(On Cable TV, February 2018) As I go through the classic-film catalogue, some of them hit and some of them miss … and The Hustler does feel like a perceptible miss. Part of it has to do with my near-complete lack of interest in pool—given that the film has lengthy sequences of pure pool play, which may explain my difficulty connecting to the film. Of course, there is a lot more to The Hustler than pool—its central sport is almost irrelevant to its portrait of an incredibly ambitious protagonist, someone who has to confront a loss in the pursuit of victory. There’s a lot of drama along the way to a glum conclusion, but it feels as if The Hustler is simply too long for what it has to say. Paul Newman is very good, of course, and Jackie Gleason is also remarkable as “Minnesota Fats” while Piper Laurie is the film’s emotional centre. Even if film historians have a lot of praise for what the film brought to the table in the early sixties (it almost feels like a 1970s film at times), much of what The Hustler has to say has become well-worn territory, including its grim and realistic approach to character-driven drama. It still plays like a mature drama, but it can feel dull and exceptionally long at times.
(Second Viewing, On DVD, September 2017) I distinctly remember seeing Smokey and the Bandit when I was a boy, but other than a few curious moments of recognition or anticipation on this second viewing, I had forgotten nearly every detail of the film. Much of it isn’t too complicated, dealing with a cross-state beer run enlivened by a vengeful sheriff tracking down the woman who left his son at the altar. The transport truck moving the beer west isn’t nearly as interesting as the black Trans-Am (driven by Burt Reynolds, no less) running interference by attracting as much attraction as speedily as possible. Elements of the premise, these days, can benefit from historical annotations: That Coors wasn’t sold east of Oklahoma; that it spoiled within days due to lack of preservatives; and the various intricacies of police jurisdiction. But little of the technicalities matter when the point of Smokey and the Bandit is to stage stunt sequences, riff of Reynolds’s charm (less potent today—see the need for annotations—but still effective), feature Sally Field in a rather comic role and generally have fun sticking it to The Man. It’s really not subtle—Jerry Reed’s insanely catchy song “East bound and down” essentially acts as a Greek Chorus explaining the main points of the movie. Otherwise, Jackie Gleason’s antagonist is a pure caricature that starts grating early and never becomes more sympathetic. There’s some sweet comedy in the way the “legend” of the Bandit seems universal in the film’s universe, reaching minor characters via CB radio (a technology essential to the film’s atmosphere) and making them react in extraordinary ways to facilitate their progress. The stunts are fine as could be expected from stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, the banter between Reynolds and Field is occasionally great, but it’s Smokey and the Bandit’s general atmosphere that remains compelling today, even if often on an anthropological level.