The Gauntlet

“I just do what I’m told.”
“Yeah, well, so does an imbecile.”

THE GAUNTLET (1977) is some creep’s idea of a triumph-of-the-underdog buddy action comedy romance – the story of a grouchy alcoholic loser cop who finally does a good job at something when he has to transport a prostitute from Las Vegas to Phoenix while every single cop and mobster in multiple states is trying to bump her off. Along the way they insult and assault each other and fall in love. It’s all very scummy and I didn’t used to like it very much, but these days it rings truer than it used to.

Clint Eastwood plays the cop, of course – Ben Shockley, no relation to Hank and Keith Shocklee of the Bomb Squad, as far as I know. Sondra Locke plays the prostitute, Gus Mally. It was their second movie together, following THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. Eastwood was in an allegedly open marriage, and he and Locke were near the beginning of a 14 year domestic partnership. In the movie their characters are really mean to each other, until they’re not.

One way you know Clint directed this one: it opens with nice laidback jazz (score by Jerry Fielding [THE WILD BUNCH, THE MECHANIC]) as the sun comes up in Phoenix. And Shockley walks ever so slowly from the bar* to his car parked across the street and drives straight to work. An almost empty Jack Daniels bottle falls out when he opens the door, so I guess the bar wasn’t enough for him.

As is cop movie tradition, he Looks Like Shit (much attention is paid to him not having shaved, though he doesn’t look scruffy to me), and his protective ex-partner Josephson (Pat Hingle, HANG ‘EM HIGH, BREWSTER’S MILLIONS, BATMAN) sprays Binaca in his mouth before his meeting with the new commissioner Blakelock (William Prince, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION), who gives him the Vegas assignment.

He takes it for an easy job, a free vacation, but it becomes clear at least by the time of his rental car blowing up that something’s up. Gus doesn’t want to be transferred at all, and swears the bookies are even taking bets on her not making it. At times the movie veers into pretty broad comedy, but to me the biggest laughs are the drier stuff like Shockley’s “you gotta be fuckin kidding me” Clint Eastwood scowl when he’s getting a drink and happens to notice a “horse” called “Gus Malley No Show” up on the board. 60 to 1 odds, and it will keep getting worse. I also love the joke of how slow he is to catch on that he got the assignment because they needed a guy that sucks at his job. When Gus gets fed up and asks him something like “Why do you think they chose you?” he stubbornly yells back the same smoke that the corrupt commissioner blew up his ass: “‘Cause I get the job done!” You can feel him recognizing his own denial.

The cops claim he shot at them, so he becomes a fugitive. I like Bill McKinney (CLEOPATRA JONES, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, CARNY) as “Constable,” the random cop-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time who Shockley abducts at gunpoint for transportation purposes. At first he seems like an okay guy, going along with it peacefully, and acknowledging that from what he overheard on a payphone Shockley might be telling him the truth, but he turns out to be a misogynistic pervert who keeps asking Gus degrading questions about being a prostitute. Shockley just stares at him in disgust. This is a constant in Clint’s movies: the appalling attitudes that some people think they’re glorifying (and maybe sometimes they have a point) are almost universally frowned upon in the eyes of the movies themselves.

But it’s a gross world they live in. We can laugh at Shockley’s casual dirtbagginess – getting picked up from the airport in Vegas, rudely ignoring the cabbie’s friendly conversation while daintily sipping on an airplane bottle of whisky – but not some of the stuff Gus has to go through. In the movie’s most upsetting scene she decides to open her shirt and offer herself up to a mob of bikers to distract them from beating Shockley to death. They take the bait and she has to squirm underneath them for a few minutes while Shockley tries to break the wire around his wrists and stop them.

I don’t like watching scenes like that, but I think the most powerful thing in the movie is the long look he gives her once they’re both safe. There’s no “my hero, you saved me!” shit. His stare implies horror, confusion and gratitude for what she chose to go through to save his life, wordlessly acknowledging its heaviness. It changes everything for both of them.

The screenplay was at one point meant for Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand, then Steve McQueen and Streisand. I can’t see any of them being willing to make it this grimy. It’s written by Michael Butler & Dennis Shryack, who had THE CAR released the same year and later wrote CODE OF SILENCE and PALE RIDER for Clint (the former rejected as a DIRTY HARRY sequel before being made into the Chuck Norris movie). Shryack also wrote TURNER & HOOCH and Butler did Jim McBride’s made-for-cable Elmore Leonard adaptation PRONTO, the first screen appearance of Raylan Givens.

I guess the marketing department made a big deal about Locke being the first woman to share equal billing with Clint. And he apparently predicted that she’d win an Oscar for it. She didn’t. Maybe he was thinking of Hilary Swank in MILLION DOLLAR BABY 27 years later.

Many people have asked me to review THE GAUNTLET over the years, and I’ve resisted because I’d seen it and didn’t love it, partly because I found Locke kind of annoying in it. This time I liked it much more, and felt more aware of what an asshole Shockley is and how much he has earned being kicked hard in the balls by a hooker. (I’m also now conscious that, in contrast to the heroic life I’d like to imagine for him, the real Clint may have vindictively sabotaged Locke’s directing career after their breakup, which would be indefensible.)

But I always start off a new year with a Clint review, and I thought THE GAUNTLET was a pretty good metaphor for the one we just made it through. And I had more of an appreciation for the character of Gus this time. I like that she doesn’t seem to have much shame about being a prostitute, no matter how much the men try to use it against her. She knows what she’s about. She has a B.A. from Finch College, by the way. (Notable alumnae: Suzanne Pleshette, Isabella Rossillini, Grace Slick.) Mostly I like when she tells people off. She sounds so cold when she tells Shockley that they wanted him to transport her because “nobody – not a fuckin soul – is gonna give a rat’s ass” if he dies.

The thing I remembered most about the movie, probly the thing it’s most famous for, is the titular gauntlet, when they travel the last blocks to their destination in a hijacked bus Shockley reinforced with metal shielding while cops crowding the streets and hanging out of every window and off of every roof fire a couple of John Woo movies worth of bullets into it. I didn’t even think about it until I read it in Roger Ebert’s review, but in a movie where police must fire something like 20,000 rounds of ammunition (8,000 squibs were used on the bus alone), “Eastwood himself fires his pistol only twice: once at a door, and once at a gas tank.”

The thing I didn’t understand this time around is the resolution. I didn’t really believe that once he gets there they’d all stand down for some reason. Seems naive in the same way as the end of STRANGE DAYS. But up until then I love the movie’s bleakly satirical world view – do I dare say it’s even a little Verhoevian? Aside from desk jockey Josephson, this piece of shit Ben Shockley is the most honorable cop we ever see. The rest of them, in multiple cities and states, at all ranks, are absolute maniacs willing to execute people on command, whether or not they know it’s just to cover up the commissioner being an abusive pervert. (At least one of them does know that and still helps.)

Definitely the best thing about the movie is the way the overzealousness of police is gloriously and un-subtly expressed through the medium of bullet holes, such as in the scene where they riddle every inch of every wall of Gus’s house until the entire thing collapses. Believing they have just pulverized two living human beings inside, one of the officers turns to his commanding officer and notes, “Cap, they shoulda surrendered.”

“Yup,” he says.

They also do this to a car and a bus. They just make colanders out of these things. Worse than that car that gets shot up in DICK TRACY. (This love for exaggeration is also reflected in hiring the great Conan cover artist Frank Frazetta to paint the poster.)

Throughout this mutli-state operation that includes a car bombing and a helicopter crashing while shooting at them on a motorcycle (and playing some upbeat jazz in the cockpit) the police always refer to their target not by her name, but as “the girl.” The commissioner is concerned that it’s gone this far, but he’s glad that “our boys” have access to bazookas and can “control the media” with a cover story. And as another officer notes, “He could put an army on the street and no one would question it.” Man, you have no idea how much truer that will become.

So yeah, I like THE GAUNTLET now. It’s pretty accurate.

*Metsa’s Cocktail Lounge, between the Paris Theater (a porno theater according to my research, but nothing’s listed on the marquee here) and the Gospel Mission. Here’s an interesting article about this particular skid row neighborhood, which was known as “The Deuce.” (The author briefly mentions this scene, calling THE GAUNTLET a “really bad movie.”)

Further reading: I liked this article about the movie and its novelization, which was written by Butler & Shryack themselves and supposedly has more of a Peckinpah tone.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 4th, 2021 at 10:38 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “The Gauntlet”

  1. I always liked this one as an early example of Clint subverting his image. You assume that, despite this guy being a dirtbag and seeming not very smart, he’s actually some kind of super cop, because Clint is playing him. Then you slowly realize, no, he actually is as dumb and useless as everybody says. This isn’t the story of a bunch of pricks who fucked with the wrong guy; it’s the story of a loser getting lucky and doing one goddamn thing right for the first time in his life. I like that kind of story.

    Though I’ll admit I haven’t been able to watch it or anything else with Clint and Locke in it because of how grossed out I am by tales of his behavior during and after their relationship. I can ignore it most of the time but it’s hard when he’s sharing the screen with his victim.

    That said, that is a really underrated poster right there. I might have to add it to the list.

  2. Feels like a move you could easily remake today and have it have a ton of great action.

  3. “vindictively sabotaged Locke’s directing career”
    Not to mention her writing. And the physical abuse. And the forced abortion.
    Eastwood was a reeeeal dickweed to her. I was sad to learn she died the other year. Kinda makes it feel like he won.
    Still, I’d never heard of this and I kinda wanna see it now. Eastwood is (well, “was” before he started having conversations with empty chairs) charismatic enough that I can mostly manage to separate the art from the artist. Depending.

    And yes that poster art is the shit.

  4. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux

    January 4th, 2021 at 6:17 pm

    Hey Vern, I think maybe 2021 is the year to bring back the Badass 100. I know I’ve got some picks I’m itching to vote on.

  5. Reading about Streisand and others (I think even Clint, before Locke was cast) being involved in this reminded me of the story I heard that MIDNIGHT RUN was originally supposed to star De Niro, and Cher in the Charles Grodin part.

  6. Quick backstory on the poster:

    Frank Frazetta was hired to do it and laid out 3-4 “roughs” for Eastwood to look over. He included one he didn’t care for (it was a fairly typical Conan-looking piece) because he figured what the hell, they won’t pick that one. Ellie (Frank’s wife) knew better, and told him not to include it. He admitted later that he should have listened to her, since guess which rough they picked…

    That said, I like the poster, but I’m an unabashed fan of Frazetta. I still think it’s a strong piece, though.

    The movie, I think, goes overboard in putting down (or at least attempting to) Gus, and that level of misogyny is kind of creepy. It’s a product of its time, of course, but it is something I do associate with Eastwood movies in general, unfortunately.

  7. I too can separate the art from the artist, so my comment below should be viewed purely as my take on Sondra Locke as an ACTRESS and her work in Clint’s movies.

    I have always maintained that Locke was a truly dreadful actress, with a plastic artificiality that should act as a cautionary tale for any film star or film maker with clout wanting to cast people they’re sleeping with (unless you’re Woody Allen and sleep with genuinely good actors like Mia Farrow and Dianne Keaton or one of the Coen Brothers who also happens to be married to one of the best actresses of her generation). It galled me that she was in 2 very good Eastwood movies, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES & BRONCO BILLY and a plastic mannequin in a sea of wonderfully natural performers in the 2 orangutan ones. Contrast a truly great actress like Tyne Daly sparking off Eastwood in the 3rd Dirty Harry flick THE ENFORCER to Locke torpedo-ing what should have been a great Vigilante Avenging Angel of Justice-type character in the 4th one, SUDDEN IMPACT with more bad acting to (double) underscore my point.

    Having said that…how Locke was treated off screen by Eastwood was truly dreadful and sad. And Clint has a pretty dismal track record here. If I’m not mistaken, he hooked up with Frances Fisher on the set of UNFORGIVEN, had a kid with her and dumped her soon after.

    It’s always a little sad when actors you genuinely admire (Eastwood, Gibson, Crowe etc) can be real douchebags in life.

    Contrast the philandering Eastwood, who is rivalled only by Eddie Murphy in the number of kids he’s sired by different women to his contemporary Charles Bronson who stayed married to Jill Ireland for 22 years and nursed her through her breast cancer until she died and I gotta say Charlie comes across like a class act and dare I say…pretty Majestyk.

  8. As for THE GAUNTLET….very little I can remember of this except…well The Gauntlet, an armored bus driving through a hail of gunfire. Should probably give this a re-watch

    Given how many cops he’s played on screen, it’s interesting that Eastwood managed to give us different types.

    There’s the stone cold bad-ass cops of DIRTY HARRY and COOGAN’S BLUFF, the slightly sleazy one of TIGHTROPE, the pretty low key and ineffectual one of THE PERFECT WORLD and I guess based on Vern’s review THE GAUNTLET as well.
    THE ROOKIE and CITY HEAT I maintain was Eastwood parodying Harry Callahan

  9. I don’t think it’s been emphasized enough over the years just how important the dream Ben and Gus share of a normal life in a small house with a swimming pool. This is Eastwood’s most “regular guy” role ever. And Locke is really good in this. It might be a stretch, but couldn’t all the shooting be seen as critisism of “the man’s” treatment of the working class?

  10. Been slowly but surely working my way through all of Eastwood’s directed efforts, and this was one that I watched pretty early on in the pandemic.

    I thought it was pretty good. It was often on TV when I was younger, in the 11pm or midnight slot. I never watched it, but saw the preview many times. For some reason Clint was pretty big with the up past midnight crowd in the mid 80s.

    I would put this in the middle of the Clint flicks for me. Very solid, but not an all time classic. The sometimes harsh edge is pretty interesting and cool though. A few steps closer to an actual exploitation film than Clint usually gets,

  11. It’s fitting that Peckinpah was once attached to directing it. With Kris Kristofferson in the lead, I believe.

  12. Finally, Mally shows! I’ll put my hand up and say that I’m definitely one of the people who have been bugging Vern to review of this one for a while. And it doesn’t disappoint. Thank you, Vern; I’ll take it as a good sign for 2021.

    I’ve always liked this one, but even in the ’80s, when I didn’t know any better, it was clear to me that it’s not meant to be taken seriously, and Eastwood was having fun at his image’s expense. I love the idea that this is essentially Verhoevian, although I’ve never thought of it that way before. My reading of it has been that it’s a screwball comedy in which all the wit, verbal dexterity and arch symbolism those comedies used in the place of profanity, sex and violence, because the ’30s and ’40s, have been replaced by profanity, sex and violence. It’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT or a Grant and Hepburn movie for the late ’70s. Except, of course, Gable and Grant never played anyone quite so dumb as Shockley. But I find it easy to imagine Katharine Hepburn as Mally, in part because her roles in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (a movie Eastwood has revisited tangentially) and ROOSTER COGBURN (made only 2 years before this!) are pushing that way.

    And Locke grabs the part with both hands. It’s her best performance in an Eastwood movie, if not actually her best Eastwood movie, although I now put it some way above BRONCO BILLY – which I used to love – as the central relationship in that now gives me the creeps. And I think this performance, more than anything she did away from Eastwood, proves that she was a fine actress. Yes, knowledge of what happened to her makes all of the movies she made with Eastwood rather queasy viewing, but it does her further disservice to overlook how great she is in this.

  13. Pegsman, I don’t think you’re stretching at all. This is a movie in which healthcare, or at least an ambulance, housing and public transport are all destroyed by criminal fascists. Did I forget a part where they trash education too, by blowing up a school?

  14. Happy to hear I’m not imagining things – at least not all the time.

    Vern, you touched upon a rather current subject, when you said “I don’t like watching scenes like that, but I think the most powerful thing in the movie is the long look he gives her once they’re both safe.” We seem to be surrounded these days by pedestrian movie and TV watchers who seem unable to differentiate between film makers and movie characters. There IS a difference between the rape scenes in THE ACCUSED and DEATH WISH II. But this generation of gamers not only can’t see it, but they DEMAND that Jonathan Kaplan is sent to the same hell as Michael Winner. What I’m saying, in a long winded way, is that sight like yours are needed more than ever.

    Now, since Roy Jenson and Dan Wadis “with the f***ing hair” are in this, they’re supposed to be from the Black Widows?

  15. I’m starting to get somewhat excited about Clint’s CRY MACHO. I can’t imagine what he has to say about being a “good” man. But the chance of seeing him once again wearing a Stetson and riding a horse gives me a warm feeling.

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