This 1975 Burt Reynolds film is nothing like I expected, and for the most part I’d say that is a good thing. When I first picked up the title, I pretty much expected this to be a fun yet somewhat forgettable action film from the 70s, something in the same vein as Stick or Gator, but instead this is a more complex story that takes many strange twists and has an ending that was pretty unexpected. The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, who was fresh off of directing The Longest Yard and also to his credit directed one of my favorite war films, The Dirty Dozen. Aldrich is one of those directors who I’d put in the same category as Don Siegel who were just fantastic at directing “tough-guy” films that just oozed testosterone in just about every frame. In other words, directors that Hollywood would try to cancel in a heartbeat if they were working today. That being said, this is one of those films that is a product of the time it was made, and it has enough offensive moments that would make a modern audience want to stand up and protest, and, well, it’s what makes me like this film a little more than I should.
The film opens up with a bunch of kids having a trip to the beach, and they discover a dead girl has washed onto shore. Det. Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds) is put on the case that at first seems like an open-and-shut suicide case, but instead it’s only the beginning of a complicated case that delves into the seedy and corrupt underbelly of Los Angeles. When Marty Hollinger (Ben Johnson) comes in to identify his dead daughter, he’s not willing to accept that she simply committed suicide, and he then decides to embark on an “investigation” on his own. The storyline with Marty, oddly enough, is pretty similar to the storyline of the 1979 film Hardcore, where we see a father delving into the seedy underbelly of society and uncovering a salacious career his daughter had before dying. Then there is the relationship Phil is having with a call girl, Nicole (Catherine Deneuve) and one of her clients being a corrupt mob attorney who may or may not be involved with Phil’s case. This has plenty of the hallmarks of being a cool noir film, but it doesn’t quite deliver in that department, and that is one of the film’s problems. It suffers from a bit of an identity crisis where it simply doesn’t seem to know what kind of a film it wants to be; the tone is simply all over the place.
One thing I can applaud this film for being is a character study that doesn’t judge, despite the many flaws all these characters may have, how they seem to compromise their morals just to live day to day. The most obvious example of this is the relationship between Phil and Nicole. He hates that she’s a call girl; he even is the butt of jokes at work because of her profession. He still loves her, but he’s afraid to admit this, because his marriage was ruined because of his wife’s infidelity. As for Nicole, she enjoys her job, it pays well, but she’ll quit the business as soon as Phil decides he’ll marry her. The idea of marriage seems more like wishful thinking for Nicole, so she continues to sleep with men with fat wallets and some who are dangerous and have connections to the mob. The relationship between Phil and Nicole is one of the more interesting aspects of the film, and every time Phil promises to take Nicole to Rome, as a member of the audience we almost become just as jaded as Nicole by the idea. At first we appreciate it as a romantic gesture, but the more he says it, the harder it is to believe him.
Then there are the secondary characters who are just as engaging. There’s Louis Belgrave (Paul Winfield), who is Phil’s partner; he’s more invested in helping figure out if Hollinger’s daughter is really a suicide victim or something more, but he’s also a bit jaded with his life as a cop where we see him doing the right thing one moment and then a scene later he’s assisting in beating a confession out of a suspect. He’s not necessarily a bad cop; we just see him as a guy who day in and day out sees the worst in humanity. Then we have Paula Hollinger (Eileen Brennan), who is the grieving wife of Marty, who is trying to be the dutiful wife but still hasn’t come to terms with her infidelity that she believes led to her daughter going astray and living a life of debauchery. There’s a lot of emotion going on with these characters but just not enough time to really flesh them all out and deliver on the potential that is definitely hinted at.
The cast of this film is certainly stacked. Ernest Borgnine puts in a fun performance as the chief of police. Catherine Bach (Daisy Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard) plays a dancer, and then for the horror fans out there we get a brief appearance from Robert Englund playing a liquor store robber. Really, just the cast alone is worth giving this film a look. Then, to top it off, it is written by Steve Shagan, who is responsible for writing perhaps one of the best courtroom dramas of the 1990’s, Primal Fear.
At the end of the day I really enjoyed the film, but there are some decisions made in the story that just caused me to raise an eyebrow and think, “that was an interesting choice”. I’m still on the fence about how I feel about how this film ended. It’s a brave choice, but I’m not sure it’s how I would have ended this story. Hustle still is a bold film that is filled with grit and realism but I feel could have used a bit more humor and settled on a tone. Still, this is Burt Reynolds in his heyday, and for that alone it’s worth taking a gander at.