Thursday, October 11, 2018

Hustle (Robert Aldrich, 1975)

Robert Aldrich’s 1975 film Hustle is a melancholy reading of its era’s confusions, of a time when restrictive norms and values are loosening, but it’s not yet clear what they’ll be replaced with. Burt Reynolds’ protagonist, police Phil Gaines, affects the necessarily hard-bitten manner while persistently musing of escape, into old movies and songs and expectations and into his memories of the brief time he spent in Rome; he’s modern enough to sustain a relationship with a high-class prostitute (Catherine Deneuve, inherently shimmering with resonances of multiple elsewheres) but not to avoid agonizing about it. The main plot follows a young woman who turns up dead on a beach: it’s ruled a suicide, but her agonized father (Ben Johnson) obsesses with piercing and punishing the hedonistic society she moved in: an impossible task given its connections and protections and the lack of any direct culpability. The film is heavy with the contradictions of its period: it’s suffused in casual racism and homophobia and sexism (the only major female character who isn’t a sex worker, the dead girl’s quiet, unremarkable mother, is saddled late on with a personal history that the film holds out as the reason for the daughter’s self-destructive life choices), and its aspirations to morose complexity often register just as much as artistic indecision or weariness. Reynolds’ customary reserve inhibits the sense of his character’s morality, and there’s often a sense that Aldrich was too overawed by Deneuve to do more than stare at her. In the end the film swerves into moral tennis: Gaines hits a lob through his duties for the sake of his own calculation of fairness, and receives a return punishment in short order in senselessly random manner. These narrative moves don’t really serve the film’s highest ambitions, but then that’s part of the point, that unless you’re a fine-suited “somebody,” the short-term demands of the hustle will always push those ambitions into compromise or surrender.

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