Sunday, March 15, 2009
All The Wrong Things
There’s not a lot to say about Robert Aldrich’s HUSTLE, released in 1975, but it does offer the unique romantic pairing of Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve. She never made very many movies over here in America, so why did she pick this one? Who knows? Maybe she wanted to see what L.A. was like. Maybe she liked Robert Aldrich. Maybe she liked Burt Reynolds. Maybe they asked her. It’s not the best work of anyone involved—Maltin’s book gives it a BOMB rating which, to be honest, seems a little harsh but frankly there isn’t really a strong argument to be made in its favor either. It’s still interesting.
Homicide cop Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds, no mustache) is investigating the death of young Gloria Hollinger, whose body recently washed up on the beach, with his partner Louis Belgrave (Paul Winfield). As all of Los Angeles seems to be obsessed with a Rams-Vikings game that is being played, it doesn’t take long for the coroner to rule the death a suicide, but Gloria’s father Marty (Ben Johnson) won’t leave the case alone. Meanwhile Phil, who is continually lost in a reverie as he thinks of a long ago trip to Rome, is dealing with his hooker girlfriend Nicole Britton (Catherine Deneuve) and sort out their odd relationship. But soon one of Nicole’s customers, the powerful Leo Britton (Eddie Albert) enters the investigation and things become considerably more complicated.
HUSTLE feels like a number of elements thrown together—with the snazzy sports car driven by Gaines, he might be an attempt to create a new Frank Bullitt/Harry Callahan-type character but the mystery at the heart of the film is more like a CHINATOWN-GET CARTER scenario but unlike those films it doesn’t really stick. Despite the title, sports car and big explosion on the DVD cover, HUSTLE is an extremely slow-moving film with very little action but while watching it late at night I found myself strangely compelled by what was going on while admittedly never exactly liking it. It is, after all, a difficult picture to like. Every now and then there’s a shot with the pulp ferocity that Aldrich is known for but too much of it feels like a dull, surprisingly sleazy tv show as if the director was just getting the coverage needed and many of the details like what occurs during a hostage situation come off as unconvincing. When Reynolds and Winfield learn of something late in the film they race to the car and the music (by Frank DVol) kicks in big time out of nowhere for no particular reason and all I could think was, “NOW the movie’s getting excited? It couldn’t do that an hour ago?” Much of HUSTLE has a drab, depressing look to it as if it were shot in somebody’s basement and as a result it’s a drab, depressing movie. No one in the film is very happy about the state of things, but no one is doing anything about it either. Several times somebody asks about Johnson’s character, “Is he anybody?” meaning does this case really matter anything worth a damn? The answer is no of course and not even Reynolds’ character can work up the enthusiasm, spending much of his time fretting over Catherine Deneuve or lost in a reverie over his obsession with the thirties which he boasts that he’s a “student of” (a simpler time, I’m guessing) or remembering a trip to Rome that he can’t get out of his mind. I found myself getting more interested when Paul Winfield’s supporting character began to get upset over the case’s runaround than our alleged hero was—after all, usually it’s the other way around--but what these characters are doing and why sometimes gets a little too muddled. There is some cool location footage of Los Angeles throughout, including Catherine Deneuve’s triangle-shaped house (or do she and Reynolds share it? It’s unclear) which I’m pretty sure is located in the hills over Silverlake and can even be seen from the roof of my building. Like the house, the most interesting things in the movie are located around the edges of the plot, like how it contains just about more drinking than any other film ever—at one point in the plot it feels like there’s a stretch where Reynolds is just going from one bar/restaurant to another to meet people for further conversation and each time when we cut to an interior, we’re joining him already in mid-drink (HUSTLE drinking game—any time Burt Reynolds or anybody else takes a drink, you take a drink). One other point of interest might be that some of the particulars involving the murdered girl slightly resemble the plot revelations in THE LIMEY, which is interesting because on the audio commentary for that film screenwriter Lem Dobbs speaks of dropping his first draft of that script off at Aldrich’s office (presumably after this film) in an attempt to get his attention. HUSTLE is low-key and fairly mature, but it comes off like Robert Aldrich was more interested in just showing up and making a movie with Burt and his friends than in actually bringing a point of view to all this. Written by Steve Shagan (SAVE THE TIGER—now there’s a double bill!), too much of it seems to be straining for a significance that is unclear, like Reynolds making a big thing out of MOBY DICK playing on the late show. And what’s the deal with all this “Bingo” stuff? It feels like it either needed somebody to solve these problems in the script or a different director who had an idea of what to focus on and decide what this story needed to be. But with all the booze, strip clupbs, Ben Johnson obsessing over his dead daughter and overall sleaze it’s a pretty grim film to sit through. Maybe it’s supposed to be ultra-cool, but it just comes off as a bummer. If somebody ever showed this on a double bill with HICKEY AND BOGGS, that other ultra-bleak Los Angeles crime film from the 70s, the theater would probably need to hand out free bottles of Bushmill’s to everyone leaving, as they walked back out into the world, certain that there was no hope for anything in the future.
Reynolds isn’t bad, but in some of the most dramatic moments it feels like he’s not as strong as he should be and it’s hard not to think that with a director who was more committed to this story he could have risen to the occasion. He’s at his best, and most believable, when he’s just supposed to be a prick. The various performances are a mixed bag with Paul Winfield and Eileen Brennan, as the murdered girl’s mother, particularly good, but a few like Ben Johnson and Eddie Albert have been seen to better advantage other times. Ernest Borgnine dials his persona down and is enjoyably nasty in his several scenes as the police captain. With these good actors sometimes flailing, it’s left to Catherine Deneuve to bring the human element to the film. Her English isn’t great, she seems a little more, um, full-bodied than she was in the sixties and her entire role is pretty ludicrous--she's a hooker who also performs coy phone sex as part of her job as Burt Reynolds sits nearby and broods--but it’s Catherine Friggin’ Deneuve, which elevates everything she comes near and some of her work here is the only stuff in the movie that feels truly, genuinely, natural. She brings out some of the best in her co-star as well and when she has Reynolds tell her once again what Rome was like it’s the one sweet scene in the picture, almost as if Aldridge just turned the camera on and quietly let them talk. Her response to the possibility of a McDonald’s opening up on the the Champs-Elysées is a nice little bit as well. (The point where they start slapping each other around before winding up in bed together is a little more problematic in this day and age). When the two of them go to see a revival in Westwood of A MAN AND A WOMAN at the Plaza Theater (now gone) it feels like there’s some kind of in-joke going on and her very presence in Los Angeles is so unusual that it’s hard for it not to bring a distinct feel to the film. It’s not much and yes, the role is pretty hard to swallow, but it is something. Various familiar faces turn up here and there throughout but most notable are early appearances by Fred Willard in a straight role as a cop and Robert Englund in a small but key role as a holdup man.
I like HUSTLE maybe more than I should. It’s not much fun, but it has a number of actors I enjoy watching and it presents a Los Angeles milieu that in its own depressing way makes it stand out. It’s not great. I don’t even know if it’s good. It might not be. But maybe a downbeat, surprisingly adult movie like this, which also comes with the pleasing notion that maybe Catherine Deneuve is really living just over in Silverlake, is exactly what you need to see sometimes in the middle of the night.