[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Busting represents yet another casualty of the Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid syndrome. Telltale symptoms: a wisecracking, ultra-cool male duo (here substitute Elliott Gould and Robert Blake for Paul Newman and Robert Redford) at odds with a world they never made and cannot change, humor and mutual loyalty their only weapons against a graceless, corrupt environment. And it’s so seductive, this syndrome. It’s like being a bright-eyed whippersnapper of a kid set loose among a bunch of dull, dishonest grownups—and with a blood brother to boot! You can play at being a cop (as in Busting) or a robber (Butch Cassidy and The Sting)—makes no difference, as long as you do it with the style and verve that makes all those corrupt or rule-bound adults look like spoilsports. Shades of Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook! Leslie Fiedler must be giggling in his beard: “Come back to the raft, Sundance honey!”
But something’s gone mightily awry with the adolescent American dream since Huck Finn and Natty Bumppo (although it was turning dark even in Twain and Cooper). Huck and Natty were still making pilgrimages into and sometimes out of the American Eden, still biting off chunks of the apple to test what was good and what was wormy in this brave new world. Come to modern-day movies with their obsessive interest in Holden Caulfield X 2 and what you’ve got is despair. Not romantic or melodramatic despair, but a kind of laid-back masochistic wallowing in the rotten way things are. If Bogart cracked wise, came on as a supertough type, we all knew he used his incomparable style defensively. No one doubted that beneath the mask lay vulnerability and capacity for involvement. In fact, the cynicism never was at odds with the reality: when Bogart gravelled “I stick my neck out for nobody,” that was no less true than the fact that he would ultimately sacrifice all for an ideal. The content and the style were one, integrated into a satisfying wholeness. Bogart’s characters, though never taken in by life’s shams and dirty tricks, never lost the ability to hope for and recognize authenticity.
In Busting, Gould and Blake go through all the motions of romantic despair, display the traditional style of the American isolato, but what was pith, marrow, and mask in Bogart has been reduced in Busting to mere protective coloration—or worse, a red flag to wave in the face of an eternally shitty world. It’s impossible to believe that vice cops Gould and Blake possess any real hope that they can count out the mobster whose traffic in drugs and whores taints a whole city, not to mention their own police department. Often, one feels that their nifty repartee and unflappable cool feeds on the proliferation of events that prove how terrible their environment is, rather than acts as armor against the pain of that realization. If Bogart resisted joining up for most of Casablanca and then went all the way in the last moments of the film, Gould and Blake pretentiously, but unconvincingly, fight the good fight troughout Busting and then, predictably, retire from the battle permanently in the end. The new cynicism.
Apropos of Busting (and some other current films), the concept of style needs defining in such a way that a distinction gets made between the kind of style that has to do with the very core of identity and that brand which, lacking meaning, is simply an empty exercise in technique, sterile affectation. There are some people whose every movement, every nuance of expression, constitutes a unique statement of selfhood. One can trace in the very turn of a head or a gesture the anatomy of such individuals’ moral, aesthetic, cultural standards. Equally, there are those who lie every time they move or emote, in whom affectation masquerades as authenticity. Style here becomes a many-colored coat that clothes either a vacuum or a terrible inadequacy of personality.
So too, the style of a director (or that of a distinctive cinematographer) may unerringly reveal the basic components of personality, the barest bones of the creative mind which informs any given film. Whatever the announced intention, the overt content of the movie, the truth of it all most often lies in the manner in which a scene or the film in its entirety moves. Does the camera approach its subject like a surgeon, a spy, a lover, or the eye of God? Is the lay of the land compressed, encompassed, expanded, or ignored in favor of those who live there? How is that land inhabited, moved through? Is there room for largesse of gesture—heroic, even mythic, in scope—or is behavior circumscribed, limited, even the tragic posture limned in miniature? The way in which a movie, its characters, and its camera move constitutes a signature. A signature or statement of style and, consequently, of identity, whether individual or communal.
In the case of Busting, director Peter Hyams’s style, or more precisely, his technique, is as bankrupt of depth and authenticity as are his characters. For instance: The film opens on a freshly attractive young woman striding confidently down a busy street and entering an office building. This is our first look at the film, our first character, so our interest is automatically hooked. Who is she, where is she going, what is she doing? We watch her progression through the impressive lobby and into an elevator where she parries the admiring glances of a fellow passenger. The camera sneaks us ahead of her so that we arc waiting expectantly when she rounds corners and enters corridors. Finally, into a dentist’s office, where she sits down, opens a magazine, smiles at a fellow victim, is eventually called in by the dentist. Small talk about how nice she’s looking is exchanged, and before we register what’s happening the smiling dentist is unbuttoning his smock and our lovely young lady is up into the dental chair with her legs swung widely over the sides. All this technical flash, all this cinematic time and energy, has been expended so that the audience can get a cheap laugh out of the ways and means of high-class whoring by appointment—and, incidentally, so that Gould and Blake can later come up and do a funny blackmail number on the swinging dentist.
Later, Gould and Blake, infiltrating a homosexual hangout to set up a bust, walk the length of the bar for no other reason than to afford the audience plenty of time to eyeball the gaily bedizened weirdos. A black queen—played to the flaming, mincing hilt for the edification of straights—accosts Blake and eventually sets off a biting, scratching, kicking free-for-all which Hyams’s camera observes in salacious detail. Next day, a pair of bedraggled queens face the judge’s bench, drawling and lisping—in unmistakably masculine voices—their outrageous responses to the court’s queries. Stationed behind the obviously bewigged and tastelessly wardrobed couple, the camera titillates the audience with the possibility of seeing the faces that go with those bizarre (and beaten) voices. It hovers, then obliges but as teasingly as a stripper by slowly creeping around the two men to finally zero in on their mascara’d and rouge’d faces. Hyams’s technique here and elsewhere is like the proverbially slimy fellow who hangs out in alleyways whispering “Wanna see some dirty postcards, man?”
Busting is ostensibly about two vice cops who are really into what they’re doing, so much so that they embark on a doomed Captain Marvel crusade to knock out the worst vice king in the city (who keeps baiting them with a contemptuous “shazaaam!”). But that’s not what Peter Hyams’s directorial style tells us the movie is about. Every time he sets up scenes like the abovementioned, every time he takes too long in getting Gould and Blake through some sordid hole-in-the-wall, letting his camera peruse the sordidness at leisure, Hyams is telling us what he and his movie are really up to. Gould and Blake parade their laid-back despair about their rotten world, but Hyams lovingly rubs our noses in the dirt. While Gould and Blake bust call-girls and massage parlors, Busting itself is an exercise in stylistic pornography.
Perhaps directors like Hyams (and George Roy Hill), lacking any real style of their own, fall back on actors whose charismatic presence might cohere their films into a significant whole. But ultimately these films ring false because they project double-messages, they change or refuse to take any ground, and their every motion is bereft of meaning. Technique may be utilized as a disguise, but style is a constant revelation of character. A student’s term paper I happened to run across recently was entitled: “An Anachronistic Issue: The Problem of Identity.” Well, maybe so. It sure looks that way in a lot of movies nowadays.
Screenplay and Direction: Peter Hyams. Cinematography: Earl Rath. Editing: Sidney Katz.
The Players: Elliott Gould, Robert Blake, Allen Garfield, Antonio Fargas, Cornelia Sharpe.
Copyright © 1974 Kathleen Murphy