Sunday morning in Los Angeles, and there has been a body washed up on the beach, discovered by a bunch of schoolkids out for a day trip. A police lieutenant, Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds), is called at home to come back into the office and investigate the case, yet he's reluctant since he had planned to take his girlfriend Nicole (Catherine Deneuve) out for the day, but his hopes for romance will have to wait. That is true of much in Phil's life, for Nicole is a prostitute, a profession he tries his best to ignore, but when he gets into work the grime of life is rubbed in his face...
Not literally, of course, but that was the overriding mood to Hustle, the second of the films Reynolds made after he teamed up with director Robert Aldrich, the first being the megahit The Longest Yard. This made far less of an impact on the box office, for although it featured apparently saleable elements such as sex, violence and bawdy humour, the feeling you took away from it was dejection, as if the nostalgia for a bygone age that preoccupies frustrated romantic Gaines had taken over everyone working on the movie. Here was a film which was very sorry for itself, and for everyone who had to suffer through modern life circa 1975.
For some, this was an attempt to update the tone of classic film noir to a contemporary setting, except it didn't quite fit that template; the hero may have been world weary, and the ending may have been downbeat, but there was no femme fatale to lead him astray, as Gaines pretty much tried to tread the path of the straight and narrow even as his surroundings dragged him down to a seedier level. The trigger for this was that discovery of the body, and when the girl's parents are brought in, the father, Marty (Ben Johnson) decks Gaines for not covering up the naked body when he was asked to identify it, even though that wasn't his fault and he sympathises with the bereaved man's shock.
This leads Marty to a crusade against the forces which brought about his daughter's demise, except that everything here is so corrupted that we find out she committed suicide due to her sinking into the porn industry, plus she wasn't even his daughter, and actually the product of a fling his wife Paula (Eileen Brennan) had about twenty years before, indicating that things were on the slide from decency even then. Mixed in with this are a selection of scenes relating Gaines' experiences as he struggles through his days, noticeably drinking too much, wanting desperately to see the bright side his job and relationships demonstrate is growing dimmer all the time, so for example the psycho he put away for two life sentences gets out five years later for good behaviour to kill again.
Nothing is working out the way Phil wants it to, and that includes his love life, with Deneuve one of many imported French stars who found Hollywood not quite as welcoming as far as hit movies went as they would have liked. You can't blame her, as Reynolds had fast become biggest name there and it must have looked like a solid proposition, then there was the fact it gave her the chance to act and not simply be the eye candy, but if that was the intention, her character still existed at a remove from everyone else, more symbolic of Gaines' malaise than a fully rounded personality. If this sounded like it should have been a police procedural thriller, the way it played was as a drama, with very little in the way of excitement as the melancholy settled like smog over the cast; not so much as a car chase was to be seen. There were moves towards humour, as the coarse-minded chief Ernest Borgnine showed up, but more often Paul Winfield's angry, reactionary cop partner set the tone of how everyone behaved. The too-bleak ending aside, Hustle was worth rediscovering as a character piece. Music by Frank De Vol.