regurgitating plot machinations. Sally Field is terrific as Emma, who we can see has tenacity and a good work ethic, but also has an unwillingness to separate the men from the boys, which blinds her to the possibilities of loving someone new. Brian Kerwin, as her estranged ex-husband, has one of the tougher jobs in the film: He has to maintain the image of a scumbag ex while still coming across as the kind of man we could see as charming. It's a difficult balancing act, but he pulls it off nicely. But it’s James Garner, who earned a Oscar nomination (he should've won) for this role, owns this movie from beginning to end. His dialogue is sharp, his delivery is perfect, and his charisma radiates from the screen. This is the kind of talent you’re born with, and he will be missed greatly.

Murphy's Romance is one of my favorite films for all the reasons I've mentioned: Great performances, wit, and you can’t have a love story without love. Garner and Field play their characters with just the right pitch in every scene, and when we finally do come to the closing scenes of the movie, everything rides on them. The last scene, brilliantly shot by Martin Ritt and his cinematographer William Fraker, is written in such a way that it would make or break the film. As it stands, it is probably one of the most best closing scenes in film history, with the two of them nailing every note. It reaches out of the screen and makes us grin from ear to ear, touches our heart in a way that few films do, and it's a testament to the true power of film: It makes us want to fall in love for the first and last time in our lives.

- Blake O. Kleiner