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Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977)

Smokey and the Bandit

When Bandit said goodbye to his one love, that’s when I knew I loved Burt Reynolds.  

It’s all in the way Bandit (Burt Reynolds) looks at her right before she’s about to get on a bus to god knows where, and be forever in his rear-view mirror. It floors me, because there’s this deep juxtaposition with who this man is actually supposed to be in conflict with what Burt Reynolds is conveying through his eyes that deepens the character. Bandit is forever cool, and seems to get by in a state of effortless relaxation, even when he’s dodging police vehicles and blistering the highways of the Southern United States at speeds of over 100 miles per hour, but Frog (Sally Field) pulls him out of his comfort zone. We never fear that Bandit will get caught. That’s not even a question, but losing the girl? That’s real, and in that moment he knows that to be true as well. He’s shook, paralyzed, in the same way Humphrey Bogart is in Casablanca (1942) right before he’s about to say goodbye to Ingrid Bergman. It’s classic cinema, and Burt Reynolds pulls it off beautifully. It’s in the way his eyes darken and his smile fades under the brim of his one protection: an old cowboy hat. It opens up his humanity to all of us, and he becomes more than an outlaw. We finally see Burt Reynolds as not just a gunslinger, but someone with a heart. That’s why women loved him, and why his screen presence is still special to this day. It’s timeless in a way that movies don’t really aim for anymore. Of course, after he says his goodbye to Frog (Sally Field), he soothes his pain with alcohol and a cheeseburger. It’s how every tough guy deals with loss, but the fact that he is in fact experiencing loss is what’s important. He’s vulnerable, not just a love ’em and love ’em bastard with a great car. He has depth, and he’s capable of being something more than just a great driver, even if the driving is sexy. It showed he cared, and Burt certainly did too as an actor. The moment where these two star-crossed lovers are entangled in the warm embrace of a Hollywood meet-cute that is potentially upset by romantic tragedy wouldn’t work if he didn’t.   

Frog and Bandit would eventually ride off into the sunset, but that moment wouldn’t feel nearly as earned if it hadn’t been in danger of vanishing altogether, like a black trans-am speeding away on the interstate, never to be seen again.

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