Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

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Smokey and the Bandit
Dir. Hal Needham
Premiered May 27, 1977

I was not expecting to like Smokey and the Bandit. The 2000s television series My Name is Earl constantly referenced it as a sign of the title character’s credentials as a redneck. Even comedian Rich Hall in his southern-cinema apologia The Deep South insinuates that it’s not a respectable sort of film. The director was a stuntman; the plot heavily revolved around the extremely stupid CB radio craze, when truck drivers were suddenly and briefly heroic outlaws. Maybe I was misreading the situation, because whatever its ambitions, Smokey and the Bandit is a damn fun movie.

Big Enos (Pat McCormick) and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams) are Texas magnates looking to acquire a truckload of Coors Beer for a huge party. Unfortunately, Coors is illegal in Atlanta, where they’re based, and their illegal shipment has been apprehended. With little more than a day to spare, Big and Little Enos bet the beloved wild-child trucker known as the Bandit (Burt Reynolds) that he can’t go to Texas and bring the beer back to Atlanta in just 28 hours. The Bandit takes the bet and makes an elaborate plan: his buddy Snowman (Jerry Reed) will drive the truck at top speed while he distracts any cops along the way in his beloved Trans Am.

This plan soon proves more useful than they expected. On the way back from Texas, the two pick up runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field), a failed chorus girl whose on the run from a forced marriage to the dimwitted son of the local sheriff, Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Soon, the villainous sheriff and his jilted son (Mike Henry) are on the warpath, chasing the Bandit all the way back to Georgia, with only The Bandit’s good-ol’-boy reputation and his skills at the wheel to save him.

Smokey and the Bandit is hardly the most epic of films, and I’m instinctively inclined to discredit it on that basis alone. But setting that aside, it’s actually a very well-crafted film. In 2017, we can look back and appreciate the craftsmanship required to present a compelling action scene– mostly because we seem to have more opportunities than ever to see it done badly. When you realize that the entire film is essentially one giant car chase, the cinematography and editing shines. Road movies were all the rage in the ‘70s, but few were able to catch the eye like this one. And all of it could still have fallen flat if the characters had been handled badly, but the script (by James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer, and Alan Mandel) respects its characters’ intelligence– except for the dimwitted bigot Sheriff Justice– and in so doing respects its audience.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Coors beer is considered good, and is illegal to sell east of the Mississippi River. That was a real thing.

How Did It Do?
Smokey and the Bandit was the second-biggest movie of 1977, grossing $300 million internationally against a $4.3 million budget– an impressively lean budget even in an era when production costs rarely went above seven figures. It was beaten out by Star Wars, but looking back now, it’s impressive that Star Wars didn’t bury it completely, having come out the same week.

And lest you think my enjoyment should be considered a guilty pleasure, the caliber of people who love the movie is astonishing: Alfred Hitchcock called it one of his favorite movies, Leonard Maltin compared it to The Three Stooges (albeit before that was necessarily a compliment), its editing earned an Academy Award nomination, and it regularly appears on AFI retrospectives. RottenTomatoes gives it an 80% fresh rating, which seems about right.

Director Hal Needham continued his partnership with Reynolds through a number of hits, though both of their stars started to fade in the 1980s. And the film inspired uncounted imitators throughout the rest of the late ‘70s; none of which need to be seen.

Next Time: The Other Side of Midnight

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