Robert Lyren on Every Which Way But Loose. This entry is part of Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.
By 1978, Clint Eastwood’s career was thriving in a 17-year upswing. The Man with No Name redefined the John Wayne cowboy genre in the form of spaghetti westerns with the help of Italian maestro Sergio Leone (A Fistful Of Dollars; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). Eastwood played the rough-and-tumble, horseback-riding anti-hero on the high prairie of revenge, robbery and social injustice. It was a brilliant genre-defining move from the dusty tall drink of water who got his start on television in Rawhide in 1956. Eastwood had also already created another iconoclast with Dirty Harry’s ‘go ahead make my day’ attitude that not only became a cultural mainstay but also provided the early foundation for the archetype action hero of the 1980s. 1978 also saw Eastwood well versed in a title that would come to define the second half of his illustrious career – Clint Eastwood, film director. He had directed six films by 1978.
Given Eastwood’s popularity at the time, it is no surprise that his team of agents and managers advised him against the uncharacteristic and off beat comedy lead in Every Which Way But Loose. After all, second billing on the film was an orangutan named Clyde. Every Which Way But Loose feels like a plotless parody, a paper thin story of a simple minded truck driver named Philo Beddoe who brawls in bars over meager honors (a bowl of bar peanuts,) pals around with his dimwitted buddy Orville (played by Geoffrey Lewis, father of Juliette Lewis) and the aforementioned orangutan Clyde, and spends evenings fixing a broken down car in his front yard or pulling pranks on unsuspecting college girls in honky-tonk country western bars. Added to the mix is a struggling country western singer/hustler who wraps up Beddoe (played by Eastwood’s real life special lady at the time, Sandra Locke,) a group of goofy Nazi enthusiasts bikers called the Black Widows, and a couple of ego bruised cops hell bent on revenge. Yes, it’s a relationship drama/buddy road trip movie/action adventure/comedy. It’s no wonder Hollywood was left scratching their heads when Dirty Harry agreed to star in the film. And no doubt Hollywood insiders were more perplexed when Every Which Way But Loose went on to be the second highest grossing film of 1978 (second only to Superman) and the most financially successful film of Eastwood’s career at that point. The film was so popular with audiences that is spawned an equally successful sequel, Any Which Way You Can, two years later.
Almost 35 years later, the mystery has long been solved. Every Which Way But Loose was a calculated move by an actor, director and movie star to do what he has always done best: play characters that audiences connect with. Eastwood has always been an actor who plays great blue-collared characters that are grounded in a reality that other men (and women) feel absolutely comfortable with. Eastwood’s trick is continuously playing these characters in a way that appeals to the better part of how we want to see ourselves. The idea that there is a noble greatness in us. An all serving moral high ground that dictates the choices we make.
Philo Beddoe is no different. Remove the madcap adventure and the silly antics of Nazi bikers and drunk orangutans and what is left is a man just trying to get by, a man just trying to find his way day in and day out. A man who sees life simply as right and wrong, good and bad. We all wish life was that easy. Of course, this is still Clint Eastwood so there is the obligatory wink and smile, the complete control and confidence lying just beneath the surface no matter how outrageous things become. Eastwood’s trademark confidence is at the core of his popularity and this film. Eastwood represents what we aspire to, be it good or bad. Chasing down two bikers who insulted his orangutan or driving 900 miles from Los Angeles to Denver to win the heart of a girl who hustled him for a few thousand dollars.
As for the film itself, its popularity seems natural today. Every Which Way But Loose is just a movie. That’s it. It’s 90 minutes of good gags and funny situations resting on the shoulders of a movie star who knew people would enjoy watching an orangutan steal a car, flip the middle finger and chug a beer. In today’s Hollywood, entire careers have been built on less. Every Which Way But Loose is the middle child in a family of Smokey And The Bandit (1977) and The Blues Brothers (1980.) It was made for one simple reason: your enjoyment. And if you find yourself wondering why in the hell Clint Eastwood is running around with an orangutan named Clyde, you’re thinking too much. Like Clint said, “I just felt bad seeing Clyde caged up. So I beat up four guys and took him with me.” In Clint we trust.
Note: It is also worth noting the country western soundtrack and in-film musical performances. Aside from the titular track by Eddie Rabbit, there are several gems by Charlie Rich including I’ll Wake You Up When I Get Home, and several tracks written for Sandra Locke by Texas crooner, Snuff Garrett.
Robert Lyren is the co-host of Lost in Translation, a weekly radio show that airs every Saturday night at 9 PM on Jam 88.3.