Friday, September 25, 2015

Smokey and the Bandit

As I live and breathe I find myself writing a review for 1977's SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. Where did I go wrong? What has happened to Lamplight Drivel? Will it be long before I include reviews for FRIDAY THE 13th or BACHELOR PARTY? Or even PORKY'S? Uh, whoops!

I think on those films of my youth and I wonder if they merit an entry in this blog.  So many of them are trifles, but most were significant in some way. Maybe not inherently, but how they affected me, how I've remembered them. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was one of the first movies to jump start my interest in the medium.  I was eight years old.  With BANDIT and STAR WARS I began to pay attention to things like editing, scoring, and dialogue.  Mind you, this would not have happened on the first or second viewings.  I saw both films multiple times at the Dolphin Theatre, Cinema 70, Paramount Theater, etc. in the West Palm Beach area.  I was obsessed.

You could say that Burt Reynolds' star was at its brightest by the time this film stormed the box office.  What an uneven career.  Most of his filmography is filled with either simplistic actioners and/or yahoo comedies.  In between were more thoughtful films like DELIVERANCE and STARTING OVER, the latter for which Burt shaved off his trademark 'stache and delivered a real performance. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT only requires the guy to do an infectious laugh and be laid back.  He does a lot of driving.  This was the first of several "car" flicks that you could argue entirely destroyed any credibility for Burt's bid for legitimacy. But  while no one would ever confuse the first BANDIT film with Bergman, it is far and away the best of any of the mayhem that followed.  The awful sequels.  The CANNONBALL RUN series.  STROKER ACE.

Legendary trucker Bo "Bandit" Darville (Reynolds) recruits Cledus aka "Snowman" (Jerry Reed) to assist with a bootlegging mission brokered by Big and Little Enos (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams): bringing back an eighteen-wheeler filled with Coors beer from Texas to Georgia.  Bandit has a shiny new Trans AM; the Snowman pilots the truck with his trusty hound dog, Fred.  Along the way, a runaway bride named Carrie, later dubbed "Frog" (Sally Field) joins the Bandit and her almost father-in-law Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) and would-be husband, extreme dimwit Junior (Mike Henry) are soon in relentless hot pursuit.

There's your plot.  While BANDIT's success inspired dozens of knock-offs, it was the hardly the first in its genre.  There were many chase epics filling theater and drive-in screens long before Gleason spouted "sumbitch" a dozen times.  Most were either deadly serious or just goofy. BANDIT somehow finds that place between the entirely brain dead and middlebrow and lays rubber. The actors seem to be having fun and the stunts - engineered by director Hal Needham, a stuntman himself-are very good.  Gleason became iconic with his forever pissed off redneck lawman, and is quite funny.  It was probably disheartening for viewers who recalled his more serious work, but for others it was very enjoyable.

For me the movie allowed the pleasures of C.B. radio culture (huge at the time).  Many of my father's pals were into that.  I also enjoyed all the car crack ups, just like many other boys my age.  Burt epitomized coolness.  Those things, but also how such a movie could come together.  I was amazed that all of those complicated set-ups could be executed.  Technical fascinations.  I was also increasingly aware of how narrative worked.  Mainly though, there was something magical about seeing it all on a big screen.  It engulfed you.  Not like T.V.  The largeness of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and STAR WARS were naturals for movie going though I suspect even my eight year old self may have been just as mesmerized had I seen a film with two people just sitting and chatting.  A hobby was born.

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