An admirable but not entirely successful attempt at transplanting classic film-noir themes into a hip ’70s milieu, this downbeat detective thriller features the peculiar pairing of delicate Gallic beauty Catherine Deneuve and suave Deep South stud Burt Reynolds. The fact that these actors don’t exist in the same cinematic universe reflects the many clashing tonalities director Robert Aldrich brings to Hustle. After smoothly blending comedy and drama in an earlier Reynolds movie, The Longest Yard (1974), Aldrich tries to do too many things here, because Hustle aspires to be a tragedy, a whodunit, a commentary on sexual politics, and more. Since Aldrich was generally at his best making unpretentious pulp, with deeper themes buried below the surface, his striving for Big Statements is awkward—much in the same way that Deneuve’s cool sophistication fails to gel with Reynolds’ hot emotionalism, the high and low aspects of this movie’s storytelling collide to produce a narrative muddle.
The picture begins with cynical LA detectives Phil Gaines (Reynolds) and Louis Belgrave (Paul Winfield) commencing their investigation into the murder of a young hooker. The victim’s father, Korean War vet Marty Hollinger (Ben Johnson), is sniffing around the crime as well, because he wants revenge. When clues identify lawyer Leo Sellers (Eddie Albert) as a possible suspect, things get tricky not only because Sellers has political influence but because Sellers is a patron of another hooker, Nicole (Deneuve)—who happens to be Phil’s girlfriend.
The idea of a cop living on both sides of the law is always provocative, but in this case, Phil’s relationship with Nicole makes him unsympathetic. Tolerating her demeaning career paints him as a user, while pushing her to abandon her work suggests he’s a chauvinist; there’s no way for Reynolds to win. Nonetheless, the actor gives a valiant effort, while Deneuve struggles to elevate her clichéd role despite obvious difficulty with English-language dialogue. Inhibited by iffy writing and overreaching direction, the stars end up letting their physicality do most of the acting—Deneuve looks ravishing and Reynolds looks tough. But that’s not enough. Excepting Johnson, whose obsessive bloodlust resonates, most of the skilled supporting cast gets lost in the cinematic muddiness, and Aldrich does no one any favors by shooting interiors with ugly, high-contrast lighting. Still, Hustle gets points for seediness and for the nihilism of its ending.