HUSTLE September 3, 2016
Though I can imagine that designing an advertising campaign for a movie as dreary as Robert Aldrich’s Hustle was a difficult thing to pull off during post-production, I can only wonder why the creator behind its poster and its following stabs at publicity decided that the simplistic tagline of “They’re hot” wouldn’t be misleading. Since headliners Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve are undoubtedly very, very hot — ethereally so, in fact — I’m sure that curious audience members intrigued by its sexy promotions felt a little duped when they showed up at their local theater and came out with an L.A. noir even more depressing than Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
But while I was expecting Basic Instinct 1975 — really just a provocative whodunit with high libidos, high style, and high suspense by its side— I surprisingly didn’t find myself all too disappointed with the downer that moved about in front of me for two hours. Sure I’m not so much in favor of the way its ending avoids happiness for the sake of avoiding happiness, and sure I think its outcries that you can’t fight the man no matter how hard you try are trifling rather than disconcerting. But police procedurals more concerned with developing relationships between its characters than they are with expanding a central mystery are rare, and Hustle, for all its setbacks, is refreshingly intimate and unabashedly grim.
It follows Reynolds’s Lt. Phil Gaines as he investigates the fishy death of Gloria Hollinger (Colleen Brennan), a twenty year old whose body is discovered by a group of kids during a dour trip to the beach. Shortly after the coroner examines her corpse is it ruled that her death was a suicide; she purposely took too many pills to leave her sad life — which consisted of stripping, prostituting, and acting in triple X features — behind. But her father, Korean vet Marty (Ben Johnson), won’t admit to himself that his pride and joy would do such a thing, and so Gaines and his partner (Paul Winfield) can’t help themselves from looking further into the details that surrounded her demise.
But Hustle’s most rousing aspect is not the solving of its unsolvable mystery. Better yet is its focusing on the affinity between Gaines and his girlfriend Nicole (Deneuve), a French prostitute who takes her work just as seriously as he does his. A side plot of its sort would be throwaway if Hustle weren’t so harshly naturalistic, but Reynolds and Deneuve seem so enamored with one another that they temporarily convince us that the age old love story starring a cop and a hooker will actually work out in the end.
Considerable amounts of time are spent checking in on the quiet moments they share at Nicole’s chic beach bungalow, preferring to spotlight their meet-cute imitating zingy rapport over exploiting framings of their sex life (though some scenes are after a flash of pink). In seeing them interact do we find ourselves caring a great deal about these people, so when the conclusion betrays our hope that everything will ultimately be fine as long as the two find a way out of their respective societal bubbles, we’re not persuaded that pessimism is right for a film so pessimistic on an overarching level. We feel cheated, if only because Steven Shagan, who writes, and Aldrich, who directs, seem to assure us that their relationship is a symbol of the looming optimism that awaits them.
Bitter as I am, though, stunning is the way Hustle is able to portray an investigation with such holistic realism. Reynolds is believably sapped, Johnson is scarily furious, and Eileen Brennan, as the latter’s wife, is the film’s secret weapon as a woman who dreamt of seeing the American Dream through but has instead seen her life destroyed by tragedy. And the depiction of the seedy underworld (that eventually proves to be tied to the city’s own higher powers and points of corruption) that got the best of Gloria is tenably frightening. But Hustle, however much good it has embedded in its unsentimental frames, is a joyless experience — I don’t believe I could watch it a second time. B