Thursday, January 27, 2011

Burt With A Badge: Hustle (1975)

Fair warning: I’m hanging a SPOILER ALERT up top. Because shortly I will give away the ending of this movie. And not in broad strokes either.

A year after scoring a massive commercial hit with The Longest Yard, Burt Reynolds and director Robert Aldrich reteamed for Hustle. Burt is LAPD detective Phil Gaines, savvy and cynical. His relationship with high-priced call girl Catherine Deneuve an open secret, Phil’s got no interest in rocking any boats. So he’s inclined to ignore both his partner (Paul Winfield) and the grieving father (Ben Johnson) who insist that a stripper was murdered by politically connected types. But the father mounts his own investigation, and Phil’s got to react.

When the 1970s died, this movie is where they were buried. Burt fires up mood music on an 8-track and takes Deneuve to see A Man and a Woman. Comic Jack Carter plays a strip club MC who “blew some leaf.” A grandfatherly Eddie Albert speaks of balling.

Mainly the movie is ugly, visually and spiritually. Johnson is forced to watch his dead daughter in a porn film by the cops who want him to buzz off, in an unpleasant sequence ripping off a far better one in Get Carter. (A pre-Dukes of Hazzard Catherine Bach is the porn film’s clothed co-star.) There’s a quarter-assed endorsement of vigilantism. And a bogus nihilistic ending that thinks it’s significant.

This might be a good time to repeat that SPOILER ALERT.

Because I’m turning all the cards over now.

As the movie was winding down, I said to myself: Burt’s gonna die. Cheaply and randomly. You know why? Because shit happens, man.

This kind of ending can be appropriate in a cop movie. Joseph Wambaugh used it with great effectiveness. Routine calls go wrong on a dime, and officers die. But Hustle’s not interested in making a comment about the treacheries of the job. It wants to tell you the world sucks. Offing its main character is its juvenile bid to appear meaningful. You know, like the first cut of Clerks.

My premonition of the ending was quite specific. Burt will make peace with his woman. He will offer to take her away somewhere. He will stop to buy her a gift. And he will be gunned down by some punk committing a robbery.

What amazed me was calling this detail: Burt’s killer will be a then-unknown actor who later became famous, just to throw the proceedings completely out of whack.

San Francisco, a bottle of wine, Robert Englund. Sometimes I even frighten myself.

Burt has an impossible task in this movie. His dynamic with Deneuve makes absolutely no sense. And yet he almost pulls it off. He’s at home in the role, tossing off lousy lines so that they sound like wisdom, playing the crap comedy without sacrificing his strength. And then it hit me.

Burt Reynolds as Travis McGee.

He would have been perfect on the deck of the Busted Flush. He had the attitude, the presence. He even grew up in Florida, for Christ’s sake. Why didn’t you see that, ‘70s Hollywood?