I have a nostalgic attachment to certain movies I saw in the theater when I was a kid, and for many of those movies, that nostalgia breeds a certain charm which allows me to enjoy the movie when I revisit them as an adult. This does not just include the usual pop culture touchstones that most who grew up in the late ’70s/early ’80s have, like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Superman.
For example, that I grew to film maturity during the heyday of Burt Reynolds–and Burt Reynolds tended to make a lot of PG-rated movies that my parents would let me see as a preteen–means I tend to elevate certain of his movies, like Gator and Stroker Ace, beyond their objective merits (though I will go to the mat for the Cannonball Run movies against any criticism, as I firmly believe those are objectively good movies). I think it also helps that, as a kid, I had a capacious memory for movies, so I could just see a movie once and be able to replay it in detail mentally or pull dialogue from it and work that into regular conversations.
So, it was with this sense of nostalgia that I returned to a movie that I genuinely loved as a nine-year-old: the 1978 “action comedy” Every Which Way But Loose. Unfortunately, my capacity for beer-swilling orangutans and foul-mouthed old women must have peaked with this movie and its sequel, Any Which Way You Can (1980), because I found little nostalgic pleasure in returning to Every Which Way But Loose after 32 years. I can even barely see what my nine-year-old self enjoyed about the movie now. I guess most of that enjoyment came through Clyde, the orangutan, and his tendency to kiss and/or flip off anyone who hassled him. Also, I remember thinking Ruth Gordon was funny as Ma, the foul-mouthed old lady who was constantly struggling to pass her driver’s test and keep Clyde from stealing her Oreos and shitting around her house. But then, it would be about eight years before I saw Harold & Maude, which would completely drive Ma from my memory.
Also, I’m grateful that my dad had a poster of The Man with No Name up when I was a kid; otherwise, Every Which Way But Loose would have been my first exposure to Clint Eastwood, and that may have tainted my first impression of him the way my first impression of Orson Welles was tainted by Paul Masson ads and The Muppet Movie.
Eastwood plays Philo Beddoe, a bare-knuckle fighter in Los Angeles who enjoys working on cars, drinking beer, and listening to country music. (I do find it funny now that, every time Philo orders “a beer” in a bar, he’s automatically given an Olympia, as if that were generic for “beer” in the ’70s.) With the help of his buddy, Orville (Geoffrey Lewis, who was basically the definitive “that guy” on network television throughout the late ’70s and ’80s), he sets up bare-knuckle matches at warehouses and industrial sites around LA. As Philo easily handles each opponent, onlookers continuously compare him to Tank Murdock, a legendary fighter that Philo hopes to meet up with one day.
In between fights, Philo and Orville hang out at a country music bar. One night, during a Mel Tillis show, Philo catches the eye of country singer Lynne Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke, Eastwood’s long-time girlfriend who appeared in, and dragged down, many of his movies from this era). She’s apparently got some talent, and she has dreams of opening her own country music club. For this, she enlists the help of smitten Philo, who gives her money and romances her even though she’s got a boyfriend living back at her trailer. One day, when Philo is bringing Clyde over to meet her, she’s gone, trailer and all. Philo then grabs Orville, and they hit the road in order to follow her to Denver.
Meanwhile, Philo has also pissed off a group of bikers known as “The Black Widows,” who seem to keep losing their bikes in altercations with Philo. Also, a couple of local cops are after him because he beat them up in a bar fight he initiated. So, at about the halfway point, this suddenly becomes a road movie. This leads to one of the film’s biggest problems: it has too many plots to resolve. Philo has to defeat the bikers and the crooked cops, find Lynne (who turns out to be a grifter), and face off against Tank Murdock (who turns out to be a washed-up has-been). And none of these climaxes fits together well, so the movie ends with a series of disconnected scenes that rely too much on coincidence and seem generally forced.
Also, the movie just isn’t funny, not even in a campy, nostalgic sort of way. Jokes about Clyde flipping people off, shitting all over the place, and breaking into a zoo to get laid are the movie’s high points. Otherwise, the jokes fall flat. A young Beverly D’Angelo shows up late in the movie as Echo, a disgruntled produce-stand worker that Orville picks up, and we get a running gag where people have to have her name repeated when they hear it. A scene where Philo chases two bikers ends up in a car wash for no real reason, except that it might be funny to see someone on a motorcycle go through a car wash. In the final showdown with the bikers, as Philo faces the entire gang in a deserted, muddy alley, the Morricone whistle music starts up, and that seems like the ultimate blasphemy in this movie.
Every Which Way But Loose was the fourth highest grossing movie of 1978, following Grease, Superman, and Animal House, which is a bit stunning. It comes in ahead of Hooper, a Burt Reynolds movie that still retains its nostalgic charms despite being very much a product of the times. Every Which Way But Loose, however, just feels like a mess, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t even find a spark of the enjoyment I got out of it at the age of nine. In fact, I’m a little disappointed in my nine-year-old self, who already had enough exposure to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen movies of the time that he should have been developing a more discerning sense of humor.