Harvard Film Archive’s Aldrich retrospective continues with ‘Hustle’

Sean Burns dissects Robert Aldrich’s unrelenting neo-noir as the unmistakable product of its singular director, megastar leading man, and auteur-enabling era.

Ruthlessly downbeat in the way major studio pictures were only allowed to be back in the ’70s, Hustle, director Robert Aldrich’s under-appreciated 1975 neo-noir, gets a rare 35mm screening this weekend (Sat 7.16 7pm) as part of the Harvard Film Archive’s eye-opening retrospective …All The Marbles: The Complete Robert Aldrich. Misleadingly sold on the sex appeal of stars Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve (“They’re hot” reads the film’s original poster, currently on display outside the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts), the movie is a bitterly cynical sigh of resignation, uncompromising in its ugly vision of an America gone to rot. When it was over I had to go walk it off for a little while.

Reynolds stars as Phil Gaines, a seen-it-all LAPD Lieutenant breezing his way through homicide investigations while knocking back copious quantities of Bushmills and trading off-color quips with his partner, Louis (Paul Winfield). The body of a teenage hooker washes up on the beach, ghoulishly discovered by a children’s day care class on a field trip. Toxicology rules the death a suicide by overdose, and our detectives dig up just enough information about the prostitute’s possible dalliances with a high-powered political fixer (Eddie Albert) to figure that everybody will be better off if this open-and-shut case gets closed as quickly as possible.

The victim’s father ain’t buying it, though. Played by the great Ben Johnson, he’s a furious Korean War vet haunted by visions of his little girl on merry-go-rounds and now he wants some answers as to how his baby wound up turning tricks with a stomach full of pills. (We’re none too kindly reminded more than once that she was “found with large quantities of semen in every orifice.”) Gaines knows the old man isn’t ready to hear about what really probably went down, but damned if the guy’s righteous anger isn’t shaking something loose beneath the cop’s glib amorality.

He’s been having trouble at home, anyway. Gaines’ domestic “arrangement” with Deneuve’s high-priced call-girl is starting to fall apart now that he’s broken the rules by going and falling in love with her. He likes to tell himself that her profession doesn’t bother him, but watch how he pours himself another drink in the background every time she fields a call from a client. The key to Burt Reynolds’ superstar appeal was always his easygoing charm, but his too-seldom used strength as dramatic actor lies in suggesting troubled currents beneath that placid surface.

Aldrich knew how to direct Reynolds better than most, allowing the star’s breezy charisma to significantly brighten their previous collaboration, The Longest Yard. The 1974 gridiron classic is still a lot tougher than you probably remember, but Tracy Kennan Wynn’s original script was even nastier, calling for quarterback Paul Crewe to get gunned down by guards while trying to retrieve the game ball in the film’s final moments. On the DVD commentary, Reynolds and producer Albert S. Ruddy recall Aldrich responding to one of the actor’s many on-set comedic improvisations with a grumbled, “I guess I can’t kill you now, people are gonna like you too much.”

Reynolds sought out Steve Shagan’s screenplay for Hustle, then called City of Angels, and brought it to Aldrich himself. In his most recent memoir, But Enough About Me, Reynolds stresses how much trouble he was having being taken seriously in the industry, going so far as to blame himself for torpedoing Deliverance’s Oscar chances by posing nude in Playgirl. (I’d wager that going up against The Godfather was probably more of a factor than Burt’s bearskin antics.) Reynolds and Aldrich formed their own company, christened “RoBurt,” to produce Hustle, but had a mysterious falling out during filming — both of Reynolds’s memoirs are pretty foggy on that front — and never worked together again.

Hustle opened strong at the box office and then promptly sank like a stone, and indeed it’s hard to imagine what Christmas audiences in 1975 must have made of the film’s exhausted, marrow-deep pessimism. It’s certainly not paced like a potboiler, and the central mystery is a foregone conclusion. The movie is a long, boozy slouch towards something like redemption, with Reynolds flashing faint flickers of disgust as he warily tries to navigate his way through a fallen world of venality and corruption. Old Hollywood movies are constantly blaring on television, as if taunting him with their glamorous tales of uncomplicated heroism.

Aldrich fills the background with what he would foreground with far less success in his 1977 adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys. The police in this film are a loutish lot, obliviously chattering about a football game while bringing Johnson to identify his dead daughter’s body. There’s a cringe-inducing cameo by Ernest Borgnine as a department politico spouting acreages of racist invective with his boys on the force. Here was a filmmaker who liked to photograph the ugliness in his films as bluntly as possible, the lighting flat and harsh, as if giving his villains nowhere to hide. Shadows only come into play during scenes between Reynolds and Deneuve, the two circling one another in the dark and keeping their true feelings concealed until it’s almost too late.

“Never play a rapist or die in a movie,” John Wayne once advised a young Burt Reynolds. But Aldrich had other plans, and perhaps making up for not being able to kill him in The Longest Yard, the director scrapped the original ending of Shagan’s screenplay after reading a news item about an off-duty police officer shot dead during a liquor store holdup. After two hours spent watching Gaines’s struggle for something to believe in amid this quagmire of exploitation and sleaze, the random and abrupt meaninglessness of his death is a kick to the gut, placing Hustle in the pantheon of great nihilistic ’70s noirs like Night Moves and The Long Goodbye.

Or as my friend, critic Matt Zoller Seitz said to me a couple of weeks ago, “That ending sucks all the light and hope out of the universe.”

HUSTLE. SAT 7.16, 7:00PM. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE, 24 Quincy St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. Click here for admission info.