A comedy and action blend works so very well in 1977's Smokey and the Bandit because of its breezy pace and natural charisma of its stars. Of the latter, Burt Reynolds, who passed away yesterday at the age of 82, is obviously the film's chief virtue.
Though under a surprising amount of makeup it's the natural quality of Reynolds' performance that effects his charm as the "Bandit" of the title. Director Hal Needham must have instructed him to laugh as often as possible because he does so at times when it doesn't seem especially appropriate. But there's such an inviting and unassuming warmth in his laugh there's no awkwardness of contrivance. Like many other action films of the 70s, this one works well because the convincingly shot stunts are coupled with reactions from the stars that seem oddly calm or oddly more concerned with personal drama than the police car flipping over into a river. It's not just that Bandit seems to be a great driver, it's that he weaves around cars at 110 mph or screeches into a 180 turn like it's the most natural thing in the world.
And this carries over into the film's use of exposition or lack there of. When Sally Field hops in the car in a wedding dress, we don't really need to know much more and the movie knows this. It's like when Godard just randomly cut out shots in a scene he considered too much tedious exposition in Vivre sa vie--the audience is quite capable of making the necessary inferences to allow for an exciting pace.
The plot of Smokey and the Bandit is essentially a light-hearted, more conservative version of Vanishing Point. Instead of a bet to deliver a car, Bandit accepts a bet to deliver some beer across the state line, which may have been illegal but doesn't seem like it would draw the elaborate manhunt we see. And there's a much more cartoonish villain in the sheriff played by a wonderfully puerile and condescending Jackie Mason.
There's a coyness about the humour that falls flat sometimes, like the weird evasion of foul language in lines like the one where Bandit replaces "fucking" with "forking". But Reynolds makes it work mostly by not playing it too broad but also by going big at just the right moments, like a famous shot when he smiles at the camera after successfully hiding from a police car.
It's not hard to see why Alfred Hitchcock liked this movie, though the characters are more flippant than his usually were. The film still presents an engaging tension between suspense and humour that presents an exhilaration all the more effective for the cool Burt Reynolds at its centre.
Twitter Sonnet #1152
A drawing aped a Slinky fallen down.
In lazy spirals pens have taken time.
Of curly hair or tangled cloud renown.
The knotty dreams refuse a straightened line.
Decelerating spins produce a wash.
The legacy of bad detergent stank.
Repeated days have stepped in icy slosh.
At forty years he never rose a rank.
The burning foot became the distant road.
A set of clocks descends to make a knee.
A kindly name redeems a silent mode.
A watered lawn became a grassy sea.
In leafy frames a catchy chase endured.
A frozen motion graced a written word.