Every Which Way But Loose (James Fargo, 1978)
San Fernando valley truck driver Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood), making additional cash on the side as a bare-knuckle fighter in backlot bouts set up by his somewhat dim bulb of a brother Orville (the immensely likeable character actor and Eastwood regular Geoffrey Lewis, even when slightly overplaying like he does here), begins a desperate road trip (leading all the way to Denver) with his brother, his brother’s newly acquired love interest Echo (the adorable Beverly D’Angelo) and his orangutan Clyde (Beddoe won him in a card game), on the trail of the aspiring country western singer Lynn Halsey-Tayler (Sondra Locke) he had a one night stand after watching her sing at his local honky tonk who now has up and disappeared on him, with Beddoe and gang themselves being followed all the way by a couple of bumbling local cops (Gregory Walcott and James McEachin) seeking revenge for Beddoe having kicked the shit out of them in a barfight, as well as by a motley also-vengeance minded motorcycle gang called the Black Widows.
Following his international success as the iconic Man with No Name in those sweaty, brutal and operatic Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, into his equally career-defining tough, libertarian-style Inspector Callahan fighting through criminal-protecting liberal bureaucracy in the gangbusters “Dirty Harry” franchise, the amusingly goofy Every Which Way But Loose (I mean, it’s the story of Clint and his best friend orangutan) was a sudden sharp left turn for the stiff and craggily-faced actor into more comedic territory; the fact that apparently most every one of his confidantes tried talking him out of doing it, and that it led instead to one of the most financially successful films of Eastwood’s entire career (being also the second highest-grosser of 1978 and leading to an also successful, if memory serves, equally wonky sequel, though I plan on revisiting soon now to confirm), it certainly displayed Eastwood’s acute box office sense in regards to his cinematic persona. He understood, more than anyone, what his audience wanted, and would accept, from him.
James Fargo, a veteran crew member of Eastwood’s Malpaso Production company, who — similar to Eastwood’s stuntman Buddy Van Horn who ended up directing a couple Malpaso/Eastwood joints himself (including, like Fargo, a “Dirty Harry” entry) — tells his story in a competent no-frills kinda way (similar to Eastwood himself when directing), leading one to strongly suspect he (like Van Horn) was there as an extension of Monsieur Eastwood, allowing the actor to guide the proceedings, without having to put all his energies into directing (I wonder if he even let Fargo or Van Horn yell ‘Action!’ or just kinda ‘let it happen’, a particular trait director Eastwood is known for).
Much of the proceedings amount to a relatively slight (and fun) goof, with the heart of a country song (the opening titular song pretty much lays the narrative thrust out for us) with a lot of likeable actors (and some familiar funny men in there, like John Quade as the rotund lead biker) easy target audience-applaud jokes such as Clyde giving the middle finger (at least once too many times) to anyone who offends (instead of going to a reaction shot of a dog for an easy laugh, “Every Which Way’ has a convenient orangutan they can rely on) and amusing character bits such as the wonderful Ruth Gordon as Philo and Orville’s stubborn and foul-mouthed momma, ever determined to get her driver’s license renewed even though she’s blind as a bat, and Quade’s motorcycle gang leader growing increasingly frustrated at his crew for how unsettled they’ve become at having their bikes destroyed whenever they try and intimate someone (leading to the hilarious moment of them being so terrified as they try and interrogate an ancient feeble trailer park manager, one of them says ‘Maybe we should just get out of here!’, with the runt of a manager played by long-time John Ford western regular Hank Worden).
Clint may be playing a less sophisticated, more gullible version of his previous tough guy personas (never not tough as a mule, however), yet, as with most Eastwood-controlled efforts, the star likes to see himself (or his stand-in, if he’s directing someone else, like Tom Hanks) as the great white male saviour in the narrative (Locke’s promiscuous and opportunistic Halsey recognizes this, in a really effectively captured moment — iffy politics aside – in which she violently rejects him, while weeping, understanding she doesn’t have his strength to accept his grace); this vision of himself would reach its culmination with Eastwood’s racist Walt Kowalski getting shot dead in the image of the crucified Christ as he sacrifices himself to save his multi-cultural community, in Gran Torino.
Along with its easy-going nature, Every Which Way But Loose still manages something resonant; akin to many a film of the 70’s, Beddoe’s milieu is one of economic disparity. It’s the world of the blue collar downtrodden, with its inhabitants living in trailer parks, driving beaten-up old trucks and doing anything they can to make ends meet. It’s the growing ill-served underclass that once had a place on the movie screens and in the mainstream, a group that’s been ignored for so long its come storming back in ugly reactionary forms such as of the irrational Trumpers (something The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in its nutso fashion, was warning of 45 years ago).
Even with all the tough male hero worship, Eastwood was, at the same time, displaying these characters with a level of dignity and understanding. You could imagine if the exploits of Beddoe and Clyde were made today, the stars would be far as far from real blue collar America as one could imagine, and the ultimate victor would likely be capitalism, the very thing in actuality that’s destroying them.
The Anthology programmers might have stretched a bit to include Every Which Way But Loose in the “Jammin’ Gears” program, as it isn’t really much of a trucker film (Beddoe is off his trucker job after the opening credits and that’s the end of that), but, hey, I’m glad they did. Now gotta catch up with that sequel…