The Longest Yard
Seeing Burt Reynolds in Robert Aldrich's 1973 The Longest Yard
, I couldn't help but think how his last big role, in Boogie Nights,
was a stroke of casting genius. No wonder Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as a porn director: Burt Reynolds in his prime looked like everyone's idea of a porn star. Big, tall, hairy-chested, full mustache; you saw the type in Seventies porn, in sleazy cartoons, in illustrations in sex manuals. (Was he the template from which Johnny Wadd Holmes was struck?) Whatever. One thing's for sure. I couldn't wait to see him go to prison -- anything to get him out of those fucking clothes: early Nixon-era leisure suits with leather trim.
Reynolds' character is Paul Crewe, a gone-to-seed, happy-go-lucky ex-football star who ended his career in disgrace in a point-shaving scandal, and has since become a kept man. As the film opens, he is about to have his last domestic spat with his latest high-class piece of faded tail, which will end with him smacking her around and stealing her car, which will result in him getting an 18-month stretch in prison.
Crewe hopes to do the time the way he does everything -- by taking it easy, smirking, shrugging, and generally doing the Burt Reynolds schtick. The warden (Eddie Albert) wants Crewe to coach the prison guards' football team, in hopes of acquiring some kind of semi-pro national championship. When Crewe balks, he forces him to put together a football team of his own to play the guards. Crewe's motivation for getting people to join up is that it gives them a chance to tackle the sadistic, racist guards (the heavy here is the captain, played by Ed Lauter, who had a face like Eastwood's, only meaner; a menacing angularity, all sharp lines and eyes like slits.) Crewe manages to regain a little of the self-respect he has gambled away over the years by coaching the team. The warden, banking on Crewe's shady past, intends to coerce him into delivering an easy victory to the guards -- which he almost does before coming to his senses in the final quarter of the game and the movie.
When I saw the videocassette box on the shelves of the local library yesterday afternoon, I remembered the movie as being somewhat enjoyable trash; enjoyable socially-conscious trash, you might even say, as it pits Reynolds in a crowd-pleasing showdown with The Man, and Albert in all his jovial authority seemed like just the kind of law-and-order establishment prick who would order cops to break the heads of student protestors.
That aspect of it, though, no longer has much vigor. Rather, the first thing you notice about the film is what you notice about a lot of profitable films of the period: how obnoxiously it panders to the audience, which certainly lapped it up, although I doubt many who take a second look would be quite so taken in. By this stage of his career, Aldrich was beginning to look like a more crass, more elbow-in-the ribs version of John Huston. Men's films, tough-guy films, supposedly, that now look geared for the kind of men who stay too late in bars making clumsy passes at women they can't stand.