I’m unsure how to categorise a film like Hustle (1975). Should I refer to it as neo-noir, post-noir, or use some other unwieldy title? Let’s just put it this way, if the movie had been made twenty years earlier it would have been classed as film noir. It has all the ingredients of classic era noir but it’s just not of the right vintage. As a result we’re left with a stylish 70s critique of a corrupt system and a world that’s lost its way. Incidentally, it’s also a damned fine film.
Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds) is a homicide cop with a long list of things wrong in his life. At first glance everything might seem just dandy since we first see him reclining in bed and being pampered by his beautiful French girlfriend. However, his situation is far from ideal. The girlfriend, Nicole (Catherine Deneuve), works as an upmarket call girl and Gaines is just about dealing with this. The two of them plan and dream of hopping a jet and seeing out their days in Rome but neither one really has the ability to break away from their lifestyles. Nicole’s excuse is the need to earn a living and Gaines keeps putting it on the long finger, preferring to gaze at the fading photographic calender tacked on his office wall whilst indulging in idle fantasy. In addition, his job is increasingly getting on top of him and shows no signs of improving as his next case looms. The body of a young girl is found washed up on the beach and triggers an investigation that will eventually expose corruption in high places and drive Gaines to finally become more than a mere spectator. The girl in question was a hooker/dancer, a runaway whose life descended into seediness instead of the glamour she sought. Everyone appears inclined to write the whole thing off as another pathetic suicide, everyone except the girl’s father that is. Marty Hollinger (Ben Johnson) is a Korean War vet with an axe to grind and an obsessive streak. It’s his unwillingness to let the matter lie that pushes Gaines to dig ever deeper until the truth is exposed. By the end of the movie that truth is laid bare but, as in life, it doesn’t necessarily help anyone. The ending itself is a real choker and unapologetically noir in tone.
Robert Aldrich generally invested his films with a brutal honesty and cynicism, and Hustle isn’t any exception in that regard. He never shies away from the unsavoury and paints a bleak picture of 1970s America, a place where average people are simply nobodies and the wealthy are hopelessly corrupt – in Phil Gaines words, “Guatemala with colour TV.” That rank degeneracy is best exemplified by the villain of the piece, a marvellously sleazy turn by Eddie Albert. In the lead, Burt Reynolds does very well and shows that, when the director and material were right, he was more than capable as an actor. He’s made an excessive number of fairly ropey films but, here and there, the odd gem turns up. He has some excellent moments in this movie, especially when his simmering jealously is dangerously near the surface as he tortures himself listening to Nicole take dirty phone calls from her faceless clients. Catherine Deneuve displayed the right kind of cool detachment that was necessary for her part, and she’s certainly very easy on the eyes. There’s plenty of great support from Paul Winfield, Eileen Brennan and Ernest Borgnine but Ben Johnson rises above them all. He turns in an absolute blinder as the emotionally scarred veteran who feels his country owes him something, and has allowed that massive chip on his shoulder to tear his family apart. The way he forces himself to confront the lifestyle his daughter adopted is as painful for the viewer to watch as it is for him to experience. A real class act was Mr Johnson.
Paramount’s R2 DVD of Hustle offers an excellent image, as was usually the case with that company. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and sharp throughout, and I can see no reason to criticise it. However, there’s absolutely nothing in the way of extra content and that is a little disappointing. Overall, I’d rate Hustle as a very fine example of modern noir from a highly accomplished director and a cast that’s uniformly good.