(This is the first in an occasional series in which I remember some of the best double features I’ve been lucky enough to see projected in a theater.)
The New Beverly Cinema, the oldest surviving revival theater in Los Angeles, has this week dished up a time-capsule glimpse into America’s popular obsession with CB, or citizen’s band, radio and the largely mythological outlaw trucker culture through which it crackled. If you’re of a certain age (mine), and you ever cruised around town or down the highway jabbering to friends and strangers on an open channel frequency (I did—my handle was The Godfather!), given the opportunity I don’t see how you could possibly resist the chance to see the ultimate trucker-CB action-comedy pairing, Hal Needham’s Smokey and the Bandit and Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy. (I couldn’t!) As of this writing, the morning of March 12, there is still one more evening screening of this knockout combo, and if you’re anywhere near the intersection of La Brea and Beverly in Los Angeles, I urge you to check it out.
I never really thought much of Smokey and the Bandit growing up, maybe because by the time it arrived, near the end of May in 1977, I was already in the process of putting away childish things, only to be replaced by other only slightly less childish things as I transitioned to college life. I didn’t even see Smokey until the following summer, at the drive-in, and paired rather strangely with Taxi Driver. (This was not one of the best double features I’ve ever seen.)
As obsessed with CB culture and movie car chases as I was in high school, you would have thought I would have been first in line to see this Burt Reynolds hit—after all, I’m pretty sure I ran over a couple of people racing my way to pictures like Gone in 60 Seconds, Vanishing Point, The Seven-Ups, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Race with the Devil, W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings and many others at my local outdoor movie emporium. Instead, I turned my nose up to it, and for the life of me I can’t remember why. Once I did see it, I thought it was tacky and dumb and I remained, for the next 40 years, stubbornly disinterested in revisiting it. (The onslaught of awful Needham-Reynolds pairings in the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s—junk like the Cannonball Run movies, Stroker Ace and, of course, Smokey and the Bandit II—did nothing to make me consider changing my mind, although I would be willing to give Hooper another twirl.)
Of course, Smokey and the Bandit very much is tacky and dumb, and crass and silly and crudely pieced together. Would we really want a goofy comedy about running a truckload of bootlegged beer with a demented Texas sheriff in hot pursuit, to be anything else? In addition to subtle sophistication, Smokey and the Bandit is also absent much more than a hint of rudimentary filmmaking skill, which is, as it turns out, something different from the skill necessary to be a great stunt coordinator. Hell, with the exception of that nifty bit when the Bandit jumps his Trans-Am over a washed-out bridge and a sequence in which that same Trans-Am escapes pursuing bears (state troopers, for the uninitiated) by hiding in between fast-moving trucks (in the rocking chair) in a sympathetic convoy, even the stunts in Smokey and the Bandit aren’t really anything too memorable. (There always seems to be a pond or a deep puddle waiting those addled, brainless troopers when their cars go spinning off the road, choking on the Bandit’s dust.) Needham knew in spades how to choreograph cars and trucks in front of the camera, but he didn’t have much in the tank in the way of imagining for the camera ways to make those stunts expand and explode cinematically.
The shine on Smokey’s 18 wheels comes almost exclusively from its players. It was really fun, 40 years after the fact, to rediscover (or in my case, essentially discover for the first time) the playful chemistry between Burt Reynolds’ Bandit and Sally Field as Carrie, the runaway bride passenger Bandit picks up off the side of the highway. The two actors were romantically involved at the time and made three other pictures together— the Reynolds-directed comedy The End, Hooper and that crummy Smokey sequel—but they never clicked on screen the way they do here. A friend of mine, tongue planted at least partially in cheek, I suspect, describes Smokey and the Bandit as “deep-fried Sturges,” and from the minute Bandit loads Carrie into Bandit One, she begins to shed her bridal finery and toss it out of the speeding Pontiac and they initiate their tentative, high-velocity courtship, I could see what he meant. (My friend also reminded me that Smokey and the Bandit was the movie Alfred Hitchcock claimed to be his favorite movie of all time!)
The supporting players are funny too, from the strange symbiotic relationship between Big Enos (Pat McCormick) and Little Enos (Paul Williams) that puts the story in motion, to Jerry Reed’s genial crystallization of the Good Ol’ Boy archetype (Reed, with rock and roll pioneer Bill Justis, also wrote the movie’s music, including the immortal “Eastbound and Down”), George Reynolds’ put-upon Sheriff Branford (who, yes, ends up in a watery ditch) and Mike Henry’s numskull daddy’s boy, Field’s jilted groom, who spends almost the entire movie whimpering for his papa’s approval, one hand planted on the old man’s hat to keep it from blowing away in the breeze created by the sudden conversion of their police cruiser from a hardtop sedan to a convertible.
And about that old man. Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice, the blustering, apoplectic Texas sheriff who crosses state lines in pursuit of that runaway bride and, eventually of course, the Bandit, is hardly a comic creation of great nuance, and thank God for that. Gleason’s slow burn frequently erupts into a raspy voiced rage against irreverence for the law and “what this world is coming to”— he’s squinting with contempt at you, African-American Sheriff Branford—in the process he steals Quintessential/Stereotypical Redneck Southern Sheriff honors right out from between J.W. Pepper’s sausage-shaped fingers. I once saw Albert Finney on stage in London, and he spent so much of his time in a red-faced rage that I seriously feared he might have a stroke. Gleason reminded me of Finney in that way here. But with Buford T. Justice that fear gets processed into laughs and makes you wonder just how far Gleason will go, even when one of his funniest moments, after a fellow officer calls his highway patrolling into question (“who do you think you are, Broderick Crawford?!”) is a simple, seething sneer of contempt. I never thought I’d say it, but after seeing Jackie Gleason again as this unhinged, entitled and outraged lawman it’s clear to me that Buford T. Justice truly belongs in the company of the great Ralph Kramden.
It was nice to see Smokey and the Bandit again and realize that I could finally appreciate this movie, which I’d pooh-poohed for so long. But the real attraction of the night was most definitely the chance to see Convoy projected on the big screen for the first time. I’d only ever seen it in terrible cropped presentations on VHS and HBO, and I’d never thought much of it until I stumbled upon it on the MGM HD channel several years ago. Enough years had passed that, offered such a beautiful-looking wide-screen transfer, I felt that it was an opportunity to see the movie as close to what it looked like in 1978. It was also a chance to assess it on its merits alone, divorced from the notoriety of its cocaine-and-madness-fueled production history and its insistent reputation as the nadir of a once-great director’s career, the penultimate act of an artist desperately slumming for a hit. (My nominee for that honor would go to the film Peckinpah made previously, The Killer Elite.)
I never thought I would ever see the movie looking better than it did on that HD channel, but fortunately I was wrong. The print featured at the New Beverly was spotless and pristine, struck from an original answer print which makes Convoy’s shimmering, grimy, hallucinatory imagery pop like it hasn’t popped since the day the movie first opened. I’m well aware of the movie’s reputation, but if you could ever see it the way I did last night you might be much more inclined to rethink the presumptions that have clogged Convoy’s tailpipes since August 1978.
I wish I could say that Convoy is a movie entirely misrepresented, like Mandingo, by a critical community blinded by conventional wisdom, one worthy of a complete reappraisal and repositioning within Peckinpah’s oeuvre. Alas, it is not a masterpiece. Some of Convoy’s dialogue scenes are marred by atrocious overdubbing and indifferent staging (usually the ones involving people standing around, talking at each other), and even some of the hand-to-hand action, like the truck-stop fistfight that opens the movie—Peckinpah’s bread and butter a mere decade earlier— is hampered by an overly deliberate editing scheme that looks pawed over, slapped together. (There is a good joke in there, though, involving a trucker who draws first blood in a coffee shop fight with a broken ketchup bottle shattered over someone’s head, which draws immediate comic commentary on the director’s reputation amongst lazy critics as an indiscriminate blood-letter. But honestly, it made me think not so much of Peckinpah past as Peckinpah parodied.)
But if Convoy isn’t a masterpiece, it certainly is a masterwork, and Peckinpah’s passion for camaraderie and obsession with the depths, and sometimes the shallowness of loner mystique come through this movie as clearly as anything he ever made, even though the passions and obsessions by this point may have been muddled by creeping desperation. (The director is even visible in the movie, next to DP Harry Stradling, Jr., ostensibly directing the camera crew of a news reporter who rides alongside the truckers, interviewing them on the fly. It’s clear, though, that Peckinpah wasn’t there as an actor—armed with his walkie-talkie, he’s on screen directing Convoy. The reverse shots of the truckers are often what is being seen by the 35mm camera seen riding in the pickup bed with the crew.)
The movie, based on C.W. McCall’s novelty top-40 hit, was a smash, especially on the drive-in circuit, though Peckinpah’s on-set antics ensured he wouldn’t work again for nearly five years. No, it’s not a maligned work of genius, but it is goddamned entertaining despite its flaws, mainly because, in trolling for box-office gold by exploiting the then-popular CB craze, the director manages to pump a goodly amount of nihilistic steam into the idea of a political movement, a trucker’s protest convoy which gains populist momentum without anyone– least of all its ostensible leader, Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson)– seeming to have any coherent agenda or ability to agree on what it all means. For Rubber Duck, and for Peckinpah, the director desperate to shoot film who increasingly lost his grip on the reality of what to shoot and why, the only act with any meaning at all is the simple act of forward movement.
And forward movement through vividly rendered space is something Convoy does as well as any of the acknowledged classics of the genre, like Vanishing Point. And like Charley Varrick or Electra Glide in Blue, Convoy is one of those wonderfully tactile films from the ‘70s that seems kinetically, electrically connected to the landscapes on which its dramas take place. The soaking up of the spectacular Panavision vistas, deepened by darkening clouds, a line of trucks skating across the bottom of the frame silhouetted in the dusk, is as dramatic as any action set piece in the movie. And one of the movie’s most memorable chases, a band of troopers pursuing Rubber Duck and company through blinding, back-road desert dust, is a beautiful, inexplicable evocative piece of surreal choreography. There’s nothing like it in any other action movie. And all of Convoy’s set pieces are shot and edited with an identifiable precision and poetry that is clearly derived from Peckinpah’s sensibility, this despite testimony to the effect that James Coburn and others were called in to direct shots and sequences when Peckinpah arrived on set too drunk and/or deranged to do the job himself. (Coburn has a credit as second unit director.)
The cast is more than game too. Kris Kristofferson has never looked leaner or better on screen than he does here; he seems to understand his genetic-level function as a laconic, graphic extension of the muscularity of his vehicle. And of course Ernest Borgnine’s mustache-twirling devilry as evil sheriff Dirty Lyle is memorable, as it’s played a little closer to Earth than Gleason’s Justice and is all the scarier for it. The supporting cast are all welcome and worth watching; it includes Burt Young and Franklin Ajaye as fellow truckers Pigpen (whose cab bears the legend “Paulie’s Hauling”) and the ill-fated Spider Mike; Seymour Cassel as an opportunistic governor who wants to turn the populist support for Rubber Duck’s convoy into votes; and Madge Sinclair, whose 18-wheeler takes a hell of a spill around a tight curve early on and isn’t left with much more to do to hitch a ride in another cab, but who brings her customary warmth and generosity as a performer to the hot asphalt nonetheless. Only Ali McGraw’s well-documented nostril acting rubs the wrong way, but she’s hardly a stake through the movie’s engine.
Especially seen as the meal after a Smokey appetizer, Convoy emerges even more clearly as a pedal-to-the-heavy-metal, meat-and-potatoes Hal Needham action flick directed by an artist, or at least a man still enough of one to elevate even the genre’s hoariest conceits and lowest comic pitches into classifiably forgivable sins. The movie and its milieu are both spectacular; it’s a dusty, greasy, sweaty testimony to the desperate beauty of the road, of trucks, and of desperate, disillusioned men.