Burt Reynolds: The Bandit
Sally Field: Carrie
Jerry Reed: Cledus
Jackie Gleason: Sheriff Buford T. Justice
Mike Henry: Junior
Pat McCormick: Big Enos
Paul Williams: Little Enos
Screenplay by James Lee Barrett and Charles Shyer & Alan Mandel
Directed by Hal Needham
1977 witnessed the release of one of the most important cinematic achievements ever, STAR WARS. That movie revolutionized film making and was easily the top moneymaker of that year with a whopping $307 million at the box office. The third highest grossing film of '77 was another grand creation, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, at over $116 million. Other notable features from this year included SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, THE GOODBYE GIRL, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, OH, GOD!, Robert Altman's 3 WOMEN, David Lynch's ERASERHEAD, Eastwood's masterful THE GAUNTLET, Mel Brooks' HIGH ANXIETY, and Woody Allen's Best Picture-winning ANNIE HALL. A big year.
The second-highest grossing movie of the year, though, with $126 million was a comedy about two truck drivers bootlegging Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta on a bet. One of the truckers is known as The Bandit and he's played by Burt Reynolds, who, at the time, was one of the biggest box office draws in the world. His partner, Cledus Snow (C.B. handle: The Snowman) is portrayed by Jerry Reed, who also composed and performed the movie's theme song "East Bound and Down." Few songs have ever captured the spirit of a movie than that one. The movie is funny, packed with impressive car stunts, and anchored by one of my favorite characters in film, Jackie Gleason's Sheriff Buford T. Justice.
Bandit and Cledus make a bet with a couple of rich rednecks (Big Enos and Little Enos) that they can transport a tractor trailer filled with Coors beer from Texas to Georgia in 18 hours. Since, at the time, Coors was illegal east of the Mississippi, that was bootlegging. Bandit convinces the Enoses to provide him with a cool Pontiac Trans Am to run interference for Cledus's rig. While on the road, they run into a runaway bride named Carrie (Sally Field, who was dating Reynolds at the time). It's at this point they cross paths with Gleason's apoplectic Sheriff Justice. You see, Carrie ran out on his son, a dimwit known only as Junior. The movie is one long chase as Bandit, Carrie, and Cledus race to meet their deadline with Justice in hot pursuit.
Roger Ebert used to say that it's not what a movie is about, but how it's about it. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT offers a simple plot. This is a car chase picture. However, the car stunts are done with such precision and skill, choreographed the way great fight scenes are with finesse. The movie was directed by famous Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham, who also made HOOPER, STROKER ACE, and the two CANNONBALL RUN films. This was shot long before the advent of CGI and other digital effects options. While STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS ushered in a new era of special effects, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT relishes in old school standard effects. The movie also moves along at a quick pace and never feels too long. There's an energy and bounce to it and its editing garnered an Oscar nomination.
Most of all, though, the movie is funny. My understanding is much of the dialogue was improvised, especially Gleason's. His gross exasperation serves as a perfect counter to Reynolds' easy-going good ol' boy charm. When I was an acting student, I learned the importance of staying focused on what your character wants, both in a given scene and the story as a whole. Now, I've studied Olivier, DeNiro, Pacino, Hoffman, and Streep to see who they go about this business. You know who else I also studied? Jackie Gleason. When you watch him in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, he is a man of single-minded determination. He has a goal. Catch The Bandit. He endures no end of humiliation, yet never loses sight of that goal. His obsession is his downfall and he charges on still. Gleason plays this with equal parts hyperbole, charisma, and consummate craft. He employs every gadget in his comedy utility belt at just the right moment. Jackie Gleason doesn't just play a dumb sheriff, he conducts a master class on timing, technique, and delivery.
Consider a scene a little over halfway through the picture. In the original screenplay, Bandit and Justice never meet until the very end. Reynolds and Gleason decided there needed to be a scene where they meet. So, a diner scene was shot, mostly improvised by the actors. Bandit knows who Justice is, but Justice is oblivious to the identity of the man he's chatting with. It's the movie's best scene.
Yes, Gleason was a pro, but it's also easy to see why Burt Reynolds was such a huge star. Handsome, charming, witty, and willing to be the butt of a joke. His scenes with Sally Field don't quite work for me, which is odd considering their obvious chemistry and off-screen relationship. Jerry Reed lights up the screen with his every appearance. Those attributes are on full display here. The story goes that when Hal Needham approached Reynolds about playing The Bandit, Reynolds recommended Gleason for Justice. Smart man.