Review: Needham’s classic “Bandit” celebrates 40 years.

Hal Needham’s action-comedy road trip film, Smokey and the Bandit lit up cinema screens in the summer of 1977, leading to the second highest box office take of the year and an Academy Award nomination for editing.

Coming in at a lean 96-minutes, first-time director Needham, who was then better known as a stuntman, would find the right combination of character, action, and comedy with a strong cast.  Featuring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed, Pat McCormick, Paul Williams, Mike Henry and Jackie Gleason, much of the dialog was ad-libbed on the set leading to a very strong dynamic between each of the main characters.

James Lee Barnett, Charles Shyer and Alan Mendel craft a script allowing the talents to shine while maintaining the action audiences were looking for.  Reynolds as the “Bandit” is the anti-hero whose roguish charms and heightened egotism served the character, playing off the sentiments of the audience back then.  Sally Field as Carrie, or “Frog” as she became affectionately known was just as strong-willed as the Bandit, making for a steamy romance both on and off the screen.  Interestingly, Field took the role because her critics felt that she was more brains than brawn.

Jerry Reed, who was originally signed on to play “Bandit” when Needham started writing the film, plays the tough-as-nails, but cool-under-the-skin trucker, Cledus Snow (“The Snowman”).  Reed’s self-efficacious nature provides the audience with the necessity of meeting the Burdette’s challenge:  bring 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana, TX back to Atlanta, GA in 28 hours.  At the time, Coors could not be sold east of the Mississippi River, so the risk was that they would be caught bootlegging the beer.  Big Enos Burdette is played by Pat McCormick while his son, Little Enos Burdette was played by Paul Williams.

In ‘hot pursuit’ and with some of the best lines in the history of cinema is none other than Jackie Gleeson, portraying Sherriff Buford T. Justice.  See, his son Junior played by Mike Henry was stood-up at the altar by Carrie.  The $40 cost of decorating the town and the injury to his reputation caused the elder Justice to maintain hot pursuit of the Bandit.  The jury is still out if Junior was the product of the sheriff’s loins.

Not to be upstaged, but the real star of the film was the 1977 Pontiac Trans-Am.  Thanks to the film, the Pontiac-manufactured car doubled its sales two years after the film’s release, outselling the Camaro.  Reynolds and the car were meant for each other.

Music thrives in a character-driven piece like this.  While Bill Justis provided the instrumental themes, which were a character of their own, Jerry Reed and Paul Williams, who would go on to write the theme for ‘The Love Boat’ collaborated on several songs including “East Bound and Down”.  Reportedly, Reed wrote the song overnight, which Needham absolutely loved.

Needham budgeted the film at $1 million, intending it to be a B-budgeted movie.  Once Reynolds signed on, Universal upped the budget to $4.3 million.  Released just two days after Star Wars, Bandit would go on to make $126,737,428 in North America becoming the second-highest grossing film of 1977, leaving an indelible impact on the culture at the time.

Oh, and did you know that this was one of the last films Alfred Hitchcock screened on the Universal lot?  Not to be outdone, but Mr. Hitchcock had the same feelings about this movie as we do:  we love it.

On home video and in a limited theatrical run compliments of Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies, Smokey and the Bandit is just as relevant today as it was back then.  The only difference is that Coors is legal and not as popular.

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