Clint Eastwood’s 1977 cross-country thriller certainly has one of the greatest posters imaginable; that Frank Frazetta art makes this look like some kind of overblown fantasy movie, but it’s a straight-shooting cop/conspiracy thriller. Originally designed as a vehicle for Barbara Streisand and Marlon Brando, and then for Streisand and Steve McQueen, The Gauntlet found its forever home when it was picked up by Clint Eastwood as a two-hander to share with his then girlfriend Sondra Locke. Locke wasn’t an established star in the way that Eastwood was, but studio Warners felt that Eastwood’s name would be enough to draw an crowd and so it proved.
The Gauntlet starts in typically laid-back Eastwood style, with some mellow jazz from Jerry Fielding and some helicopter shots of a city at dusk; he must have started a dozen movies just like this. Ben Shockley (Eastwood) is a Phoenix cop with a booze problem; he’s charged with escorting a witness from Las Vegas, ‘a nothing witness in a nothing trial’, he’s told. But the mysterious Gus Malley (Locke) turns out to be an actual WOMAN, much to Shockley’s disapproval; ‘On a scale of ten I’d give her a two and that’s because I never saw a one before,’ he quips. But Shockley and Malley end up falling for each other, much as the stars did in real life, but not before enjoying some odd couple badinage in the face of multiple threats; they’re fighting with ‘the good guys and the bad guys… you’re between a rock and a hard place’ as one cop explains. Cars, homes, motorcycles, helicopters and buses are ripped apart by gunfire as Shockley and Malley defy the odds, and by the time they get to Phoenix, they’re practically a couple…
There’s plentiful, painful evidence that Eastwood and Locke’s relationship didn’t work out so well in real life, but in a role written for Streisand’s trademark 70’s feistiness, Locke delivers an impressive performance, with her gutsy monologue defending her status as a sex worker feeling fresh and pertinent. Malley calls Shockley everything from a ‘prick’ to a ’45 calibre fruit’, and recovers well from the indignity of having her mouth filled with paper towels to stop her talking. There’s a terrific scene in which Shockley and Malley, the former still wearing his white shirt and tie, remonstrate with a motorcycle gang about their rights, unnecessarily reprised in a brutal box-car punch-up; Eastwood had already made this movie with Coogan’s Bluff, and was able to throw some fresh kinks in the story as director, as well as an amazing physical-action shot of Malley and Shockley escaping on a chopper as a helicopter hits power-cables in the background.
While not quite as thunderously epic as that poster suggests, The Gauntlet is some peak Eastwood machismo, all the better because it sets the star against a smart, angry female character who is keen to remind Shockley of her education, and whose caustic opinions about the corruption of the patriarchy open his eyes to what’s happening around him. ‘I am not the enemy’ he tells her defensively, but it’s easy to see why clarification is required. There’s also a visual theme about religion, with signs glimpsed at the side of the road saying ‘God makes house calls’ and ‘God gives eternal lives’, a margin note that peaks when Shockley mockingly tells the gang; ‘I got the love of Jesus here in my pretty green eyes.’ Shockley isn’t religious, but he is a saviour of sorts, and Eastwood would expand on that theme in later films like Sudden Impact and Pale Rider. I’d still like to see a film like the one featured on the Frazetta’s poster, but The Gauntlet is still a pretty rocking slice of 70’s action cinema.