James Garner continues his western persona in the 1971 movie, “Skin Game”. Set in 1857 during a controversial time in history when slavery and states rights in the west were up to votes and courts (Dred Scott supreme court case – not mentioned in the movie) Quincy Drew (Garner) and his side-kick, Jason O’Roarke (Lou Gossett Jr.) are running a scam (called a “game” by Quincy… “….it wasn’t until we came upon this little ol’ skin game that we started really cleaning up” ). The scam involved selling and then stealing back a slave and the pair, both con men by trade, move from town to town in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, and Kansas. Jason, though a free black man from New Jersey, acts as a slave and Quincy as the master.
The movie opens with a dreary scene of the master on horseback and slave walking behind entering into the small town of Dirty Shame. Quincy and slave appear in a bar where the master begins with a sad story of how he needs money and the slave needs a new master and his “three squares a day”. The bidding ensues. Soon after the sale, we discover the slave has escaped and in the next scene, master and slave, reunited, are laughing, drinking and recounting many of their previous successful scams.
Their game is not without problems, though and they end up in Kansas Territory where the state is about to vote to be either a free state or slave state (and voters were being paid from other states to vote for slavery). Enter “Ginger” (Susan Clark), a woman with slick hands and her own knack for cons. In spite of the fact that Ginger plied her trade to the detriment of Quincy, the two get together as cohorts.
Ginger joins the two who decide that this sale (auction) in Kansas will be their last one. The famous John Brown rides into town and declares all slaves to be free – Jason and Quincy are separated briefly before once again trying their game in Missouri on their way back to New Jersey. This time, Jason is captured and shipped off to a plantation in Texas and Quincy is jailed.
Helping him to escape jail, Ginger teams up with Quincy as “Doctor and nurse” and then “reverend and nurse”. Having finally found Jason and declaring a quarantine for a mysterious illness, Quincy has the plantation locked down until word comes that he is part of the slave con. Drew is captured in his pastor regalia as he is playing cards with Jason. Quincy acts outraged and says “you dare lay a hand on a servant of the Lord!” (while holding up his playing card, glass of whisky and cigar!)
They all do finally escape, along with a contingent of other slaves from the plantation and find their way to Mexico.
The slavery theme of this film has a dark tone with comedic overtones. Not a “politically correct” film, but once the viewer understands that the film is not about racism (but does give one pause for thought on the unfortunate history at this time period) one can enjoy the comedy, seriousness, triumph and challenges . The protagonists (Jason & Quincy) are best friends and whereas the backdrop of the film is the era of this dark period in American history, some light is made of the situation and the audience immediately knows which side they are on – that of the oppressed and yes, the side of the con-men.