'The Bandit': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW

'The Overnighters' director Jesse Moss turns to a lighter subject.

Less interested in the production of one of the biggest box-office hits of its day than in the unlikely friendship that paved the way for it, Jesse Moss's The Bandit centers on what one observer calls "the closest relationship I ever saw in this business," that of Burt Reynolds and stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham. A stylish and entertaining evocation of late-1970s pop machismo, the CMT presentation holds a special Southern-fried appeal for that network's core demographic but is enjoyable enough for somewhat broader exposure via digital outlets.

Smokey and the Bandit was inspired by petty theft, it seems: While making Gator, a Reynolds vehicle with Needham as second-unit director, crew members realized housekeepers were stealing six-packs of Coors from their hotel rooms and selling them for $20 apiece (a steep price even compared to the craft beers of today, which have made picky drinkers forget people actually used to like Golden, Colorado's most famous swill.)

Several of those who knew him gently point out Needham was "not a Rhodes Scholar" and had little experience that would suggest he should direct a movie, as opposed to staging and performing stunt sequences. But when he conceived a plot involving a truckload of illicit Coors being driven cross-country to Georgia fatcats who couldn't buy it legally, Reynolds' support eventually elicited a green light not from exploitation factory AIP, where Needham intended to pitch it, but from Universal Pictures.

And that is the bulk of the real production nitty-gritty we get in this film, which will often start a sequence off with a title card reading, for example, "Day 7," only to let an on-set anecdote segue immediately into broader talk of Needham's career, Reynolds' fame or the decade-plus period during which they were roommates.

We get, for instance, a primer on the career of Reynolds, who was discovered by an English teacher when he had no interest in acting, then went on to be mistaken for "the new Brando." Reynolds was no Brando, but we see some ways the movie star might have become a more serious thesp. In a vintage clip, Pauline Kael says it's only vanity keeping the young star from Sean Connery-level respectability; in a sometimes but not always self-effacing present-day interview, Reynolds says he turned down a "get your tuxedo out" bona-fide acting role to star in Bandit for Needham. (There went the chance to win back the credibility he tossed by posing nude for Cosmo just as Deliverance was winning acclaim.)

It's amusing to see tidbits from the peak of Reynoldsmania — watch Barbara Walters nod solemnly as the actor explains his interior design sensibility: "Tile is my second favorite thing in life" — but more interesting is the doc's look at Needham, who seems to have percolated with envy of his celebrity pal even as the latter made him a huge commercial success. The stuntman's PR agent tells of all the ways they worked to raise his public profile, even pitching an elaborate action figure for kids called "The Stuntman."

Some conflicts between the two are downplayed, like an episode during Bandit production when Reynolds disappeared "for a couple of days." We're left to read between some lines here. More explicitly, if briefly, explained is the way that Universal nearly killed the pic's heartland appeal by subbing an orchestral score for the country songs written by co-star Jerry Reed — or how they nearly abandoned hope after a "flat" Radio City premiere, before its opening in the South made the film 1977's second-biggest hit, after a little thing called Star Wars.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Production company: Mile End Films West
Director: Jesse Moss
Producers: Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine, Danny Breen
Executive producers: Jayson Dinsmore, Lewis Bogach, John Miller-Monzon
Editor: Aaron Wickenden
Composer: T. Griffin
Sales: Cinetic

Not rated, 84 minutes

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