La peau douce (1964)

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Aka Silken Skin/ Soft Skin. I’ve learned that men’s unhappiness arises from the inability to stay quietly in their own room. While flying to Lisbon, Portugal to give a lecture, writer and magazine editor Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), encounters beautiful air stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) and winds up spending the night with her at the hotel where they both happen to be staying. What was intended to be a one-night stand becomes a tumultuous extramarital affair once he returns to Paris and his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and little daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) . Pierre tries to keep the affair secret but arranges a lecture trip to Reims which he thinks he can use as cover for their relationship but when his wife suspects him, she snaps and determines to enact terrible revenge … Ever take a good look at yourself? This passionate tale of adultery still stirs the emotions, firstly through the extraordinary performance of Dorléac (who used to be viewed as the more talented of those two famous French acting sisters, the younger being Catherine Deneuve) before her tragic demise. It’s heightened by an outrageously urgent and eloquent score by Georges Delerue and photographed with his usual limpid approach by Raoul Coutard, lending tenderness to the sexual attraction as it is complicated by the usual deceptions, occasionally tipping into farce. This guy cannot stop himself from doing the wrong thing at every juncture. Every car trip turns into an imperilled journey, planting the seeds of a wholly unnecessary tragic dénouement. A totally ordinary story is elevated to something like a thriller by staging, characterisation and pace. All the leads are tremendous:  Desailly is a wholly inadequate lover and husband, Dorléac a perfectly modern young woman, Benedetti an exquistely melodramatic woman scorned, as she sees it. An elegant disquisition on the unfairness of love, missed opportunities and the passing of youth as a tawdry and rather unmotivated love triangle falls apart. Written by director François Truffaut with Jean-Louis Richard (who has an uncredited role as a man harassing Franca in the street), this tale of amour fou is almost operatic in its pure conventionality and one ponders its morbid focus when one realises it was mostly shot at Truffaut’s own apartment with the suspenseful influence of Hitchcock fresh in his mind after a summer interviewing the great man for the classic tome, Hitchcock/Truffaut.  The ending is gobsmacking. Think of me

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The Velvet Vampire (1971)

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Aka Cemetery Girls. Remember – this is the desert and out here the sun can be destructive. Nice guy Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his pretty wife, Susan (Sherry Miles) are introduced by friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) to mysterious vixen Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall) to visit her in her secluded desert estate. She lives with Juan (Jerry Daniels) whom she says her family raised when his died on their reservation. However when she takes them to a graveyard where she claims her husband is buried tensions arise – trouble is Mr LeFanu was buried in 1875.  The couple, unaware at first that Diane is in reality a centuries-old vampire, realise that they are both objects of the pale temptress’ desire but that doesn’t really stop them lying in the way of her systematic seduction… Diane, I think I want to drive your buggy. This homage to Irish horror maestros Bram Stoker, Sheridan LeFanu and the recent Euro-Gothic erotic vampire genre, is the kind of cult exploitationer that should be seen more regularly but still belongs firmly in that realm despite its contemporary dayglo modern California setting, dune buggies and post-hippie glam.  While played straight, the lines aerate the daft premise with humour:  There is no life without blood, says the marvellous diaphonously clad Yarnall, a veteran of TV’s Ozzie and Harriet who died one year ago this week. You’ll recognise her from Live a Little, Love a Little as the beautiful girl who inspires Elvis to sing A Little Less Conversation. Miles is a lovably clueless ditsy blonde, barely clad in a bikini but topless more often than not. Blodgett (Lance in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is perfectly engaging as the good guy who just can’t help himself. The low budget is put to one side by the clever setting – that Spanish Revival house in the desert where the sunlight plays havoc with those pale of skin who prefer to socialise at night but also gives costumier Keith Hodges some fun opportunities and Daniel LaCambre shoots it beautifully. There’s a well conceived climax at LA’s bus terminal and a rather appetising coda. Blues musician Johnny Shines performs his song Evil-Hearted Woman. Directed by cult fave Stephanie Rothman and co-written by her (with her producer husband Charles S. Swartz and Maurice Jules, who also co-wrote that voodoo vampire outing Scream Blacula Scream), this gives you a good idea why her point of view as a feminist filmmaker was so significant in the drive-in era and it’s a real shame her women’s movies aren’t more widely known. Roger Corman was somewhat disappointed with the finished result and released it on a double bill with the Italian horror Scream of the Demon LoverI was having the same dream

The Company You Keep (2012)

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We all died. Some of us came back. Decades after an ill-fated robbery in which an innocent man was killed, a former member of the Weather Underground Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is on her way to turn herself in to authorities when the FBI arrest her at a gas station after her phone is tapped. While covering the story and digging around, reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that recently widowed human rights lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) was also a member of that particular group and is really a man called Nick Sloan since the real Jim Grant died in 1979. Sloan slips by the FBI led by Cornelius (Terrence Howard) who are following him when he goes on the run, from Albany through the Midwest and beyond, hoping to track down his former lover, Mimi (Julie Christie), who’s still underground and fighting for the cause. He leaves his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) with his doctor brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and his wife. Meanwhile, Ben encounters a police officer Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) who knew Nick back in the day and meets his his adult daughter Rebecca (Britt Marling) who is a lot older than she initially seems and Ben figures she is somehow connected to Mimi and Nick ... Everybody knew somebody who was going over or somebody who wasn’t coming back.  Adapted by Lem Dobbs from the titular 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, Robert Redford directed and produced this film which of course nods to that period in his own life when he was politically attuned and making films which spoke to the zeitgeist. Partly it’s about the state of journalism and Ben’s role of the ambitious journo who isn’t looking beyond the headlines, as Nick/Jim declares to him, Well that pretty much sums up why journalism is dead. It’s a pivotal statement because this is all about ethics – Sharon’s self-justifying, his hiding away, the times in which people live and endure their families being destroyed by violence, homegrown or otherwise (and millennial corruption is everywhere evident as Ben gets information with the passing of greenbacks to everyone he encounters). LaBeouf is good as the questing young writer – and looking at his screen career perhaps it’s the company he keeps that improves his impact because he’s surrounded by a great ensemble doing very fine work, including Nick Nolte who shows up as another member of the group. This is a serious work about a complex time which clarifies why historical crimes demand more than cursory payback and jail time. It’s well-paced, a drama of conscience, guilt and retribution. Now that’s context. They did unforgivable things but you’ve got to admire the commitment.

 

 

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

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Nobody is flying the plane!  During a massive traffic jam in California caused by reckless  ex-convict (following a tuna factory robbery 15 years earlier) Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), he crashes his car off twisting, mountainous State Highway 74 near Palm Desert. Five motorists stop to help him: dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); two guys on their way to Las Vegas, Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and Fresno entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his loud mother-in-law Mrs Marcus (Ethel Merman). Just before he dies kicking a bucket, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park near the border with Mexico under “… a big W”. The motorists set out across California to find the fortune, unaware that Captain T.G. Culpeper, Chief of Detectives of the Santa Rosita Police Department, has been patiently working on the Smiler Grogan case for years, hoping to someday solve it and retire. When he learns of the crash, he suspects Grogan may have tipped off the passersby, so he has them tracked by various police units. His suspicions are confirmed by their nutty behaviour but he may have ulterior motives for retrieving the loot  …  It’s a nice dream.  Lasted almost five minutes.  Earnest producer/director Stanley Kramer’s film may not in fact be the comedy to end all comedies as it was billed but it has most of the mid-century movie world’s best comic performers (and more besides) involved in incredibly engineered slapstick sequences, marvellously sustained as a lengthy madcap satirical farce, with some of the best colour cinematography you will ever see:  those reds and yellows and blues pop perfectly off the screen in staggering synchrony thanks to astonishing work by Ernest Laszlo. Written by William Rose and Tania Rose, it’s an epic ensemble endeavour with support and guest bits from a vast variety of mostly TV stars like Phil Silvers, Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Dick Shawn, Andy Devine, The Three Stooges, Edward Everett Horton and the great Buster Keaton, with Zasu Pitts in her final film,  and some lively dancing by Barrie Chase (screenwriter Borden Chase’s daughter and Robert Towne’s onetime girlfriend, previously married to Hollywood hairdresser Gene Shacove and therefore the inspiration for Shampoo!). We love Terry-Thomas (in a role intended for Peter Sellers, who asked for too much money – ironically) and his comments here about American obsessions provide the caustic witticisms that balance the narrative and characters’ unstoppable drive for money.  Sid Caesar inherited the role intended for the fabulous Ernie Kovacs following his death in a car crash driving home from Milton Berle’s baby shower (again, the irony…). A beautifully constructed gem that shows off California in precisely the way you would wish and after commencing with someone kicking the bucket in a cliffhanger opening, ends on an entirely apposite banana skin. Watching these legendary performers trying to steal scenes is a kick:  make America funny again! Beautifully restored.  Don’t call me baby

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Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

Clockwise (1986)

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The first step to knowing who you are is knowing where you are and when you are. Comprehensive school headmaster Brian Stimpson (John Cleese) is obsessed with timeliness, order and discipline. He tends to add the word ‘Right’ to everything he says, which inadvertently gives people misdirections and wrong impressions.  After meticulously preparing a speech for a Headmasters’ conference, Brian misses his train. With no one else to turn to, he asks student Laura Wisely (Sharon Maiden) for a lift to Norwich. Laura, upset over a break-up with what turns out to be a married colleague of Brian’s, impulsively agrees to drive him in her parents’ car – which alarms her mother (Pat Keen) and father (Geoffrey Hutchings), who worry that she has run away with a married man so they alert the police. Brian and Laura forget to pay for petrol; crash into a squad car; run into an old college friend of Brian’s (Penelope Wilton) who gets the impression that Brian is having an affair with this schoolgirl; get stuck in the mud; and then find themselves in a monastery – all the while unaware that a growing number of people are chasing them who wind up at the conference long before Brian ever manages to get there … We can’t go forwards so we’ll go backwards instead. Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn wrote this on spec as an experiment in screenwriting and John Cleese agreed to it the moment his agent sent it to him. In his tour de force performance of a man gradually unravelling as his scheme is destroyed by one simple mistake, you can see that it’s a perfect fit for the man who made Basil Fawlty part of the lexicon. Mild-mannered English comedy it may be but at times it’s supremely funny and as well constructed as, well, a clock. Superb support from Alison Steadman as his disbelieving wife, Maiden as the worldly sixth-former eager to use her study period on an away day to make her lover jealous, and a cast of more or less familiar faces, all winding Brian up even while he tries to re-run that all-important speech in his head. Highly amusing. Directed by Christopher Morahan. It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope

The Skeleton Key (2005)

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The thing folks just don’t understand about sacrifice… sometimes it’s more of a trade. Twentysomething Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a good-natured nurse living in New Orleans feels guilty about not being around for her father’s death while she was on the road working for rock bands. She quits her job as a carer at a hospice to work at a plantation mansion in the Terrebonne Parish for Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), an elderly woman whose husband, Ben (John Hurt), is in poor health following a stroke. When Caroline begins to explore the couple’s rundown house where Violet bans mirrors, she discovers strange artifacts in a locked room at the back of the attic and learns the house has a mysterious past to do with servants from the 1920s, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and the practice of hoodoo. She realises that Violet is keeping a sinister secret about the cause of Ben’s illness and wants to get the old man out of there. When she appeals to their estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) for assistance she finds that he’s not quite what he seems to be …  It gets harder every time. They just don’t believe like they used to. Gotta get ’em all riled up. An immensely appealing excursion into folk horror that is as much about the history of Louisiana and race relations as it is a genre exercise (though it’s a fairly efficient suspense machine too). Beautifully staged and atmospherically sustained by that very stylish director Iain Softley, it’s written by Ehren Kruger, who burst on the scene with the surprising Arlington Road, another look at Americana (of the homebred terror group variety) who has spent his time since this either a) making a shedload of money or b) squandering his immense talent (take your pick – perhaps both?) making the Transformers films. Hudson is very good opposite screen great Rowlands while Hurt spends his time silenced by the stroke, emoting with his eyes and making a failed suicide attempt off a roof. That’s how badly he needs outta here. Gorgeous location shooting around New Orleans and Louisiana make this a feast for the eyes and the twist ending is very satisyfing, cherI don’t believe I don’t believe I don’t believe

Raw Deal (1948)

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Aka Corkscrew Alley. Waiting. Waiting. All my life I’d been waiting. For Joe. Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) has taken the rap for criminal Rick (Raymond Burr) who owes him $50,000 and now double-crosses him into a flawed escape plan from prison.  Joe’s helped by his streetwise girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) and his lovelorn legal caseworker Ann (Marsha Hunt) and their competing love for him complicates things as he goes on the lam and the police are on his tail while he plans to board a ship bound for Panama … Close in on him from every side. Don’t give him a chance. Anthony Mann’s post-war noir is of a different variety from most, with a striking tone. The cinematography by John Alton is delicious, capturing the early morning sea fog as it licks the shore rolling in on tides of impending doom, perfectly complementing Claire Trevor’s mournful voiceover. A tragic noir, wonderfully executed with a complex protagonist whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. The love triangle is unexpectedly moving with the differences between the women well delineated although Trevor’s is the stronger part:  Suddenly I saw that every time he kissed me he would be kissing Ann. The story is by Arnold B. Armstrong and Audrey Ashley, and the screenplay is credited to John C. Higgins and Leopold Atlas.  I never asked for anything safe. All I want is just some decency, that’s all

W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

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I wish I was in Dixie. It’s 1957 and W.W. Bright (Burt Reynolds) is an easygoing crook who robs banks and gas stations because he has a grudge against the corrupt businessman who owns the SOS Oil Co. He bribes the attendants not to grass on him to the cops. He meets the Dixie Dancekings, a two-bit country and western band looking for their big break when he hijacks their car running from the police. Dixie (Conny Van Dyke), their singer, gives him an alibi. He claims to be in the music business, and ends up promoting the group. Wayne (Jerry Reed), the band’s leader, does not trust him, but the others all have faith in him. W.W. only steals from SOS gas stations, so the company’s chairman sends for Bible-thumping ex-lawman Deacon John Wesley Gore (Art Carney) to track him down. Meanwhile, W.W. and the newly outfitted band go to see Country Bull (Ned Beatty), a highly successful singer-songwriter. He is willing to write them a song for $1,000. W.W. talks the Dancekings into a bank robbery (SOS has just opened a drive-in bank branch) that does not work out quite as planned. When Gore broadcasts the description of the getaway car on a radio revival show, W.W. burns up his car. He is ready to separate from the Dancekings in order to protect them (Y’all keep practising – cos you need it!) but then he hears them rehearsing Wayne’s new song. He persuades Country Bull to listen to it; the man is so impressed, he puts them on the Grand Ole Opry. There Gore catches W.W. using an exact replica of his burnt car as bait…. If I ever turn queer, that’s the guy I’d turn queer for. That’s Burt Reynolds talking about Errol Flynn in The Sun Also Rises, the film within a film featured early on at a drive-in, in this John Avildsen production. Avildsen made this in between Save the Tiger and Rocky (so this is the one right before he got the Oscar for Best Director) and it doesn’t have quite the cutting social edge or drive of either but it’s pacy and energetic and seems to be on the cusp of something mythical. That’s emblemised in the 1955 ‘Golden Anniversary’ Oldsmobile 88 (it didn’t exist but three were made for the film) and in the time period – post-James Dean, with W.W. wearing a deep orange zip jacket that calls to mind Rebel Without a Cause. Just a matter of time. And money.  And luck. And perhaps for screenwriter Thomas Rickman W.W. is a smooth-talking charming Southern version of that character all grown up and wised up and prone to larceny. It was a true star vehicle for Reynolds and he’s well teamed with Beatty, his co-star from Deliverance and White Lightning as the country superstar and Reed (a legendary guitarist) his future co-star from Gator and Smokey and the Bandit (and Don Williams is also in the Dancekings lineup). You can call me anything you like but don’t you ever call me no communist. It has a nice line in irony (literally:  The Edsel’s the car of the future) and getting ahead by robbing The Man provides a nice backdrop for faux nostalgia and a behind the scenes look at the C&W music scene.  It was released just a few weeks before Nashville despite having been shot months earlier and being billed as the first movie out of that fabled quarter. Nashville however has a political element which made it a much more divisive piece of work, an effect generated by many of Robert Altman’s films. Beatty was also in that film, as the character Delbert Reese. But you’ll just die when you see him in the cowboy getup here and it turns out it really is a case of the emperor’s new clothes.  Reynolds is awesomely engaging as the shapeshifting conman, just like you’d want him to be in what is rambunctious entertainment. Rickman clearly understood how to get the best out of Reynolds and a few years later they collaborated on Hooper, which is one of his very best performances and a terrific film, an hilarious look at the life of Hollywood stuntmen.  Rickman also wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter and Everybody’s All-American, some of the best dramas of their era.  If you’re nice to people they’re nice to you right back and that’s what I like about the South

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

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Well, thank you, Mr. Bandit. And as the pursuer, may I say you’re the goddamnedest pursuee I’ve ever pursued. Now that the mutual bullshit is over, WHERE ARE YOU, YOU SOMBITCH?  Big Enos (Pat McCormick) wants to drink Coors at a truck show, but in 1977 it’s illegal to sell Coors east of the Mississippi River without a permit. Truck driver Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville (Burt Reynolds) agrees to pick up the beer in Texas and drive it to Georgia within 28 hours:  he’ll take his Trans-Am and act as a diversion to the tractor trailer carrying the booty by his colleague Cledus ‘Snowman’ (Jerry Reed). When Bo picks up runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field), he attracts the attention of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Angry that Carrie has run out on the wedding to his son, Justice embarks on a high-speed chase after Bandit across Arkansaw right back to Georgia When you tell somebody something it depends which part of the United States you’re standing in as to how dumb you are. Stuntman Hal Needham moved into Burt Reynolds’ poolhouse when his marriage broke up. When they shot Gator they found nobody could get Coors beer east of the Mississippi so Needham started scribbling on legal pads and came up with a screenplay with terrible dialogue involving the transportation of beer across state lines. The story was improved with contributions from producer Robert Levy. It then got a rewrite from James Lee Barrett and Charles Shyer & Alan Mandel. With Reynolds (reluctantly) attached, the movie gave Needham his directing debut and it grossed second only to Star Wars in 1977 (and Reynolds had turned down the role of Han Solo!) This went stratospheric on a global scale. Why did it strike such a chord, not just in the US, where the southwest drive-in circuit was practically the only logical destination for the good ol’ boy persona Reynolds had perfected in White Lightning and its sequel, Gator, which he directed and which he was now keen to leave behind? It has a simplicity that goes back to the Keystone Cops, a pure exercise in slapstick and stunts that pivots on one long car chase, from the beginning to the end of the film, with an exploitation core of the redneck trickster character:  it could only be played by Reynolds, who embodied charm, daring and guile in an enviable physique.  He also had a unique way with put-downs which he did with a smirk and a wink that made you love him.  He’d been commandeering that style for a decade, even before he made it big with Deliverance. He was a star beloved of audiences after that and this catapulted him to the number one position in the box office for five straight years after the previous five hadn’t seen him outside the Top 10. His easygoing persona, wisecracking and sex appeal made him catnip to audiences. The Seventies were a particularly good era for road movies too; CB radio was popular and trucks were big news:  Cledus gets roughed up by bikers in a bar and he responds by showing us the motorsickle era is over when he tramples the gang’s machines – trucks trump bikes! Field’s naturalistic acting style makes her relationship with Bandit totally believable and Fred the bassett hound (Burt had one called Clyde) just makes us love him even more.  Without a comic foil however the setup would not work and the great Gleason is superb as the pesky ornery sheriff with an idiot son:  There’s no way – no way! – you could come from my loins.  First thing I do when we get home is punch your mama in the mouth! He’s loathsome, funny, irascible and encumbered with a jackass offspring so you hope he doesn’t suffer too much – for maybe just a minute. (He was allegedly based on Reynolds’ father, a police chief in Florida). Burdette is played by Pat McCormick who regularly wrote for Johnny Carson, the host of The Tonight Show where Reynolds made dozens of hilarious appearances (it’s how John Boorman found him for Deliverance when he was guest hosting a particularly rowdy set of guests). It’s a buoyant, feel good outing with a convoy and what amounts to a demolition derby. For the audience the prospect of getting one over on The Man is irresistible and of course what we have here is a community rallying to help an innocent anarchist over the state line. This was hugely influential on the culture – as The Dukes of Hazzard and The Fall Guy would prove, with everything crystallised by Reynolds’ screen character writ large across primetime TV for years to come. Sublime, existential entertainment. That’s a big 10-4!