Claire (Liza Minnelli) and her boyfriend Walker Ellis (Burt Reynolds) are in Mexico where they are visiting the grave of her recently late husband. He left her some money, but the couple are seeking to make more, and to that end have arranged to assist some illegal immigrants across the border to the United States, so while she takes care of her night job as a singer in a club, Walker sets off for a truck he will drive to the agreed point. Most of the illegals are Mexicans, but he notes one is an actual American (Gene Hackman) who doesn't say much until they reach the border and are greeted by the unwelcome sight of the masses of U.S. patrolmen and their vehicles with the lights on full beam. When they open fire, Walker wonders if there isn't a better way to make a living...
Once they had penned American Graffiti for George Lucas, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were much in demand, but aside from having newly-powerful pals in Hollywood, they didn't have the luck that you might have expected in their screenwriting careers, and Lucky Lady was the perfect, sad example of that. By all accounts their dream tale of a trio of rum-runners in 1930’s America (or off its South-West coast at any rate) turned into a nightmare when it reached the shooting stage, which was in evidence when you witnessed how the tone was so wayward and wavering that you never knew if you were watching a comedy or a drama or even an action thriller. It was a total mess, and a disjointed one plotwise at that.
Hackman, for example, was brought on with barely a week of preparation, such was the short notice the studio were asking, giving him a huge paycheque to sweeten the deal of which he was not entirely sure he wanted a part of in the first place. Sure enough, his instincts were correct with many of those involved coming away from the production speaking of it in traumatised terms as the worst experience of their professional lives, and the blame was placed squarely at the feet of director Stanley Donen rather than Huyck and Katz, whose source material was reportedly unfaithfully transferred onto celluloid by Donen. Fair enough, if you had a director who didn't know what to do, it did tend to upset the cinematic applecart.
And yet there are scenes here where you can kind of see where this would have succeeded, if not as justifying the astonishing amount of cash wasted on it, then on its own terms as a dark-hearted caper with a more mature take on relationships that the seventies was exploring in its pop culture. That last was important, because the three-way affair between Hackman, Minnelli and Reynolds' characters appeared to be informing the lighter elements Donen seemed more comfortable with, if not something that would be obvious for family fare when the kids might be asking awkward questions about why the two men and the lady were in bed together. Actually, the three leads did have a chemistry together that had you wishing they had been placed in a more accomplished picture than the one we were offered.
Quite what would have been more appropriate, well, your guess is as good as mine, but from a film where the sole quotable line of dialogue was Minnelli's "It's so quiet you could hear a fish fart" then there surely must have been more promising candidates. That trio of talent left the movie grumbling to anyone within earshot about it, and as one of the post-The Sting period-set efforts that mostly disappointed in their tries at recreating that magic Robert Redford and Paul Newman conveyed with deceptive ease it was one of the least impressive. The plot had the threesome indulging in smuggling alcohol to Prohibition-era California, which in reality was a very dangerous thing to do, reflected in the manner in which there were crunching gear changes between the daffy sequences and the sudden eruptions of brutal violence: that it was going to end in an even less sunny manner until there were hasty reshoots ordered tells you all you need to know about the experience of watching it. And yet, every so often there would be a bit of business that made you think, this needed more work, but there was an inkling of a good idea here. Music by Ralph Burns.