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October 16, 2006

The Robert Aldrich Blog-a-thon: Hustle


Robert Aldrich - 1975
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD

Near the end of Hustle, police detective Burt Reynolds explains to grieving father Ben Johnson, "Don't you know where you live, Marty? Can't you smell the bananas? You know what country you live in, you live in Guatamala with color television." Thirty years after I saw Hustle in its initial theatrical release, that speech stayed with me.

In a collection of interviews, Aldrich discussed his political views which ran counter to his privileged family background, related to the Rockefellers. If film was to do more than entertain, it allowed Aldrich to speak on behalf of those people for whom the American Dream seemed elusive. In Hustle, the ever nostalgic Reynolds mentions John Garfield as a favorite actor. Aldrich was an Assistant Director on Body and Soul and Force of Evil, and stayed a lifelong friend of writer-director Abraham Polonsky. Throughout Hustle, there is repeated dialogue on how easily people can be bought and sold - one of the characters is named Leo Sellers. Like the earlier films that Aldrich worked on as an assistant, Hustle is about people trying to maintain their sense of integrity in the face of easy financial gain.

Going back to Reynold's declaration that the U.S. is a banana republic, I had to wonder what Aldrich would make of the current state of our union. At the time Hustle was made, the United States had its first unelected President, and Aldrich's cousin was serving as Vice-President. Some of the issues raised in Aldrich's The Twilight's Last Gleaming turned out to be prescient, particularly the idea that it really didn't matter who was in the Oval Office because he never really was the person in charge. Aldrich would probably laugh at the news that there would be a time when U.S. military leaders would be the voices of reason, at least compared to the civilians giving the orders. One can easily guess at Aldrich's outrage had he lived during the last two Presidential elections.

Hustle is something of an homage to Aldrich's film noir roots. Even the few scenes that take place in the sunshine of Los Angeles are darkened by the discovery of a dead young woman, or discussions of death and violence. Most of the action takes place in shadowy interiors. The characters are all flawed, either living the "good life" such as Eddie Albert's crooked lawyer or Catherine Denueve as a high priced call girl, while other characters make mistakes in the pursuit of material gain. Like the most pessimistic noir films, being honest can cost someone their life.

There is also discussion of how "the game" is played. Aldrich, who also assisted Jean Renoir, introduces Ben Johnson attending a football game. Several times, Johnson is refered to as "a nobody" in discussing the importance of investigating the death of his daughter. Hustle is about class distinctions and how rules apply within differing hierarchies. For Johnson, justice and a sense of fair play are not allowed by those who make the rules - wealthy lawyers like Eddie Albert, or the percieved gatekeepers, like Reynolds and fellow cop Paul Winfield. While the film is called Hustle because, as Reynolds puts it, everyone is hustling for something, The Rules of the Game would hardly be inappropriate.

Even family life is suspect. Burt Reynolds is a divorced policeman living with prostitute Catherine Denueve. Ben Johnson's marriage to Eileen Brennan is revealed to be fragile. In both cases, the relationships are based on dishonesty and self-denial.

Song and film serve as metaphors for regret and nostalgia. At a couple of points we hear Charles Aznavour sing, "Yesterday, When I was Young". Over a car radio, mention is made of a 1955 version of the song So Rare, released the year that Johnson's daughter was born. Among several film clips used is John Huston's Moby Dick, with Ahab's pursuit of the White Whale as destructive as Johnson pursuit of truth and justice. Denueve and Reynolds take time to see A Man and a Woman, a brighter, idealized portrait of love. Even filmmaking is seen as corrupted as the clip from Claude Lelouch provides a counterpoint to the porno film featuring the dead daughter.

Based on the novel and screenplay by Steve Shagan, Aldrich, who was active in shaping the screenplays of all of his films has made a film that reflected many of his concerns. Hustle could also be seen as symbolic of Aldrich's own life and his stuggle to make films that were as honest and as honorable as possible.

For other postings on Robert Aldrich, please click on the link at right for Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 16, 2006 12:13 AM


Peter, from your comment to me, I had the feeling you didn't like HUSTLE. I'm glad to see that wasn't the case. And thanks for deepening my appreciation of the movie. It's got layers that I think will take a few viewings to reveal.

Posted by: tlrhb at October 16, 2006 08:27 AM