The Gauntlet (1977)

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The Gauntlet
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Premiered December 21, 1977

It’s a cliché that a troubled production will either result in a total disaster or a crowning achievement, but what about a troubled development? How many times has a studio tried to make a movie, gone through multiple directors and casts trying to do so, and then finally put out something good?

In fact, it has happened at least once, and it is called The Gauntlet. Originally meant to star Marlon Brando and then Steve McQueen, producer Robert Daley finally got Clint Eastwood to take the project on, on both sides of the camera. Today, Eastwood is best known as a filmmaker of occasionally good prestige drama, and his persona in front of the camera has long overshadowed his reputation as a filmmaking renaissance man. The Gauntlet, however, is proof positive at the man’s ability to make the most out of what should have been a piece of sleazy ephemera.

Detective Ben Shockley (Eastwood) is a perpetually drunken Phoenix police detective whose straitlaced new commissioner (William Prince) sends him to Nevada to pick up a mafia witness named Gus Mally. Arriving in Las Vegas, Shockley is surprised to discover that not only is “Gus” short for “Augustina,” a local prostitute (Sondra Locke), but that there’s a bet going around town that she won’t make it to testify in Phoenix. The reason they’re so certain of her failure is that the gangster she’s set to identify is Shockley’s very own commissioner, who’s set them both up for a fall and will stop at nothing to keep them from getting back to Phoenix.

The Gauntlet works really hard to be cool, and succeeds through sheer production value. After watching movie after movie– particularly action movies– shot with cameras with dirt in their gates, it’s shocking to see a crisp, clear image that rivals the very last days of 35mm Hollywood. The late-period jazz score by frequent Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding oozes cool in a middle-aged sort of way. Eastwood and Locke have terrific chemistry with a darkly comedic edge, appropriately since they were a couple in real life at the time.

But The Gauntlet’s real triumph is its special effects. I know the timing makes it impossible, but I can’t help but imagine Eastwood watching Grand Theft Auto and thinking “challenge accepted.” The majority of the movie’s budget was spent crafting elaborate, borderline-comedic action setpieces that make the movie feel like the missing link between the Dollars trilogy and Die Hard. The Gauntlet is a fascinating window into Clint Eastwood’s unique style and influences behind the camera. It’s also a loving tribute to how completely you can destroy shit using just bullets.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Just as in Grand Theft Auto, Las Vegas is a respectably midsized city of about 150,000. Meanwhile, Phoenix is in that late-boomtown phase where it’s already a big city but doesn’t look like one yet.

How Did It Do?
The Gauntlet was (probably) the 13th-biggest movie of the year. Grossing $35.4 million against a $5.5 million budget, it was Eastwood’s most successful directorial effort to date, just edging out the previous year’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Critics were deeply polarized at the time, with the consensus criticism being that the plot was too bland. In retrospect, however, critics have been overwhelmingly positive, earning the film a 78% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

Next Time: High Anxiety

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