No one would likely ever claim, or accuse, actor Burt Reynolds of being a great actor. Despite an incredible breakout performance in John Boorman’s Deliverance in 1972 and his amusing role in P.T. Anderson’s 1997 Boogie Nights, Burt has been, at best, an entertaining star. But as a screen personality and star, no one in the 1970s was ever more popular in the peak of his career. In director Robert Aldrich’s 1975 crime/film noir hidden gem Hustle, Reynolds delivered one of his finest performances as a darkly cynical cop Lt. Phil Gaines. For Reynolds and Aldrich this film was also their successful reunion, of sorts. Aldrich, who had made several landmark noir films in the 1950s, like Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife, a year previously worked with Reynolds on the popular jail house/football film The Longest Yard.
With a screenplay by the popular novelist and screenwriter Steven Shagan, Hustle delves into the sleazy dark underworld of the Los Angeles criminal porn world and sex industry. Gaines and his fellow homicide officers investigate the suicide death of a young stripper who may have been killed by a wealthy lawyer after a drug orgy. The world of Lt. Gaines is filled with crude, foul mouthed racists and hateful people who exploit their advantages over others. Co-starring with Reynolds is the elegant French star Catherine Deneuve, who plays a high class hooker, Nicole Britton, Gaines’ lover.
Reynolds’ performance is serious, far richer and sensitive than his usual comedic simple fare. As Gaines he’s a self proclaimed “student of the 1930s” and all its values. He longs to settle down eventually with Nicole, escape the madness of his job and fly off to Rome. She claims she loves him because he’s the only man she has compassion for in bed. She praises him for his principled code commenting, “you’re obsessed with being right”.
Photographed by Joseph Biroc, the film captures much of LA’s seedy ‘70’s night life.
Aldrich’s film is enhances further by a terrific ensemble of supporting cast performances which includes Ben Johnson, and Ellen Brennan as Marty and Paula Hollinger, the parents of a dead hooker/striper whose body is found by campers on the Pacific shore in the film’s opening sequence. Eddie Albert is Leo Sellers, a corrupt attorney who fronts a porn production company and is a frequent client of Nicole’s. Paul Winfield is Gaines’ police partner Sgt. Louis Belgrave. Ernest Borgnine is John Santoro, the police chief. There is even a cameo by the soon to be Robert “Freddy Kruegar” Englund.
Reynolds would later go on to basically “phone in” clichéd tough “good old boy” parts in numerous popular crime films, as well as the famous Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run series; but few remember how his overlooked performance in Hustle stands out as an exception in his long career.