Friday, February 26, 2016

Hustle

Updating the noir genre to the 1970s must've seemed to Hollywood fairly logical, a perfect fit.  Audience sensibilities, already weathered by real life, would easily respond to similar cinematic dirges of duplicity and despair of years past. And with censorship now relaxed, auteurs could create the sort of hard edged, rough content masterpieces only dreamed of before.   A few filmmakers tried and fewer really succeeded.  1975's FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, complete with contemporary does of sexuality, was a game attempt, even bringing in heyday antihero Robert Mitchum to play Philip Marlowe once again.

That same year, director Robert Aldrich re-teamed with his LONGEST YARD star Burt Reynolds to create his own neo-noir that would surely be a hit, HUSTLE.  Burt's star was burning brighter and brighter as the 70s wore on, and the macho, virile sensibility he would bring to the role of Los Angeles Lieutenant Phil Gaines had to be right on, man.  And his weary performance would prove to be quite suitable for this sour tale of the investigation of a dead girl on a beach, although Steve Shagan's verbose screenplay is not really a mystery story, rather an attempt at a character study.  An existential mood piece of defeated souls desperate to escape the sun drenched but thoroughly diseased City of Angels.  Perhaps seeking the charms of Paris.  To wit, Aldrich believed he could successfully pull off a European style crime drama that would be short on action and long on self-analysis but would resonate as some sort of bitter classic.

As with some of his characters, he doesn't make it.  Points do have to be given for effort, but there are numerous problems with HUSTLE:

1). Shagan's script.  It's an unruly mess.  It tries to have Meaning, but sinks under its own self-importance.  And the dialogue rambles, desperately in need of paring down.  Some scenes are out of place.  One subplot - Gaines and his partner, Sergeant Louis Belgrave (Paul Winfield) are dispatched to LAX to tail a suspected terrorist- is forgotten about minutes after it is introduced.  In fact, the scene degenerates into drunken, sexist, xenophobic jokes! Was any of this ad-libbed? Let's not even mention Ernest Borgnine's (who plays the police chief) at times indefensible speeches, which offer little more than a perfect example of how un-P.C. the seventies were.

2) The pairing of Reynolds and French beauty Catherine Deneuve, who in a rare American appearance plays his girlfriend Nicole, a lady of the evening.  Aside from a few enjoyable moments of playful banter, they are hardly believable as a romantic couple, registering little chemistry.  Their big emotional dramatic scenes somehow don't ignite.  They are both attractive.

3) Ben Johnson's performance.  The otherwise great actor plays Marty Hollinger, the dead girl's father who doesn't buy the police's quick assessment that the death was a suicide.  In HUSTLE,  Johnson's one-note ranting is just this side of ham fat, a real surprise.  Clearly Aldrich should've pulled the reigns on him.

4) And yes, Aldrich's direction.  A few scenes do work, but otherwise the director just can't find the right tone for this picture. Some times relentlessly dark, other times almost goofy.   Much of it feels like an undistinguished T.V. crime drama of the era.  It would be an unfortunate stylistic choice that Aldrich would continue with 1977's awful THE CHOIRBOYS.

5) The editing.  Michael Luciano's chainsaw smooth work creates confusion and frustration, echoing the screenplay.  The transitions are non-existent.  One minute Burt is ruminating on his sad lot, the next he's playing all rough and tough, and no, not because his character is complex.  If the editing had been better, it might've saved the movie.

Despite all this, I was fascinated by HUSTLE.  Mainly due to its vivid evocation of '70s L.A., but also what was being attempted.  Burt is appealing here and holds attention through most of the movie even as he mouths some questionable lines. I bought his angst, his slow burn anger,  his jealousy, his defeatist outlook.  I'm always impressed when he does something a little more ambitious, movies like this and THE END. But HUSTLE is just too disorganized and unfocused to really be effective.  It's a noir that won't make you forget the chestnuts of earlier decades.  But it does have a entirely downbeat conclusion worthy of the genre, and in the great tradition of '70s nihilism.  The sound of wind rustling over the final seconds, a freeze frame, does work in some unexplainable way....

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