Among the films that made the '70s an "American Renaissance" decade, Hustle
merits a place of honor. As vigorous as the groundbreaking work of such Young Turk contemporaries as Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola, its distinction lies in being a throwback to the '50s glory days of its director, Robert Aldrich, when he was making corrosive, Establishment-baiting classics like Attack!
and Kiss Me Deadly
. The same sardonic spirit, bracing socio-political anger, and bold, hard-edged moviemaking inform this look into the soul of Los Angeles by way of a murder investigation that may not, in fact, have a murder at its core.
Steve Shagan wrote the script, and like his 1973 Save the Tiger, this movie's central character is a burnt-out case with a nostalgia for lost values: an LAPD detective (Burt Reynolds) whose spiritual/ethical touchstones are film-noir Bogart and soft-focus French movies of the '60s. He should have a girlfriend played by Catherine Deneuve--and he does, a Deneuve whose first signs of aging on screen are an evocative element of the film. Her character is a high-class courtesan whose clients include a prominent attorney (Eddie Albert); he also appears to have had some connection with a 20-year-old hooker/druggie whose corpse just washed up on a California beach. Throw in Ben Johnson as the dead girl's seething war-veteran dad, Eileen Brennan as his wife, Paul Winfield and Ernest Borgnine as Reynolds's fellow cops, and you've got one potent ensemble. Reynolds isn't equal to the task of selling some of Shagan's most florid rhetoric (probably no actor would be), but he makes an honorable stab at it. And as an urbane power-broker who can contemplate an assassination while finishing his Cobb salad, the late Eddie Albert is chilling, just chilling. --Richard T. Jameson