• Paul Newman reprises one of his best roles in THE DROWNING POOL, a well-paced contemporary melodrama filmed on location in New Orleans. As Lew Harper, the cynical but honest detective first seen in the 1966 movie Harper, Newman once again finds himself surrounded by a kinky group of characters bent on getting their way at any price. For openers, there is a former girl friend, trying to track down whoever is sending threatening letters to her husband; her precocious teenage daughter, playing around with the family chauffeur; her domineering mother-in-law, running the family plantation with an iron hand; and the local police chief, with more than a passing interest in the family fortunes. A bit further into the plot, when bodies start to turn up with alarming regularity, the finger of suspicion begins to point to the town's friendly neighborhood oil baron, who is determined to take over the plantation and claim the black gold below. Events tend to ramble a bit, but they all come together by the end of the movie. Some of the supporting performances are a shade off-key, with Joanne Woodward a bit too chic as Newman's former flame, Melanie Griffith a bit too pushy as the teenage daughter, and Tony Franciosa a bit too conventional as the police chief. Murray Hamilton, however, is sinister and believable as the ruthless oil tycoon, a nice recovery from his disappointing performance in Jaws. The location photography in Louisiana is a pleasant change from the usual Hollywood studio backlots. Rated "PG." —Charles F. Barr
• SMILE is a cleverly constructed, lethally effective jab at two of America's least attractive institutions: the beauty pageant and the "service club" mentality. The movie is a fictionalized account of the state finals of a teenage beauty and talent contest, sponsored by the local Jaycee chapter of a small California town. Bruce Dern stars as a modern-day Babbitt, aware of the system's built-in hypocrisy but willing to work within it. Barbara Feldon is coolly professional as baby sitter for 33 contestants during the week-long ordeal, whose dedication is an escape from a failing marriage. The hapless contestants are thrown into a situation in which they are expected to embrace the phony altruistic ideals of their sponsors (with "serving other people" at the top of the list), while competing intensely, often ruthlessly, to beat out the other contestants for the crown. This practical lesson in "idealism vs. realism" has a noticeable effect on the contestants. Joan Prather plays a naive but basically decent girl torn between what she feels, and what she thinks she ought to feel. Maria O'Brien plays her opposite number, ruthless and stage-savvy, out to win the contest by cynically manipulating the audience. Aside from its clever satire, Smile has two other things going for it. The movie is wickedly funny in its own right; and the characters, rather than being stereotyped, are real flesh-and-blood people, often sympathetic in spite of themselves. Rated "PG." —C.F.B.
• Gene Hackman is one of the finest actors in films today and with three films currently in release, one of the most prolific. Occasionally, however, he comes a cropper. Take, for example, BITE THE BULLET. Richard Brooks' latest tribute to banality is a ship of fools on horseback: competing in a marathon race are the Big-hearted Whore (Candice Bergen, looking like a finishing school valedictorian), who sacrifices herself for the unworthy man she loves; the Young Kid, who confuses physical aggression with manhood; the Old Man, who wants to win to prove that he's Somebody; the Mexican, representing all minorities; the moderately silly English Sportsman; and the good-natured Gambler (nicely played by James Coburn). Towering above this fortuitous sampling of humanity is Gene Hackman, friend of the old and the infirm, defender of the dumb and the outcast and chastiser and reformer of the wayward. And so that virtue may be rewarded, he also manages to win the race (a foregone conclusion from the first frame), with a little help from his loyal horse, who nudges the dismounted rider across the finish line in a tortured slow-motion sequence. If there is a cliche missing from the film, we have only Brooks' forgetfulness to thank. Although a recent British comedy is taking credit for setting the cinema back 900 years, this is a distinction that can be claimed only by Bite the Bullet. Rated "PG." —James F. Carey
• If Hackman's role in Bite the Bullet appears to rest uneasy with him, it is probably not because he is acutely embarrassed (which would be explanation enough), but because the role of the invincible hero is not one that he does best. Hackman excels in a subtler role, the individual who appears confident and unassailable but who is actually insecure, somewhat tormented and hiding from his pain. Such a role is Harry Mosbey, the private eye in Arthur Penn's NIGHT MOVES, a superb little mystery that offers Hackman at his best. Harry is a man whose profession is a compulsion, whose ability to solve other people's mysteries shields him from having to scrutinize himself too closely. When he discovers his wife's infidelity, he follows her lover as if he were on another case. He appears to be in complete command of situations, but he is being skillfully maneuvered and he doesn't recognize it until it is too late. And when he discovers that he missed all of the signs, that he failed to detect not simply the villain but the entire drama in which he was playing a part, he is devastated. Hackman gives a beautiful performance, tightly controlled and understated, a performance that makes it easy to overlook his less successful efforts. Rated "R." —J.F.C.