Continuing our journey into the dark Hell of the 1970s, we now take a quick look at the 1975 cop film, Hustle.
Taking place in Los Angeles, Hustle tells the story of several different people who find their lives intertwined in the desperate dance of existence. (Does that sound overdramatic? Well, that’s the type of film that this is.)
There’s Leo Sellers (Eddie Albert), a lawyer with bright rosy cheeks and a friendly manner. You look at Leo and you automatically assume that he must be a nice guy, the type of guy who puts on a fake beard and plays Santa Claus down at the local orphanage. But actually, Leo is a lawyer for the mob. He’s gotten rich through crime and his mansion hides all sorts of secrets. He also has a weakness for violently abusing prostitutes.
Speaking of prostitutes, one of Leo’s favorite is Nicole (Catherine Deneuve), an icy French beauty who survives by holding the world at a distance. Though Nicole doesn’t like Leo, she has to keep him happy because Leo could easily arrange for her to be deported back to France.
Nicole is also the girlfriend of Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds), a cynical homicide detective who, like her, tries to keep the world at a distance. Phil is obsessed with old films and frequently speaks of how much he wishes the real world could be like a movie. Throughout the film, he talks about eventually moving to Rome.
Phil’s partner is Louis Belgrave (Paul Winfield), who is not quite as cynical as Phil but who is definitely getting there. Whereas Phil is always talking about how much the world has disappointed him, Louis mostly accepts things without complaint. He just wants to do his job and go home at the end of the day.
Phil and Louis’s boss is Santoro (Ernest Borgnine, giving a typical Ernest Borgnine performance). Santoro is not a bad guy but, in order to hold onto his job, he has to keep powerful men like Leo Sellers happy.
Santoro also has to deal with the complaints of people like the Hollingers. Marty Hollinger (Ben Johnson) is a veteran of the Korean War and handles the world in a gruff and suspicious manner. Paula (Eileen Brennan) is Marty’s wife and, as a result of his emotional distance, has recently started having an affair.
And then there’s Gloria (Colleen Brennan), Marty and Paula’s daughter. Gloria ran away from home a while ago and soon found herself working as a stripper, a porn actress, and eventually as a prostitute. When Gloria is found dead, Phil and Louis get the case. It’s obvious to them that Gloria committed suicide. It’s not so obvious to Marty, who is convinced that his daughter was murdered and, disgusted by Phil’s cynical attitude, sets out to investigate the case on his own.
One of the more interesting things about Hustle is that really is no murder mystery. Despite what Marty believes, Gloria really did commit suicide. Marty’s insistence that she was murdered has more to do with his guilt over being a bad father than it does with any real evidence. As Marty investigates his daughter’s life, he is exposed to a sordid world of strip clubs and prostitution. He discovers that Gloria’s clients included many powerful men and he decides that the last client she saw must have murdered Gloria.
That client is Leo Sellers. And while Leo may not have murdered Gloria, he is willing to kill Marty to keep his secret life from being exposed. Phil and Louis are forced to choose between remaining detached or protecting Marty from himself.
And, since this film was made in the 70s, it all ends on a really dark note!
Hustle shows up on Encore occasionally. It’s a strange film to watch, as it alternates between being a fairly predictable cop film and being a portrait of existential dread. The movie doesn’t really work; it’s too long, it features some amazingly pretentious dialogue, and Reynolds, Winfield, and Deneuve all seem to be bored with their characters. Probably the film’s best performance comes from Ben Johnson. I imagine that has to do with the fact that Johnson is playing the only character who behaves in a fairly consistent way.
And yet, if you’re like me and you’re fascinated with the nonstop fatalism of 70s cinema, Hustle does have some historical value. It’s one of those films that you watch and you wonder how anyone survived the 1970s!